Editor’s note: This article is a chapter in Linda Christensen’s new Rethinking Schools book, Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-imagining the Language Arts Classroom. If you are inspired by this article to troll for stories, the book includes student examples and additional materials. Order or read about this book.
In 1982, during an interview with Kay Bonetti, Toni Cade Bambara said, “When I look back at my work with any little distance the two characteristics that jump out at me is one, the tremendous capacity for laughter, but also a tremendous capacity for rage.” Both sentiments come across in stories from her collection Gorilla, My Love. Her narrators are typically sassy, young African American girls whose insights about what it means to be black and poor in U.S. society offer the reader laughter, but also seethe with a quiet rage that such inequality can exist in a country that promises justice. I originally taught Toni Cade Bambara’s story “The Lesson” to help my junior and senior students at Jefferson uncover and write about lessons they’ve learned about race, class, gender, and sexual identity, but when I taught it to a group of freshmen in Jefferson’s Young Men’s Academy, I learned to shift and adjust the lesson as I listened to their stories. So this “lesson” is about what I taught, but also what I learned from these young men about what it means to grow up male in our society.
In this story an educated neighbor, Miss Moore, gathers up the neighborhood children, including Sylvia, the sharp, wisecracking black girl who narrates the story, and takes them on field trips. Miss Moore had been to college and “said it was only right that she should take responsibility for the young ones’ education.” In this story, Miss Moore takes Sylvia and the other children to an FAO Schwarz toy store on 5th Avenue in New York City. Sylvia learns a lesson about money—who has it and who doesn’t. The children resent Miss Moore for disturbing their summer vacation with her education plans. “And she was always planning these boring-ass things for us to do, us being my cousins, mostly, who lived on the block cause we all moved North the same time and to the same apartment then spread out gradual to breathe.” The children arrive at the store and marvel that someone could pay $1,000 for a toy sailboat or $35 for a clown, which gets Sylvia thinking:
Thirty-five dollars could buy new bunk beds for Junior and Gretchen’s boy. Thirty-five dollars and the whole household could visit Grandaddy Nelson in the country. Thirty-five dollars would pay for the rent and the piano bill too. Who are these people that spend that much for performing clowns and $1,000 for toy sailboats? What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain’t in on it? Where we are is who we are, Miss Moore always pointin out. But it don’t necessarily have to be that way, she always adds then waits for somebody to say that poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie and don’t none of us know what kind of pie she talkin about in the first damn place.
Miss Moore provides the kind of education that happens when students confront real-world issues. When the curriculum, instead of sanitizing the past and excluding the present, holds a mirror to students’ lives so that the inequality and injustice students experience starts to breathe in the classroom, students wake up. Bayard Rustin, the architect of the March on Washington, looked for places of friction to expose the racism in our society to the public. This narrative assignment searches for those places in students’ lives where pain and rage seethe, so that they can be discussed instead of suppressed or denied.
Reading “The Lesson” and Finding Stories
I taught this narrative assignment in Darryl Miles’ class in Jefferson’s Young Men’s Academy, a group of freshmen boys, mostly African American, with one Latino, one Asian, and two white boys mixed in. Before students read the story, I told them about a few lessons I’ve learned over the years. And while I was trying to get to big ideas—the places of friction—I started off weak. Plus, I was a white woman, a guest teacher who visits their class. In my initial list, I clumsily attempted to demonstrate that we constantly learn lessons that we file away without even realizing it, but every lesson we learn started with an experience that we could tell a story about: “I learned not to touch hot stoves, not to brake too hard going down steep hills on my bike, and I learned to stay away from my father when he was drinking. Take a few minutes to think about lessons you have learned over the years and make a quick list.”
My list was thin and off-point, and their initial list of lessons mimicked mine, sounding like aphorisms that they had rehearsed and pulled out for the guest teacher. A few went deeper and made me want to hear the story behind the headline: Trust your gut instinct. Wear a helmet. Listen to elders. Think before you speak. Parents always win. Don’t expect money, earn it. Some things you want never just fall in your hands. Don’t ride your bike fast down a brick road. Always say “excuse me” when you pass someone, especially my dad. Never lie to your parents when you might get caught.
Before we started reading the story out loud, I asked them to think about Bambara’s title. “Why did the author call this ‘The Lesson’? What lessons do the characters learn and who or what teaches them?” After we finished reading, I asked students to write about the lessons Sylvia learned in the story. Students struggled to come up with a response. Josh said, “Never go on a field trip with Ms. Moore,” which was funny, but clearly not where I was trying to go. Another student said, “Sylvia learned not to judge a book by its cover.” Another maxim. “What does that mean?” I asked. He shook his head. Hmmm. No one had his hand up. Kris broke the awkward silence, “She learned how to act in public.” They were trying to please me, and this wasn’t working.
“What does she learn about money?” Clearly, I was going to have to steer the conversation more. But this was turning out like one of those painful teaching moments where the teacher has the answers, and the students are reluctantly trying to save her by guessing wildly in an attempt to end the humiliation.
