Opening the book on race
A thin paperback novel creates a bridge between students in two racially isolated schools
As they file off the bus and into Minneapolis North High School, the students from suburban Eastview High are self-conscious about their whiteness. They count among their group of 60 a few Asian-Americans and a solitary black student. But it is the collective impression of pale skin, blue eyes, and blond hair that marks them as visitors to this beige brick building, where 8 of 10 students are African- American.
Their smiles reveal excitement and mask nervousness. As they travel through the halls, past a wall sculpture made of metal from a neighborhood gun buyback, Joy Hanson's 11th-grade English students overhear a comment they've been expecting for weeks: "Look at all these white kids!"
Once they spread out around the tables in the art room, the only place available that's big enough, it's their hosts' turn to feel outnumbered. Melissa Borgmann's 15 senior English students trickle in, offer a few greetings, and wait for the teachers to make a formal introduction.
In these beginning moments, no one knows for sure if the bridge they are crossing into unfamiliar territory will be strong enough to hold them. After all, it is just a thin paperback novel that has brought these groups together. But their teachers have every reason to believe that the students, just like Janie in Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God," will come out stronger for having made this journey.
Ms. Hanson and Ms. Borgmann, both of whom are white, have been planning this day ever since they met last summer at a conference. They both had the opportunity to teach Hurston's book, a tale set in Southern black communities in the early 1900s, so they decided to collaborate.
After this initial get-together, the teens will continue to e-mail one another, and the North group will take a trip across the Mississippi River to Eastview, to see for themselves why residents of Apple Valley sometimes call it "Happy Valley" instead.
If nothing else, many of the students will be exposed to "the other" for the first time as real people rather than the stereotypes they were able to rattle off during class discussions before the two groups met.
When gang violence near North makes it onto the evening news, it will no longer be the dominant impression the Eastview kids carry in their minds. And the urban students will know that kids from the suburbs are not all snobby and formally dressed.
Just the anticipation of this personal exchange has prompted students from both schools to look at the book they're reading with a new level of curiosity and commitment. For some of them, English has been transformed into the most cutting-edge class in their busy schedules.
Around the United States, a growing number of educators see it as part of their mission to expose students to a wide variety of cultures. It's essential preparation, they argue, for life in America, not to mention the rest of the world.
But how to do that has been the subject of considerable debate especially as it can draw teens into some of the thorniest issues in their world: gender inequities, religious differences, sexual orientation, and racism.
Finding and teaching the right materials can be a challenge. Teachers often plead for funds to add books to their reading lists that will engage a broader spectrum of students. They have to figure out how to address touchy subjects with which they may have little experience and which their students are hesitant to discuss. And they sometimes face school boards or parents who worry that lessons that used to focus on a unified sense of "America" are falling by the wayside in an era of hyphenization.
For teachers like Hanson and Borgmann, the challenge is worth it when they see students delve into worlds they never knew, or make a connection between their own experiences of injustice or privilege and historical roots, such as slavery.
To them, it's about offering "windows and mirrors," a metaphor for multicultural education made popular by English teacher Emily Style. Now codirector of The SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) Project on Inclusive Curriculum, Ms. Style says it's important to help students look through windows into other people's lives and also to "hold up voices and stories that validate the young people in the classroom, [to let them know] that their kind, too, made meaning."
Even beyond the English classroom, many teachers say literature is one of the best ways to do that. History and social-studies texts can provide factual explanations of current race relations, for instance, but it is often a personal narrative, poem, book, or play that triggers a student's enthusiasm.
"I haven't seen any other things generate the thoughtful discussions that literature does even videos," says Julie Landsman, a veteran teacher in the Minneapolis area and author of "A White Teacher Talks About Race."
"There's something about reading the words on the page that slows them down, gets them contemplating," she adds. "Everybody says there's so much media that kids are losing the taste for literature. I'm not finding that, not when it's done in the spirit of inclusion."
What that "spirit of inclusion" looks like is as varied as the classrooms where teachers are striving to achieve it.
Eastview's students have a lot of advantages: Their Apple Valley school building, only five years old, has an abundance of computers with high-speed Internet connections; it's surrounded by tennis courts and playing fields and cars provided by parents; the theater comes with a full-time set designer.
