I am notorious for many things, one of them is keepin’ it real. I am a pretty big fan of keepin’ it real. Keepin’ it real means being really honest about the world as it exists. I strive for honest and kind, sometimes, because I am human, I fail. Most people who have been through the kind of trauma I have lie about it. People pretend to not be poor. People pretend they aren’t struggling. People suggest to me that I should lie to the children, as if children are blind and can’t figure it out. I want to tell you as a trained professional that they can and have already figured it out. Children are beautiful, and brilliant, and amazing and have no filter and that is why I work with kids and not adults. Kids are still raw, they are still honest and because of that they have the power to grow and change, and ultimately to change the world. You cannot grow if you can’t take risks and you can’t take risks if you lie to yourself.
I’m honest because when we aren’t honest we end up in a world where white children grow up being lied to about their privilege. We grow up in a world where black children learn to blame themselves or become angry without knowing the cause of their suffering. We grow up in a world where bills can be named ridiculous things that have no basis in reality, like No Child Left Behind. We grow up in a world where we have a feminist movement defined by blaming women for not working hard enough. This is a world in which nothing structural and systematic gets fixed. I get it; people think that if we are honest, people will lose hope and give up. I have to respectfully disagree. There are people who survived the Holocaust, Slavery and Genocide. There are people that resisted those things. People are so much more resilient than we can possibly give them credit for. This is especially true about children, who have the amazing ability to adapt to anything and to strive and learn even when they are told not to.
The other argument is that people will find out and stop having personal responsibility. This is a rather shallow and foolish view of humanity. People have accomplished things under conditions that are absurd. Malcolm X knew he was going to be shot, he spoke anyway. My mom told me how messed up the world was, and then she told me that was no excuse for failure, and despite being a severely abused poor kid I made it to Stanford. I know how hard it is to overcome things, I also know how incredibly strong and beautiful humanity is in the face of adversity. This is why I trust my kids to handle the truth.
The kids are never uncomfortable with the truth. It is the adults who are. This is why when I said I wanted to teach about the Black Panthers I had Stanford kids tell me they weren’t comfortable with having high schoolers learn about that. My response was that they already knew; I grew up in the shadow of the Militancy of Civil Rights and so do all of my students. We aren’t supposed to talk about violence and I have seen more stabbings than I can count, I have had students who have watched people be murdered; they were twelve. They used the experience to connect with other human beings. They were incredible, conscious, sensitive, chatty, and adorable 12 year old boys. I hope that whoever has the fine pleasure and honor of teaching them now sees how beautiful they are and helps them develop their voice. Do you have any idea how powerful it is to watch 12 year poor children find their voices and enter debates about Civil Rights when they know what is going on? It does not weaken them. Kids are better than that. You cannot stamp out their drive, humans have an innate desire to contribute, to provide, to be part of this grand and mysterious world. I sincerely have never met a lazy child. I have met kids who didn’t do what they were being asked, but I have never met a kid who when given a task that is both accessible and rigorous and of interest to them, who didn’t do the task. Not one. Ever. In any context.
My friends from high school are really good examples of this. None of us were great students (we have who was worst contests, the jury is still out). One of them, a boy with a keen mathematical mind and test scores that are ridiculous, failed most of his classes but asked to take community college classes he was interested in. He’s been working since we were 13. He can run his own business. His pool game is absurd. Another is a profoundly talented artist, she almost failed school because they put in her the lower classes because she lived in the projects, so she stopped showing up. She is now a professional artist, she graduated from Berkeley, with honors. Another one only excelled in the classes he was engaged in, he had what rich people call business skills and what we hustling that would have rivaled anyone I know in business currently. He teaches kids to read. He lived in a shed in college so he could get out. And me? Well I was defiant, I rarely did the assignments I was supposed to, sometimes just for fun I would do other assignments in protest, I was known for getting the whole class to turn on a teacher. I ditched most of 8th grade science. I went home during lunch and made pasta only to never return. I got into fights. I only behaved when I was differentiated to. Now I am a teacher with two degrees from Stanford. All of us had profound struggles. Poverty, racism, sexism, familial challenges, a neighborhood that was unsafe, abuse, neglect, everything you imagine about urban kids is represented in just three examples. We were set up to fail. But we got out. We got out because we wanted to contribute. Those are the most brilliant among us, but to this day I don’t have any friends or family members that I know that aren’t trying to contribute, aren’t trying to love the people they love in their lives, aren’t trying to care. They don’t always do it successfully, but they try. I have seen sociopaths, and the faces of evil, they are rare and not reflective of humanity but of deficiencies in their ability to be human and they aren’t lazy.
My mom is a radical lady. I was raised in a house where race, class and gender were discussed openly. But this was the norm. There isn’t a black kid in America that hasn’t gotten a lecture on race, that hasn’t woken up and realized that they are oppressed. There isn’t a poor kid I know for whom that isn’t true either. How could you not know? We all knew. We just had different understandings of the root causes, and those understandings were ultimately what defined us. I was empowered by how clear the system was to me and was made to me by my mom and the number of good teachers I had. I wish my friends could have had that too, maybe more of them would have gotten out. That is why I teach history. Be honest because the kids already see what is happening, but if you don’t explain why how will they ever know the right way to get around it. How will they know the rules well enough to break them? Because that is ultimately what is required. And while you are at it, if you are serious about making it so that they don’t have to break rules just to survive and provide for their families, do some work on addressing the structural inequalities. If you want to be super helpful, the next time you are at dinner with someone who doesn’t know how the world works, especially if they have power, keep it real.