I grew up a conservative Christian in a white, middle-class community. As a general rule, this context worked well for me. My parents trained me from birth to do all the things that would position me as a “good student” in school. I learned to read fluently and with expression, I took great pride in producing error-free writing, and I NEVER had my name on the board. I was a well-bred churchgoer as well. I won prizes for memorizing the most Bible verses in Sunday School, I sang hymns in the shower, and I cast scolding looks at my teenage peers for giggling during talks at youth group. My family was often compared to the Cleavers, and while our family life was not nearly so neat, we certainly had all the Cleaver trappings -two parents, a stay-at-home mother, nightly dinners together, a wood-paneled station wagon with a dog in the back.
I also had deep-seated insecurities. I read slowly and couldn’t keep up with my peers in advanced classes, and I went to lengths to hide it. I was clumsy and socially awkward, and I could never figure out how other kids knew what to wear or what music to listen to. I chose to avoid homework rather than face the possibility of not understanding it, so I spend middle and high school lying, copying, and living in fear of being caught. I felt at home at church but also always felt on the outside of my peer group. I knew all the rules but was never fully included.
When I look back now and reflect on how I became an arrogant, critical, judgmental adult, I come back not to my successes but to my insecurities. I grew up knowing I was a fraud and desperately trying to hide it, so I built my identity around my achievements. I may not have been a contributing member of a Christian community, but I knew the doctrine and followed the rules. I became an English teacher. I found that I was fairly successful at teaching students to read, think, and write the way I had learned to read, think, and write. For all that I had never figured out, I had developed a strong grasp of English -the structure, the convention, and the power of language. As incompetent as I grew up feeling, I had completed college and secured a place in middle-class life as an independent adult. I believed my students could too, assumed they should want to, and looked to my own knowledge and experience as resources to share with them.
I believed that language and literacy were the keys to educational success -because they had been mine. And I knew that I held those keys. That belief, and my own experience, left no room for valuing of multilingualism or varieties of English other than the “standard.” I knew that my mother’s reading to me as a child had given me an edge, so I believed every parent should do the same. The students whose experiences had been different were, in my conception of language and literacy achievement, behind. And rather than question why my own set of values was so rigid, or exploring how this diversity of experiences might deepen and enrich the discourse of my classroom, I set about the work of catching those students up.
My conservative Christian values played into the educator I became as well. I accepted that single parents, or even same-sex parents, could raise successful children, but I never accepted that any family configuration was equal to the “traditional” nuclear family. I viewed students from other family backgrounds as disadvantaged, which undoubtedly shaped my expectations of them. I attributed my own success as an adult -as I defined it- to the code my family and community had lived by. And again, rather than question the power dynamics that make Christianity so advantageous in our society, I took for granted the rightness of the code.
People close to me believe that leaving my job and coming back to school changed me. And of course it has, but my classes, professors, and classmates also gave me words to voice and explain the discomfort I was already feeling in my job. As steeped as I was in my own beliefs and practices as a teacher and administrator, I knew, as many educators know, that what I was doing wasn’t working. For all our talk of equity and access, the same groups of students continued to come out ahead, and the schools in the same communities continued to be featured in the newspaper. I thought much more about language than I thought about race and class, but of course they are closely linked, and my own beliefs and values and whatever limited “success” I attained had as much to do with the fact that I was white and middle class as the fact that I grew up a conservative Christian and spoke a valued variety of English. Those things aren’t unrelated.
I have always cared deeply about equity, as most public educators do. I just didn’t see, until I stepped outside and began interacting with people who had either studied the world through different lenses or just lived different experiences, how the standards we choose to set as a society both reflect the values of the people in power and necessarily open up access to some and limit it for others.
I’m in the very early stages of understanding all of this. For now, it has made me obnoxious on Facebook but not particularly powerful in my ability to effect change at any level. I have much more to learn, and I am fortunate to be following the footsteps (and breathing the dust) of many, many people who have understood all of this for many, many years. And because I am both proud and deeply insecure, facing all that I didn’t know was initially painful. Believing that I had spend a 20-year career working toward equity only to learn that I had made countless decisions as a teacher and an administrator that in fact furthered inequity was hard. But it was only briefly hard. Then it was freeing, because then I could talk about it, because then it wasn’t just about me anymore, and because then I was empowered to question and challenge -and to begin working to avoid falling into the beliefs, assumptions and patterns that reinforce the status quo.
“Learning you were wrong,” as Disney reminds us, isn’t all bad. It opens up some pretty exciting doors.