But most of them aren't terribly aware of the role that race plays in the daily lives of so many Americans.
"For a lot of my students, race isn't an issue," Hanson says. "In suburban high schools.... when we read multicultural literature ... sometimes my students will say, 'Why do we have to read all this? I thought this [class] was 'Literature of the Americas.' So they think that just because a book is about an ethnic group that's different from white culture ... it must not be from the Americas. They're not thinking Americas, they're thinking American, even though we have these ethnic groups."
The students of color at Eastview are such a minority (about 11 percent of 2,200) that some would just rather not talk about race. "I hate reading stuff that is about discrimination," says Amrita Moore, an 11th-grader who was adopted from India by a white family. "I don't like the fact that that stuff [like slavery] happened.... I just don't see differences." It was easier for her last quarter, she says, because there were other minority students in the class.
It can be difficult to get white students to talk about race, too, if they worry that minority classmates will take comments personally. Mark Landgrebe, a tall white student sporting a red baseball cap, says that talking about race was uncomfortable earlier in the year when there was an African-American student in his class. "[People were afraid] he might take it the wrong way and start laughing at it or something."
But for Hannah Rudie, who is part Asian and part white, having a black student in her class "makes it easier" to talk about race, "cause he, like, laughs and jokes about that kind of stuff."
Even before she picked up "Their Eyes Were Watching God," Hannah had a keen interest in books that portray people of color. "I always want to identify with the character. And if there's a racial thing in it, it makes it more interesting.... When I was young, I got teased because I looked different than other people." She says her favorite book in Hanson's class has been "Bless Me, Ultima," a novel by Rudolfo Anaya about a Mexican-American boy whose family takes in an old woman with healing powers.
While Hanson says she works hard not to make her students feel as if she's "shoving 'Love everybody' down their throats," she does expect this project to make a dent in attitudes.
"I grew up in Apple Valley," she says. "I know what's it's like to grow up in a place where everybody looks like you and everybody acts like you ... and it's a safe little world. And then you get out into a big university campus or a job, and you have to work with people who initially you thought were weird or wrong or stupid or lazy or whatever."
"Things Fall Apart," by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, influenced her deeply in college. She's not sure why she connected with it so much, other than the fact that the culture it portrayed was so different. She also studied literature of the Ojibwe tribe, which has a significant presence in Minnesota.
The prospect of meeting students from North has given Mark new willingness to overcome his discomfort. "I've been looking forward to English every day," he says. "You can connect to the book because it's about this black girl who gets discriminated against and goes through all these hardships, and I'm sure everybody in their life has had some sort of hardship.... You can understand what's going on easier [by talking to people who] actually know firsthand what discrimination is like."
For Borgmann's students at North, race is hardly a taboo subject. When they read about someone who has been stopped by police for DWB "driving while black" they get it. Borgmann is constantly helping them to link what they've seen in their own lives to what they are learning, whether it's through a book, a song, or something another student shares. She's quick to tell stories, for instance, about how her perceptions of race were shaped as a child in a predominantly white town in Nebraska. She has a flair for the dramatic and has mastered some of the lingo of her students, but she doesn't try to pretend she's just like them.
A discussion during one of her sophomore English classes makes it clear that people who have felt the sting of prejudice still benefit from looking at it critically. They've just started reading "The Bean Trees," by Barbara Kingsolver, and Borgmann points to a white character in the novel who stereotypes Mexican-Americans. She keeps the tone casual as she asks what stereotypes they've heard about various groups. Amid laughter, they call out a jumbled list: Black people love watermelon and have more than one daddy. Asians eat dogs and all know karate. Mexicans don't talk English. Somali people (who have come to Minneapolis in large waves in the past five years) smell funny.
"How do any of those words make you feel?" she presses them.
"Every nationality I've run into ... has their own little stereotypes about other people and different races," says Jamie Wynne. "I figure that idiots are idiots no matter what color; it's like the idiot race. The ignorant people, you know." Earlier in the class, he had talked about being called "nigger" by other children in his predominantly white neighborhood. He thought that all white people were mean until his fifth-grade teacher, a white woman, befriended him.
When Borgmann talks about how offensive it can be for people to generalize about a given group, Jamie weighs in again.
