Friday, December 1, 2017

A Story From My Second Year of Teaching Still Resonates With Me

In Kentucky, students in 12th grade had to produce a portfolio to showcase their writing in personal, literary, and transitive categories. I'm forever grateful to the requirement because it helped me to learn my students as writers, but also as individuals. The last few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about a personal narrative a girl wrote (one who I loved, cherished, and learned from) about an experience she had when she and her friends went to the opposite end of town.

She was from a zip code not 'celebrated' by the city of Louisville...a community of struggling working class families who were stereotyped as being tough, anti-school, mouthy and, well, poor. I'm not sure what the assignment was or why she chose to explore the narrative, but she wrote about a single party she and her friends went to in a more affluent neighborhood. The way I remember it is that one of the girls met a boy at a mall, and he invited her to meet him at this party, so she gathered her girls, they got themselves dressed up, and they went to explore the world, like teenagers do.

They drove the 20 miles across the city to attend the party, and as the evening went on with shenanigans adults would frown upon, the girls began to feel like they were being stared at. Several girls from the wealthier community began giggling under their breath, making fun of the girls and whispering things like, "trailer trash," and "scum whores," as their friend was getting to know the boy a little more. The girls felt uncomfortable and foreign, and the essay described the barbs felt as the stares came, the judgments, but also the self control of not starting anything...not delivering on the stereotype placed upon them. They were girls who faced many obstacles, many of them stemming from the struggling economics of their homes, and although dolled up and trying to be social as the age calls, they were very aware that they didn't belong. They belonged, of course, but the behavior of the wealthier girls made them feel unwanted.

The story continued, and it was written in such a way that readers could feel the departure from confidence the girls originally had as they were doing teenage things, to a location of being placed and scribed into how others, in this case, more privileged girls, demeaned and belittled to the point of absolute frustration. They went out of innocence, and left with their pride shredded.

The whole story came to its end when one of the more abrasive rich girls became louder with the taunts and one of the girls from the poorer community came to the defense of their friend. Words were exchanged, and this led to a physical altercation where the young women who didn't belong moved to their fists and mouths and the fight began.

I just remember that the girls quickly got into their car to drive home and without talking to one another they all began to cry. They cried together. They cried for their circumstance, they cried for their histories, they cried for their lot in their life, and they cried for themselves.

And that's the way it ended. With tears, and I couldn't help but read this as one of the most honest, heart-felt social criticisms I've ever read from a high school writer. She was a good kid with tremendous promise. The pressure on her to achieve, to do school, and to make it in the world was in constant contrast to what she saw around her in her neighborhood, the struggles of her peers, and the deep rooted oppression that was not named, but felt. In the zest of a senior year, with confidence to move into the world and to find a way to what comes next, they traveled to a community of those who have what they always were taught what they should work for. Yet, when they arrived, they found cruelty.

I guess I'm tapping my working class roots here, but that story remains with me so many years later, especially as I work at an institution known for its privileges and wealth.

I read a quote that I really liked from a friend who was told by her academic advisor while finishing her dissertation.
If you finish a doctorate, you are supposed to be smart. Everyone in higher education is intelligent for many reasons. Yet, to distinguish yourself in a University, aim to be kind. That is rare.
I'm thinking about empathy, kindness, and being a good person, no matter what your social circumstance, and I am thinking of the roots of what causes one person to be mean to another without an understanding that not all people have the luxuries of others. I am wondering how one can judge those who are born into lesser circumstances and opportunities, and why they feel entitled to look down on them.

It's just wrong. It always has been and it always will be. 24 days until the holiday that asks us to think twice or he'll find out if we've been naughty at nice. Choose kindness. Don't be lame.


1 comment:

  1. Such painful lessons. We can only hope there's some deep learning.