4th Grade State of Mind
I can’t remember a lot from when I was younger, just teeny glimpses here and there, but some things stick out. Like 4th grade.
Mrs. Melendez (a white woman who married a Latino man and spoke Spanish) was my teacher in our Catholic school in the Bronx for grade 4. I’d heard she wasn’t very warm, but I remember thinking, “She’s just never had a student like me before!” I prided myself on being THE star student of my classes and competing with myself and others every quarter for a First Honors certificate and 90+% grades on my report card. Yeah, I know, I was THAT annoying student, even to Mrs. Melendez, who was just not my fan.
But for the first time in my academic career, I wasn’t the only star. Jorge was Spanish from Spain, and he looked it compared to the rest of us in class and in our hood. When he transferred into our class, Mrs. Melendez INSTANTLY loved him, and I. Was. Baffled. “I’m smart too!” I’d think. “Other teachers loved me before too! I have the answers too!” Why didn’t she notice me like she did him?
She never had scathing or sarcastic remarks for Jorge like she did whenever any of us dared to raise our hands. She always called on him first when both our hands went up. I just didn’t get it. Nine year old me thought about how much whiter Jorge appeared than us, how his hair was lighter and straighter, and how articulate he sounded for a peer in my age group. Maybe him being whiter made him better than me. Maybe that’s why she liked him so much.
For reasons everyone with generational bias understands, I was just 9 years old, and I equated whiteness with superiority based off of this teacher’s actions. It’s because he’s whiter and European that she likes him better, because, thankfully, tiny me knew I was his equal intellectually, so this HAD to be the only reason. Because, let me tell you, this kid was arrogant and curt with his peers, and I was, aside from obnoxiously answering all questions, timid and well behaved, shy even. So why no love?
It really bothered me, and it’s about the only thing from 4th grade I remember besides long division with remainders driving me nuts or the fact that I was finally the same age as Arnold and his friends were in Hey! Arnold. This memory came to me because I’ve been reflecting on me as a teacher, and the extremely important role I have in building child self esteem, which DOES involve cultural sensitivity and celebration. I became a teacher because it was really important to me to represent the students I served—for them to see themselves reflected in me, in this special profession no one takes seriously, but which is so very essential when done the right way.
This memory came to me, because, as all good teachers do, I’m taking time to reflect on how to improve my practices. On how to continue being inclusive and careful about unconscious biases. On how to decolonize education while still learning it for myself. I tell my students, parents, friends—anyone who’ll hear me—that we’re all life-long learners. Mark Twain said that he never let his schooling interfere with his education. To me, that means education doesn’t end at school, and it means school isn’t the only means to an education. We aren’t born knowing everything, and we’ll die still not knowing enough. So if we can listen less to our ego and more to our gentle reasoning, we can get comfortable with making mistakes, not being perfect, learning at our pace, being corrected, adapting and changing beliefs—with learning at any age, because being an adult doesn’t mean we know it all or there’s nothing and no one left to learn from. We can ALWAYS learn more.
Going back to school, these are my thoughts, and if you’re a teacher too, I hope you’re in a similar mind frame right now. We owe it to our students to build them up. That starts with being better ourselves. Mrs. Melendez, unfortunately, is just one of many examples of racial bias in the classroom.
How many of us have similar experiences?