"They will pay for it [an offensive comment], either directly from the person they said it to, or indirectly by remaining in their ignorance," he says. "To be ignorant is a powerful compressing force that keeps you from widening out.... If they can be stuck to that one state of mind, like a robot, then you kinda feel sorry for them."
After class, Borgmann acknowledges that the African-American students dominated the conversation, while the handful of others (the school is about 12 percent Hmong and 6 percent Latino and white) for the most part stayed quiet. But she tries to get all the kids talking about racial tensions in the school, and, through written exercises, she glimpses what everyone is thinking.
A question in big lettering at the top of the blackboard greets her students each day: "Why are you here?" She does what she can to make their education relevant, she says.
At times, though, Borgmann feels like a social worker. Half the 1,200 students who start the school year are gone by the end of it, most of them replaced by transfers or new immigrants. This neighborhood has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases in the country, she says. In their own families, many students have seen the effects of alcoholism, drug abuse, or violence.
While sympathetic, Borgmann says she and other teachers try "to get them to see if they can respond with strength, instead of staying in the mode of saying they are victims."
"Miss B. is always very open, and she facilitates our discussion about race, and about being stereotyped, especially being a student at North," says Serita Lee, a senior whose chestnut-colored skin accentuates the shine of her silver eyebrow ring. "She always is able to guide us through discussions and give feedback, you know, do critical thinking not thinking negatively about the situation and coming up with a solution."
Borgmann's class is an oasis for some. "I have a great experience in there, with everybody being open and sharing their ideas," says Lavon Jordan, another senior. "I'm not used to that. I'm used to getting criticized for something you say ... in classes, or outside of school."
Once they have shuffled into groups with their partners, one North student to every four from Eastview, they watch with solemn faces as Hanson and Borgmann read a passage from the novel and demonstrate the exercise they've outlined on a worksheet. Then they get to work, determined to make a good impression on their new acquaintances.
The students have seven passages to choose from, including quotes such as "Us colored folks is too envious of one 'nother," and "Let de light penetrate inside of yuh, and let it shine, let it shine, let it shine."
The discussion questions reflect two themes: how perceptions of race are shaped, and how the book speaks to the human condition. But the groups don't have much time to go in depth.
The two teachers help jump-start some conversations, and as they float around the room watching their charges exchange ideas, laugh, and struggle together to pronounce words, they glow like conductors of a budding orchestra.
After about 20 minutes, everyone turns to listen as five students stand elbow-to-elbow, taking turns reading from a scene in which Janie's grandmother, a former slave, slaps her in the heat of an argument and then explains why she wants to marry the girl off to a "decent" black man: "Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it's some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don't know nothin' but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don't tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin' fuh it to be different wid you."
Some speak in a quiet monotone, others recite with relative ease perhaps the result of listening to a recording of the book and reading out loud in class.
In their comments, the students three of them white, one white/Asian, and one black all steer clear of the racial element and gravitate toward a universal theme: "In life," one of the Eastview girls offers, "somebody is always higher than you your teachers, your parents and you've just got to deal with it."
"Even if you're Bill Gates," a boy adds, "President Bush is higher than you."
Fewer than half of the small groups have time to present their work before Borgmann announces that the pizzas have arrived and that it's about to get noisy in the halls as kids switch classes. One of her students pops his head over her shoulder and adds, "Yup, there's about to be a whole lot of black people in here." The joke prompts the desired laughter.
Some students retreat into their familiar groups, disappointed they didn't get their turn. But most use the time to compare notes about schools, their interests, and the stereotypes they had listed earlier. Before long, a group of Eastview boys has started a hacky-sack circle, which widens as kids from both schools join in.
Nearby, a semicircle of suburbanites forms around Anthony Booker, a gregarious African-American student from North whose hair is braided tightly against his head in a geometric pattern. He answers their questions Is there a lot of crime here? What do you want to do when you graduate? and in turn probes them as if he were a talk-show host. When some of them confess that one of their stereotypes was that people at North would wear a lot of gold chains, Anthony smiles and looks down at his wide, shimmering gold necklace. They all laugh with the recognition that some perceptions, on both sides, have nuggets of truth behind them.
