FOR A BETTER RACIAL CLIMATE, WE NEED
MORE TIME, UNDERSTANDING
Brookline Tab Op Ed, May 24, 2007
As a high school teacher for the past 34 years, my attention was naturally drawn to last week’s front-page story about the racial climate at Brookline High School (“Racial climate talk heats up”).
The story could describe most multiracial, multiethnic high schools in Massachusetts. No doubt there are instances of racism at BHS. I’m sure there are also many misunderstandings, as well as a nervousness or simple lack of time when it comes to dealing with hard issues.
Here are a few observations about the various points raised by the story.
Mentioned first was the African-American mother’s ire that her son had been recommended for a culinary course, when she was so determined that all her children would go to college. This anecdote will resonate with anyone who has read the “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” But I feel there is a misunderstanding here.
My oldest son graduated from BHS eight years ago, went on to double-major in liberal arts at a highly regarded state university, and is now doing very well. I mention this only because he took the culinary class at BHS, and still considers it one of the best, most useful courses he took in high school. For him, the chefs, Paul and Henry, were great teachers and role models. Cooking is an elective course at BHS, like photography or wood shop, not a vocational track (unless things have changed since he graduated). That course and his experience in the BHS restaurant were invaluable in making him a more organized, responsible person — to say nothing of learning how to cook his own meals. Hey, everyone at BHS should take cooking!
It is distressing to hear that only a minority of African-American students at BHS has earned the 2.7 GPA necessary to gain a mentor or to be admitted to the new honor program. Let’s search out the reasons for this state of affairs, because a 2.7 GPA is often attainable if students do their homework on a regular basis. (Of course, learning-disabled and non-English-speaking students face additional challenges). At my school, Lincoln-Sudbury, the METCO program has an after-school “Afternoon Academy” for kids who don’t meet a threshold grade. Their mandatory participation in the program ensures that more homework gets done. Yes, grades have gone up! This remedy could be expanded to an entire school, for all students, which would obviously be preferable. Teachers provide the volunteer staffing at L-S. I’m sure many parents would also be happy to volunteer in such an effort.
Let’s require schools to provide equal educational opportunities for all. But let’s save a little of our concern and anger for those political forces that make our society ever more unequal, in income and in the advantages some parents can confer on their children. Like George Bush, not everyone who finds him/herself on third base got there because he or she hit a triple. Class is a critically important variable in educational achievement. Let’s support those political candidates who favor a fairer, more egalitarian society.
An African-American student at Brookline High observes that whites move aside when she and her friends walk down the hall. It may be true that white students are afraid of black students. But black students are no less fearful of whites. This is also true with other ethnic groups. Self-segregation is the norm in American schools. Here, adults have a creative role to play. Discussion groups, such as the one reference in the article, represents one possibility, but sometimes it can be more helpful to deal with problem indirectly. That is, by doing rather than talking.
In this regard, there is no substitute for shared experiences. Real experiences. Athletics teams provide this, but only in a few sports. Lincoln-Sudbury is no more socially integrated than BHS, but in my teaching career, I have observed memorable moments generated by a more experiential approach. For four April vacations, I helped lead a “Deep South” Civil Rights trip involving 36 kids who shared a bus, as well as a powerful journey. We raised scholarship money, and each year the trip became more integrated. But we didn’t talk about race or integration in a self-conscious way. We just spent time together.
This is equally true of other activities I’ve witnessed: a gospel chorus, a school-wide drive to help New Orleans and, most recently, the participatory painting of a “Boston mural” under the supervision of an African-American artist. In each of these cases, a common purpose encouraged cooperation and meaningful interaction. When adults help to provide meaningful contexts, kids invariably find they have a lot in common, and trust begins to develop. Suddenly, you hear laughter. Then you begin to hear the sound of walls crumbling.
But the great enemy of social progress in schools is time. Between academics, extracurricular activities and testing, schools have difficulty finding the time for sustained efforts at bringing kids together. Still, we need to try. And we need good ideas.
Bill Schechter is a teacher at Lincoln-Sudbury High School.
He lives on Brook Street.
May 24, 2007