Josh said, “She learns that some people have enough money to buy fancy boats while other people don’t have enough money to feed their kids.”
“Does she think that’s right?” I asked the class.
“No, but some people work harder than others, so some people have more money than others,” Mitchell added. The boys went on in this fashion. If you work hard, you get ahead.
I knew that students didn’t believe that all the inequality they’d seen and experienced could simply be explained away with a “some people work harder than others,” but I’d come about this in the wrong direction.
“Let me ask you this. Public education is the right of every student in Oregon, isn’t it? But when I go around to different schools in the suburbs, it doesn’t look equal. One school I visit regularly has computers and couches in the library; there are computers lining the hallways. They are open and available for all students to use. Is that true here?”
“No. Jefferson never gets treated right.” Once I hit on an area where students experienced prejudice, they started talking. “If we tell someone we go to Jefferson, their faces change, and they move away or say stuff to us.” The conversation shifted away from inequality too quickly, and talking about popular perceptions of Jefferson was a non sequitur, but students were animated. I pursued this conversation because I thought it might lead back to lessons and stories about inequality.
“And why is that?” I asked.
“Because people think that we are gang members. And they believe all the rumors.”
“People look at Jeff as a lower-class school. I feel like I have to prove that I’m smart,” Josh said. This riled the boys up. Clearly, all of them shared this experience.
“What other lessons have you learned like that?”
“I learned that some kids treat me differently because I am biracial. My dad’s black and my mom’s white, and kids say things,” Dylan said.
“I get followed around in stores. They always think boys steal,” Mark added.
“Is there a place in the story about people not being treated fairly?”
D’Anthony said, “Yeah, where she talks about democracy. When Sugar says: ‘[T]his is not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough.’ See, not everyone has the same choices.” Right.
The idea of “class” was too far removed from the boys; they lived it, but they didn’t see it. And, especially in the wake of Barack Obama’s inauguration, these students had been hearing nonstop that “Everyone can make it if you work hard and just believe.” “Yes we can!” everyone heard over and over. They needed more than one story to grasp the concept of social class, but they did understand inequality based on school and race.
I tried to shift the assignment to race because I thought I might get more traction. “Let me tell a story about when I learned about race. My black neighbors in Eureka, Calif., had to get written permission from every neighbor in order to buy their house. It’s called redlining, and it happened in Portland, too.” Blank stares. The gates on the Laurelhurst community here, that barred families of color, must have seemed as distant as slavery. My story didn’t elicit any response from students.
Adding Student Models: “Lessons from Outdoor School” and “Moment in Time”
I decided to get to the idea of digging up the stories behind the “lessons” we carry with us, instead of focusing on specific lessons about race and class—to come at the big idea of the lesson through their stories first. I read Khalilah Joseph’s story, “Lessons from Outdoor School,” (available in Teaching for Joy and Justice) aloud to them because it provides an accessible model for students as they begin thinking about lessons they’ve learned. Every 6th-grade student in the Portland area spends a week at Outdoor School, an environmental education program, located at a variety of residential campsites on the Sandy River near Mt. Hood. High school sophomores, juniors, and seniors return as “student leaders,” and after a short but intense training, become soil, water, or animal experts for their 6th-grade campers. And they miss a week of school. (Unless they are super-campers like my daughter Gretchen, who returned as a student leader twice a year during her sophomore, junior, and senior years.) The majority of student leaders are white. So when Khalilah and Romla, two African American students entered the forest as student leaders, they felt like outsiders. Khalilah’s skillful retelling of how that changed is a delightful, playful testimony to our ability to overcome difference.
I asked the young men what lesson Khalilah learned, and Mark came back with, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Hmmm. “What does that mean?”
“She thought all white people were the same, and she didn’t want to be with them. When she had fun with them, she stopped judging them,” Josh said.
“OK, has that happened to you? Have you ever been judged by someone or judged someone else? Think about that. Khalilah wrote this as her lesson story when she was a student at Jefferson. Start making a list of stories you could write.”
Fortunately, the bell rang, and I remembered a story written by my student Kirk Allen about a time when he was walking down the same side of the street as a white woman. It was around midnight, and Kirk was returning home from a party that had been turned out by the police. The woman stepped on to Kirk’s front porch, not knowing it was his house, and pulled out pepper spray and a knife. She told him to stop following her; she threatened to call the police; she accused him of blending into the dark. Kirk ends his story: “There are targets. No, scratch that. There are young, black, male targets.” I had a video clip of Kirk reading the story followed by his classmates sharing similar events. When I showed the clip the next day, students finally found their stories.
This experience of trolling for stories reminded me about the importance of prompts, but also about the importance of sticking with kids until they find their stories. Had I pushed for students to write too early in this process, they would not have found their passion, that place of rage and laughter that Bambara talked about in her interview. Each of the models showed students how a writer told the story of their “lesson.” These young men just needed a story that unlocked theirs.
