Patrolling the Image of the Educated: Reflections from a Bronx Classroom

Part Three. Recall that along with a few other Middlebury College students, I spent my January winter term working in a public school in the Bronx. Our Education Studies Program coordinated this valuable learning experience outside of Middlebury’s “bubble.” However, I found this “bubble” not easily escapable; at each turn I found the racist pumps that keep it inflated and witnessed rapid “repairs” to any momentary puncture of its surface, those longing for the fresh air of a counter-frame silenced by the same dominant ideologies that plague the halls of my campus. The following is part of a reflection on my experience.

One day I helped out in a classroom so loud the principal made multiple visits, but to no avail. As the substitute teacher yelled at the students, they responded by making fun of him. “McLovin” they taunted, something to which he did not take kindly. A vicious cycle of verbal attacks escalated between them as I sat down with a small group of students and worked to make the assignment accessible to them. As the pocket of students were producing amazing work, it was clear that if we simply divided up the room amongst us we could reach the students more individually and help them better to engage in the material. When I offered that suggestion to the sub he shut it down without the least bit of hesitation: “That would work in an ideal world, but this happens to be a world of criminals and rapists, and that is who these kids are going to become.”

When I informed the assistant principal of his remarks she halted in disbelief; the administration had just praised him with the offering of an extended position at the school. She thanked me for telling her and ensured he would never be welcome in the school again. “I never would have known,” she admitted. “He looks just like an educated guy.”

It was obvious that white, clean shaven, tie, and a dress shirt equaled educated. Just as obvious was the fact that if any of those elements were lacking it did not hold through. In defining the educated through the white racial frame, the assistant principal defined who her students will never be.


  1. cordoba blue

    “That would work in an ideal world, but this happens to be a world of criminals and rapists, and that is who these kids are going to become.”

    This is an obvious example of attacking students, and the words of someone who should not be teaching. Why would someone who believes this be in the field of education? However, Jay, because the guy was dressed in a clean manner does not mean he was a racist. His totally inappropriate comment was what made him reveal his true beliefs.
    Yes, appearances can be deceiving and in this case, they were. However, very rarely have I met a teacher who did not truly want to make a positive difference in his/her children’s lives. Too often the cry in this country is “It’s the teachers! It’s the teachers! They don’t care!” I think that’s shameful because the very people who are trying so hard to alleviate societal ills are castigated. There’s nobody else vulnerable enough to blame (and yes teachers are extremely vulnerable).
    You can’t blame the superintendant of schools. He’s too powerful. Can’t blame the principals. Too powerful. Can’t blame county commissioners. Too much clout those guys have. Not politically correct to say parents, please get involved with your child’s education. So teachers are burned at the stake. And it’s not like they can afford high powered lawyers either. I wish people who criticize teachers could spend one week in a classroom. It’s very taxing, and takes real dedication to continue day after day.

  2. Jay Saper Author

    Thank you Joe, I would most certainly recommend the experience to others including white college students. However, I think that it is essential to go in with an understanding of the implications of the racial dynamics that will exist in the classroom and preparedness to respectfully engage all in the learning environment. There are excellent books addressing these issues including Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real About Race in School and White Teachers/Diverse Classrooms: A Guide to Building Inclusive Schools, Promoting High Expectations, and Eliminating Racism. Obviously this is homework that never ends and it is crucial to stay open to continuing to learn and grow in this regard. With an open mind, an effort to build relationships with students, and a critical awareness of the situated social context of the local community it proves to be an invaluable experience.

    Cordoba, I appreciate your defense of the admirable work of so many of our teachers. You are absolutely right that they often receive an unfair amount of criticism. Teachers who are dedicated to addressing social ills as you suggest are exactly what our students need. Unfortunately, despite these great efforts, racism still has a significant impact in our schools and it is important for us all to make sense of what is at play so that we may all act to challenge it. This of course takes recognition that the curriculum is not ideologically neutral. As Gloria Ladson-Billings suggests, it is important for culturally relevant teachers to “assume that an asymmetrical (even antagonistic) relationship exists between poor students of color and society. Thus, their vision of their work is one of preparing students to combat inequity by being highly competent and critically conscious.” Obviously this is still tough work and takes tremendous dedication as you suggest.

  3. Seattle in Texas

    Jay, I think it’s actually rather cool that you shared your reflections here. I have a couple of questions that you need not answer here, but thought would throw them out anyway. I think they are good general questions for all of us, regardless of racial/ethnic, gender, SES, orientation, etc., to think about when in both familiar and new social settings.

    While your reflections address some of your own criticisms of the various people and environments you were in during that session, I’m curious (with relation to the responses you displayed in the environments) how your own privilege may serve to either benefit or disadvantage your current and future relations with others, your education, as well as future employment? What were the greatest risks? What were the greatest benefits? If any risks were taken that could follow with potential negative consequences, how difficult would it be to recover from them?

    • Jay Saper Author

      Seattle, I appreciate the question you pose. It is absolutely important to reflect on how one’s own privilege may play out in different environments. Privilege certainly permeated multiple facets of my experience and I gained much insight those many ways through valuable discussion with my fellow Middlebury students who were also spending time in a classroom. Interestingly something that came up for a few of the participants of color was that they “blended” right into the student body and did not feel as respected as other teachers. Obviously coming in for such a brief time we won’t be on the same level with the students as teachers who have worked with the students for years, but I definitely did not “blend” in with the rest of the student body and was not treated as though I did.

      I am very opposed to a strong teacher-student dichotomy and agree with Paulo Freire that in a classroom we should all strive to be students and teachers. Of course students who have spent their lives in an educational system heavy on the traditional banking method of instruction and not respected to see their own lived experiences as valid and able to add richly to the classroom enforce the boundary between teacher and student. I used the same bathroom as the students and many of them would point out, “Hey, aren’t you a teacher? Why are you in here? You must really have to go!”

      It is fascinating how our organizational forms reflect our social relations; the conception that teacher and student are “separate” so therefore so should their restrooms. They help to reinforce one another. David Harvey gave an interesting talk explicating Karl Marx on how our technologies reflect the ideologies of the day. Of course those technologies are not experienced universally, but are very much entangled in our hairball of an identity, evidenced by my friends who did not get such comments when they used the “student” restroom.

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