I’m reading a book called “The Moment”, which claims to contain “Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories” and, you’ll be relieved to hear, this book is delivering what it promises on the cover. It’s put out by Smith Magazine and is 125 of the pivotal life moments of “famous & obscure” writers and artists. Each story is short, pithy and (so far) worth reading.
Fair warning, this is a post about one person’s account of an event that may never have happened – but here is my reaction to it. One of my definitions of a writer is that they can react to an event that may never have happened and show you something interesting, perhaps even useful.
Today, I am writing in reaction to Vivian Chum’s ‘moment’ about the time that she, and all other non-white students in her Texas public school, were called to a meeting with the public address announcement “All seventh-grade minority students, report to the cafeteria.” There is no date on this story but, given that (according to the bio I’ve found) Chum graduated from Rice in 2002, we can work backwards and put this in the late 80s to early 90s – not the 50s or 60s. So we’ll start from the fact that a segregated announcement drew all of the non-whites to the cafeteria – African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American.
The point of the assembly was to instruct the students in the importance of reducing their underperformance on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills set, compared to white students. It is, of course, bar graphs on a screen time because nothing shows students how to achieve more than a dry PowerPoint presentation of underperformance and an exhortation to work harder, study more, be more focused. After all, school funding is tied to performance in this test – here is a battery of graphs showing African-American and Hispanic student performance. For some reason, Asian-Americans aren’t on these particular underperformance graphs.
Chum, looking around the room, notices that some of the best performers in the seventh-grade are sitting here – but because they are non-white, they are here regardless of their actual achievement. She’s thinking about the lessons they’ve learned about racism, and the KKK and the Nazis, about the slave trade and she’s uncomfortable being here and, increasingly, angry, but she’s 11 or 12 and she’s not sure why she’s feeling this way.
No-one is in chains.
No one has thrown a rope over a tree branch.
No-one is even explicitly calling anyone a bad word.
And, yet, she knows that this is wrong. This is unfair. She wants to tear up every award or recognition that she’s ever been given because, of course, today the truth is finally out. She’s not the same. She’s a statistic in terms of test compliance and her race is more important than her individuality.
The (positive) lesson that Chum takes away from this is that this is the last time that she will ever take anything like this without speaking up, without walking out or not even going to things like this.
But, if her account is to be believed, then this is a tale of ignorance, racism, wrongheadedness and unthinking compliance with imposed test standards that is shocking enough, but frankly appalling when we place it into the last 20 years.
When I was at HERDSA, a speaker talked about providing support for those students who were struggling, or were having trouble adapting because of family background, and stressed the importance of making time to talk to every student. Instead of forcing the under-achievers to make more time in their schedule to fit in pastoral care and to drag themselves out of classes to go to ‘under achiever’ events, every student had a scheduled time to talk about things. Yes, this is a large investment of time but this addresses all of the arguments about ‘ignoring the big achievers’ or ‘focusing on the outliers’ and allow a much greater sense of community and ‘wholeness’ across the class.
When I was at school, we had an active remedial mathematics and english program run, very discreetly, across all of the years of secondary school. At the same we had a very active extension and stretch program, too. To be honest, to this day, I would not know how many (or who) of my classmates were in either. It was an accepted fact that across all of the boys (yes, single sex) in the school, there would be a range and it was up to the school, which was full fee-paying (thanks, Mum), to provide support to lift up those who were struggling and to provide interest and extension for those who could go further.
This, of course, has had a major impact upon me and this is what I expect of education: for everyone, regardless of their background and abilities, and according to their needs. Reading Chum’s account of how stupid we can be on occasion, it only drives home how lucky I was to be at such a school and the overall responsibility of educators to look at some of the things that we are asked to do and, where appropriate, say “No” so that we don’t force 12 year olds to have to stand up to protect their own rights as individuals, rather than indistinguishable pawns of a race.