What Teaching in St. Louis Means to Me

This morning, as I grabbed a quick coffee before meeting the onslaught of student needs that seems to greet me as soon as I walk in the door, I experienced something that first cheered — and then disturbed me.

My school, a refurbished bank building from the 1930s, sits next to a paint store, a dollar store, and — perhaps incongruously — a St. Louis Bread Company.  If you’re not familiar with St. Louis Bread Co., it’s sometimes called Panera and it’s one of those high-dollar coffee shops that serves pastries and sandwiches, and is usually filled with businessmen and women or grad students on laptops.

I hadn’t had my dose of liquid energy that morning, so I walked in, in a rush, and ran into a group of students that were probably mine. Since it’s the first week of school, I’m still getting to know the young people I’ll be spending time with this year. But they knew me, and they smiled and waved as we passed one another.

I continued to watch them through the plate-glass window as they jostled one another and giggled — God, was I ever that awake at 7 am? — on their way to our building a few doors down.

I should probably mention now that I am white and nearing 40, and I teach mostly African-American teenagers in St. Louis.

As I stood in line with the businessmen and women to get my coffee and blueberry muffin, my kids out the window were clowning.  Two of the girls made those silly duck-lip kissy faces and held up peace signs (held sideways, of course) to take a selfie, as teenagers do.  I watched them hold their phones up to their faces as they walked, and I, predictably, felt very old.

I’m sure I made a face, a fond, “oh, those goofballs” sort of face, as I watched them.  I’m sure I smiled ruefully.  Having grown up in the late 20th century, I didn’t quite understand the millennial urge to document every little walk to school.  But then, I caught eyes with a woman in front of me.  Her expression wasn’t fond, it was hostile.  She met my eye as if to say, “can you believe these kids!?”  Her disgust was unmistakable.  So unnecessarily negative, in fact, that I took a step back.

Now, I’m no angel.  When I’m off work, as my boyfriend will attest, I sometimes do everything I can to avoid the irritating behavior of teenagers.  I’ve grumbled plenty about my students’ narcissism and lack of self-control.  But — that woman’s anger!

I’m sensitive to that kind of prejudice, I guess.

When I taught in Phoenix, I took my students — first and second-generation Mexican immigrants — to a theater performance in Scottsdale, Arizona.  We arrived early, smiling and shaking hands with the volunteers.  But, although the theater was empty, they led us up to the balcony and seated us there.  As I led my eighth graders to their seats and filed in behind them, I exchanged glances with my fellow teachers.  “Can you believe this?” we mouthed at each other, as we watched white children take the front-row seats below us.

How much of this is so ingrained as to be automatic, I wondered.  How is this still happening?

My first few years in St. Louis have been tough.  I fled the Phoenix housing market crash only to arrive in south-side St. Louis right before the summer of protests that followed the death of Michael Brown, a St. Louis teenager who had just graduated from high school.  I remembered supporting my Latino students as they marched against laws (since overturned) that they believed were unfair.  And here I was, a few years later, navigating a brand-new (or, maybe not so new) civil rights uprising — while trying my best to understand and empathize with my students of color who were caught up in the middle of it.

I have a lot to learn.  I’m white, and I grew up in white suburbs, going to mostly white schools.  I am conscious of my difference, of my privilege, of my ignorance.  But I’ve developed enough, over my years of teaching, to feel a righteous sense of anger when I see the kind of reaction I saw in that gentrified coffee shop.  I mulled over it the rest of that day, cheeks burning.

What I should have said was:

How dare you look at children that way?  Don’t — please don’t — don’t be that bigot who makes assumptions about the kids that I teach.

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