Saturday, October 14, 2006

Mixed-up Mixed Race

Teenagers always seem to be searching for their identities, and mixed-race teens are no slackers in that department. If anything it seems to ramp up the intensity of the search, and teachers get drawn into some awkward conversations with the wide-eyed and immature.

But that's par for the course, we expect those conversations. Tact and encouragement are things we try very hard to offer to the kids, no matter how wide-eyed and immature the person on the receiving end is.

One afternoon a boy I would never have pegged as being of mixed ethnicities asked me, "Miss Laurel, who's your favorite black musician?" His wide brown eyes held a hint of teacher challenge, so I thought it wisest to answer with inquiry. "Well, I don't really think too much about that subject, Aaron. There are a lot of good musicians out there. Mostly I just like the music or I don't. Why is the color of a musician's skin so important to you?"

His eyebrows drew together in a puzzled manner, as if he had been wondering that very thing for a long, long time. "Well, Miss Laurel, my dad is black and my mom is white, and all my life all I've been able to think about is skin color." His face had lost all challenge and he looked lost, and much younger than he actually was. That is, except for his eyes, great dark pools full of oily pain.

The only description I can give for the feeling I had then was pity. Pity for this boy and the suffering he had to endure as a result of the choices of his parents. Pity for all the children I've heard say something similar, harsher, or worse, many children with similar sad eyes who I've tried to comfort.

Pity.

PITY
, n.

[The Latin,Italian, Spanish and Portuguese languages unite pity and piety in the same word, and the word may be from the root of compassion; L. patior, to suffer.]

There could be no pity if someone didn't suffer, and there is no cure that I can offer.


Friday, October 13, 2006

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Overheard Words: Thoughts After Unintentional Eavesdropping

I can't be sure, but I do think that teaching improves one's hearing. Teachers have been known to pick up the faint vibrations of sub-decibel conversations from the very back corner of the room and assign detentions to culprits they didn't even have to turn around to see, because they knew the tones of culprit vocalizations so well.

I know I fall in the category of teachers-whose-ears-are-finely-attuned, because I hear the oddest and most puzzling things sometimes. Two incidents were especially puzzling to me, because I have been told on good authority by those high above me that hispanic students really don't care about skin color, and are proud of being the nice shade of golden brown that many of them are, and that black children feel much the same way.

So how can one explain the quiet bickering I heard in my classroom when the lights were down for the movie clip? Three of my prettiest little latino girls were nattering at each other...about skin color! And they were going at each other with some fervor, albeit at reduced volume due to the movie (the content of the clip will be on the test). The tiny one with the darkest skin ragged on the girl whose Spanish forbears were obvious in her pale skin. But it wasn't what you might think, an expression of envy. La petite Mexicana told the Spanish girl she wasn't "Mexican enough" because her skin was too pale.

Of course, I couldn't have heard that, because I have it on good authority that hispanic children really don't care about things as trivial as skin color.

But teachers can't help but hear, the students talk way too loudly.

I was handing out the school picture packages to my period 1 class not too long after the first incident of hearing too well for my own good. Well, if the first little outburst was a bit of a shock, this one just floored me. Two of my black students were comparing their photos, which to my untrained eye looked like school photos anywhere; taken by someone who used to want to be a photographer before they got that job! But Latrisha and Kenisha, who are of no relation to each other besides sharing the same race, were bemoaning Latrisha's photos, because they made her look "too dark", and "too dark" was not what one wanted to be. In fact, they both agreed that a "little bit of white blood" made for prettier skin tones, and both bemoaned Latrisha's pure African complection. After much intense consultation, the girls decided that the pictures were "really bad" and participating in picture retake day was a certainty.

But I couldn't have been hearing that, could I? Because the higher authorities have also told me that African-Americans are proud of their heritage and could care less about their skin tone.

Yet teachers' hearing seems to improve with practice, and I know what I heard.

Kids care about skin, and it ain't all about acne.