Friday, March 12, 2010

Or does it explode?

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

- Langston Hughes

* A friend recommended to me that I make this post more of a conversation, so consider it unfinished, but also consider yourself a part of the finishing process - ask questions, give answers...

I have gotten into answering rhetorical questions lately, sometimes obnoxiously, and in response to Mr. Hughes, rhetorical or not, I say yes. That dream explodes in my classroom everyday, it sags, it dries up, it festers. It stinks and it crusts over. I have been overwhelmed this year by the frustration and anger that is present in my classroom on a daily basis, a frustration I frequently contribute to as my students engage each other and at times myself in power struggles over minute details, fine lines, and different truths. Many days I have found myself biking home with an angry look on my face, cursing under my breath at every car that thinks of getting in the way, at the stoplights that slow me down. For months I have been trying to trace some concrete historical path to what happens in my classroom every day. Today if felt like finally realizing the obvious when the above poem slipped into my head on my bike ride home.

My students, all African American, all eligible for free and reduced lunch, are the living result of a dream deferred for generations. And yes, it explodes in fights, yelling, seemingly unreasonable reactions. It dries up in students who have already given up on themselves, who are too afraid to put themselves out there, to try. It stinks like rotting meat in students who are so unsure of their own place in this world that they establish themselves through their cruelty to others. It festers in students who come in angry every single morning and cannot seem to let their hands relax from fists to pencil grips. And it sags when students sleep through the day, or simply say it is too hard. Finally, it crusts over with a false sweetness all the times my students say what they know I want to hear, instead of what they think or believe.

My students are living results of thousands and generations of dreams deferred. Washington DC was at one time a safe haven for slaves. Freedmen's villages were set up to receive escaped slaves (and also keep them segregated from the white population) Now those villages, sometimes keeping the same names are huge housing projects. Under served and under educated the illiteracy rate in DC is one of the highest in the nation (after all we are just a few generations away from a time when it was illegal for Blacks to learn how to read). Incarceration is another way in which the dreams of Blacks in Washington DC are being deferred. Disenfranchisement whereby the residents of our nation's capital (majority Black) are not represented in the congress that makes the final decisions on the cities budget and laws. City spending has left some neighborhoods untouched while others are pristine. Finally the AIDS rate in the District of Columbia is the worst in any city in the United States. Most of these issues are not exclusive to DC, and I would argue that my classroom is not the only one that explodes.

The amazing thing is that middle schoolers have this resilience that makes it so that even as they sit amongst mountains and mountains of dreams deferred, they still have moments of kindness, of trying for something different or better, of working together. They don't have as many moments like this as I would like, but I also sometimes miss these moments in the midst of the sagging explosions and stinking festers and the drying crusted over sweetness.

So what is my role in all of this as a white woman? I don't know exactly. Maybe it is to remember and to voice that there are historical roots to behaviors, not from bad families, or bad genes, but from dreams that have been deferred over and over again by the forces or oppression, indifference, racism, ignorance. I must resist the urge (that is both classist and racist in nature) to simply label my kids as "bad" as though they carry some inherent evil. Maybe I need to work with students in sifting through the dreams and understanding the forces that keep them dreams and not reality. Maybe it is my role to help my students see through the words others place on them. I am utterly inadequate in all of these things and frequently fear my failure does more harm than what little good I am able to do. And yet every morning, I find myself on my bike, cursing at the cars under my breath...