My teaching assistant this semester is a student I had as a sophomore who returned to “help” me during her senior spring. Mind you, this is the same student who said I should have a reality TV show and call it “Hell’s English.”
I love this kid. Seriously. I do.
Last week, she came into my room between classes, pausing to form the question that she seemed to have been working on for a while.
“Dr. Parker,” she finally began. “What is the whitest school you ever attended?”
That question was easy. Colby College. Waterville, Maine.
I knew she hadn’t applied to Colby, so I wanted to know what was behind her question. Turns out, she is in some upper level (Advanced Placement and Honors) classes where she is one of a few students of color. She explained that she participates, raises her hand, offers thoughtful, well-developed responses, and the teacher barely acknowledges her. Meanwhile, she continued, a white classmate can essentially say the same thing (her words) and the teacher responds effusively.
She wanted to know why and what to do when she finds herself in similar situations in the fall when she is in college.
I asked if she thought this was happening only to her or to other classmates of color, and she said the teacher “only calls on the Black boys when he has a question about race.”
I also probed to see if this was just one class or others. She said it happened regularly in her classes, not just this one.
Because the next class was about to start, and knowing I’d see her later, I said first to her:
“First, let me tell you something. You’re not crazy.”
She nearly burst into tears. She is not the first student of color who has grappled with trying to find a way to thrive in upper level classes that are mostly white and where norms are often unspoken and hostile to their presence. It’s no surprise that students of color struggle and leave these classes. Yet, nothing changes.
All I can offer, because I don’t know what more I can tell them, is that they’re not crazy and that I see them.
That’s all I can do right now.
This post is part of the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, who have created a space for writers and teachers of writers to come together. To learn more about this challenge, click here.
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