Even though the tensions they started the day with have faded, new concerns simmer under the surface.
"I feel bad, like we're intimidating," says Jenni Armour, a white Eastview student who is decked out in a "Pink Ladies" T-shirt in preparation for her role as Rizzo in the school musical, "Grease." "We wish our people would open up more," she says, referring to the North partners in her group and her friend Kristin Rarick's. "We get the feeling they're kind of uncomfortable, which is depressing."
Kristin, also white, had asked the African-American student in her group if he had experiences along the lines of the quote about the white man being the ruler over everything. He said yes, but when she asked for examples, he didn't want to say. "I want to understand what these people are going through," she laments.
But the girls are thrilled with the visit. "We want to transfer here," Jenni exclaims. "It's a bunch of clones in Apple Valley." An aspiring actress, she's planning to apply next year to New York University, the biggest contrast to suburban Minnesota that she can envision.
"This is a social experience now, and they'll process it later," Borgmann says as she scans the wound-up crowd.
Her seniors 13 of them black and two Hmong focused largely on speech skills in the first half of this year, because their speech elective had been canceled on short notice. Reading and analyzing a full-length text such as "Their Eyes Were Watching God" is a new challenge, she says. "For my students to listen to this level of discourse is huge."
Lavon, for one, appreciated the discussion, as brief as it was: "I didn't understand the book, but then when I sat down with them, they explained a couple of things to me, and I explained a couple of things to them, too." And he valued the chance to meet new people. "I've never been around a group of white kids like I did today.... I learned that they're basically like us... They dress just like us. That was a shock. I thought they'd have on ties and suits," he says with a chuckle.
Serita, too, was glad to see what they had in common like their difficulties getting used to reading the dialect. "We're all human, so of course we're going to struggle with the language. Just because we are black doesn't mean we can read the language," she says.
One topic that did not come up, as far as Serita knew, was the use of the word "nigger" in the text. But in Borgmann's class, she says, a student led a discussion about a song that included the word. "We use it a lot at our school (it means your buddy) so a lot of people think we took the word back. It made me look at it a different way.... [But] I don't think people should say it, because, you know, we've been through a lot of slavery, and that's a hurting word." If an Eastview student asks her about it in the future, she says, she'd be happy to talk about her views.
After the exchange, Hanson's students latched onto gender and relationship issues raised by the book, while Borgmann's spent more time exploring Hurston's depiction of the black community.
A young woman at North bounded in one day declaring, "I AM Janie! I so feel her!" Another printed a quote from the book and pinned it to her shirt.
"The discussions on race have been really powerful," Borgmann wrote in a follow-up e-mail. When they focused on a quote about African-Americans holding each other back, Anthony said he related to it because people doubt that he can fulfill his dream to go into the Marines.
But as the day approached for them to venture to the suburbs, fears cropped up, similar to those the Eastview kids had expressed before their visit to North. "What if we get jumped out there?" one student asked Borgmann. She began to wonder if even half of them would show up on the appointed morning. Across the river, though, their hosts were so eager for their arrival that one girl cried over not being assigned to the same partner she had had when she visited North.
Borgmann mentioned this detail to the mother of the boy in question when she made a round of calls the night before the trip. Apparently there was no danger that he'd be a no-show; he had told his mom it was important to have his hair braided the next day, because he was doing something "cool" at school.
That's when Borgmann found out just how far this project had rippled. The boy's older sister had gotten on the phone and volunteered to come along as a chaperone. Family involvement is such a rarity that this "rocked my world," Borgmann wrote.
In the end, 12 of the 13 students in Borgmann's class made the trip to Eastview (one had a family crisis and two from the original group had transferred out of North mid-semester). They spent some time clustered around picnic tables, talking about their favorite aspects of the project. The chance to get to know one another was the most popular response, at one point generating shouts and applause.
Inside Eastview's Teen Center, they shared from final assignments that combined creative writing, art, and a newspaper-style account of the book or its author. Serita and her classmate Sherrell Jenkins sang an original song inspired by the image of Janie as a young woman lying under a pear tree, contemplating love. The room fell silent except for this melody.
As the session ended, some boys from both schools headed out to the basketball court, trailed by chatty spectators. Well past the final bell, they were still there, shooting hoops.
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