I began my teaching career 36 years ago in Southern California. I was young, energetic and eager to make a difference in all of my students’ lives. I had just moved from Orange County to Santa Monica where I secured my first full-time teaching position in a middle school Special Day Class. Most of my students had learning and behavioral issues. No problem. I would dazzle them with my wit and charm.
After several arduous months of trying to establish my credibility with angry teens twice my size, I was just beginning to feel like I could barely handle the class. Then one day two of my African American students engaged in a fight, calling one another the ‘n’ word in a moment of anger. They both came to me to make the other stop using the word. “Ah, this is what they call a teachable moment,” I thought innocently enough.
So I spent the next week pouring over history books and reading important African American authors to teach the history of this heinous, hateful word. My students lapped up these lessons like kittens around a milk saucer. However, it only takes one student to change things up for a well-meaning teacher. Let’s call him, “Matthew.” Matthew came to my class from a court school in Los Angeles. He was usually late without a tardy pass. The day this specific history lesson culminated into a very profound discussion, Matthew came into the class exceptionally late.
That afternoon I received a call from Matthew’s mother. She said that I made Matthew feel uncomfortable with my history lesson in slavery. I explained to her that I wanted my students to understand why the ‘n’ word is so offensive because they asked me to educate them on its origin. As an African American, Matthew’s mother sincerely thanked me for my efforts. When Matthew’s Caucasian father heard of my lesson, he charged down to the school like a man possessed.
Fast forward a month from the day Matthew’s dad accused me of calling his son the ‘n’ word (see how the story changed), and had me sitting after school with him, his lawyer, all the special education teachers and school administrators. From that awful day forward, my principal had the district hire the best law firm in L.A. to represent my right to educate. Attorneys from both sides used my lesson plans and students’ journals during negotiations. The case was summarily dropped. In fact, my work was praised.
Did I mention that I was featured in the Metro section of the L.A. Times as a teacher scorned? Or, that the father appeared on L.A. talk radio programs about me and my racist school? What did I learn? The great English teacher, Mr. H., said it best. “Jeaninne, of all the white people I know, you’d be the last one I would ever consider to be a racist. Thank you for caring about my culture so vehemently; but honey, my advice to you: Stick to the curriculum.”