Josh said: “I know what he’s talking about. There was a fight brewing at school between these two kids. Everyone decided to take it off the school grounds to a park, but as soon as the fight started, some man driving by called the police. As soon as the police came, everyone took off running. I wasn’t involved in the fight, so my friend and I just walked over to the bus stop and waited for the bus. There was a crowd of white students there, too. The police pushed my friend and me up against the wall and searched us. We were the targets because we were black.” In my years at Jefferson, how many times had I heard stories like this from black students? Post-racial America? Not yet.
This led to a flurry of stories along similar lines. Ultimately, they did write about lessons, which fell into two categories: Think-before-you-speak-or-act stories and what Dylan labeled as “This society is jacked” stories. I was impressed by the young men’s honesty and their willingness to be vulnerable. I attribute this to the narratives we read and our conversations, but also to Darryl Miles, their teacher, who models these attributes when he shares his own stories with them. Their writing raised issues that demanded attention beyond revising for narrative elements—although students did write and revise their stories.
After students discovered a vein of stories to mine, I distributed the Narrative Criteria sheet (available in Teaching for Joy and Justice) and colored highlighters. Students highlighted Khalilah’s dialogue, blocking, and character and setting descriptions, so they got the gist of what to include in their stories. Then we moved into a guided visualization, which provided a passageway to quiet writing time.
Writing and Revising and Learning Together
When we gathered in a circle to read our stories to each other, I asked students to listen for the lesson each writer learned. Josh wrote about a time he did something “stupid” to fit in. “[My former school] was a hard school to fit into. I was in between two groups and trying to be somebody I wasn’t. At the time I would do just about anything to get into a certain group.” He went on to relate a story about bringing knives to school, getting arrested, and paying the price. “After it was all over, I owed my parents $1,000 for court fees. That was the worst mistake of my life. I made my mom cry, and if you’ve done that, then you know how bad the feeling is.”
After his classmates talked about what they liked about Josh’s story, they identified his lesson as learning the cost of betraying himself in order to fit in. When I asked them if any of them had ever done something they regretted in order to belong, most of them raised their hands. Jay’s story provided a similar content. A friend asked him to steal a sweater for him from Macy’s, and Jay did. When a security guard tackled Jay, wrestled him to the ground, and handcuffed him, Jay’s friend walked past as if he didn’t know him. Like Josh, Jay acknowledged that he was trying to be someone he wasn’t, and he paid the price for that mistake, but he learned a valuable lesson about stealing, but also about trusting his own instincts instead of trying to belong.
Kirk’s story sparked Dylan’s and Tony’s, especially the last line about “young, black, male targets.” They told stories of learning that the rules are different for whites and blacks. Dylan told of a jubilant night after winning a basketball game, staying up late with friends, playing “crackhead race,” where they spin around about 25 times and then try to race down the street. The opening to his story included humorous details and youthful exhilaration, and the ending was all rage—Bambara’s twin emotions:
When we are getting to the end of the block, the cops pulled up and I’m thinking to myself, this is gonna be trouble. When a cop, a white cop at that, sees two black teenagers wobbling down the street, that’s a bad start from the get-go. The cops stepped out of the car, walked up to us, and asked if we knew what time it was.
I said, “Yes, it’s 11:45.” I was reaching into my pocket to get my ID. Without hesitation, the cop pulls out his gun and puts it to my head. At this point, I don’t know what to do. I’m just frozen. I’m speechless.
My friends are yelling at the cop, saying, “What are you doing?” The cop cusses at them. Tears of anger come out of my eyes and burn my face. . . .
After the cop leaves, I stomp down the street armed with my anger, and as I turn the corner, I bumped into one of John’s neighbors. When I look at him, I picture the cop, and I go off. I punched him two times until he drops. Johnny came and got me off him. I didn’t sleep that night.
And the lesson? Unequal treatment for blacks? Black males as targets? Or as Dylan wrote, “This society is jacked”? As Dylan read his story, I thought about what it meant to be 15 and to have someone with the authority of a police officer put a gun against your head, and a society that allows this story to be repeated again and again. I thought about the coldness, the roundness of that metal against this boy’s beautiful temple. I thought about Dylan’s justified anger, misdirected against a neighbor. I thought about the suspension and expulsion rates of students of color, and Daniel Beaty’s poem about the “lost brilliance of the black men who crowd these [prison] cells.” And I knew that one lesson I take away is my moral obligation to tap into this injustice, this birthplace of anger and rage, to expose it and validate students’ experiences. But if I unleash this kind of rage and pain, I also have a moral obligation to teach students how to navigate a society that discriminates against them and to teach them how people have worked to change these injustices.n
Linda Christensen (Contact Me) is director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. During her 30-year career in Portland Public Schools, she taught language arts at Jefferson and Grant high schools and worked as Portland’s language arts coordinator. She is a member of the Rethinking Schools magazine editorial board.