Thursday, April 12, 2012

National Sexual Assault Awareness and PreventionMonth

Even today, I am haunted by an incident that happened during my first year as a teacher. We were having a basketball game and I was the holding room for the students who were not attending the game; we were going to watch a movie. One of the girls came into the room with a glazed-over look on her face, but she wouldn’t tell me what was wrong. I asked her if she’d write it down, and she nodded.

Through a series of notes I learned that she had ditched school the previous day to have sex with her boyfriend, another student at our school. It was to be her first sexual experience, and it was to occur at his friend’s house near the school so that she could get back to by dismissal and go home without anyone--other than the friends that were in on it--to be none the wiser. They had it all planned out, but when she got to the house there were three boys instead of two, and she changed her mind and wanted leave.

The boyfriend raped her while the other two watched. After it was over, she wandered around in the neighborhood until it was time to go back to school. She went home, but did not tell anyone about what happened until she told me.

I explained to her that the incident would have to be reported and though she cried, not once did she recant or change her story. The police were called, the boys were taken into custody, but the charges were dropped. The grandmother said that whatever happened, her granddaughter wanted to happen. She was transferred to another school. Over the years I have always wondered what happened to her, if she ever found herself in a compromising situation, and felt as though she had no right to say no.

I know what that’s like. Although I wasn’t raped, I was coerced into a sexual liaison that I did not want to happen. About a month or so following the death of my father I had gone out with this guy for the second time even though he vexed my spirit. I should have known something was wrong when we stopped by his mother’s house and he said his brother and some friends were in the basement watching pornography, and asked if I wanted to watch. I said no.

We were looking at photos on the piano and there was a picture of his father and he started talking about his father and I burst out crying. He led me to a back bedroom and pulled me into an embrace. What I mistook for consolation quickly turned into seduction. Next thing I knew, he was kissing me and touching me. I told him to stop. He did, but had a hissy fit about how I was leading him on and I was grown woman . . . yada, yada, yada. At that point I just wanted to go home, and I thought if I had sex with him, I could just go home.

These stories came tumbling back to me as I sat in a meeting I was attending about sexual trafficking and listened to women sharing their stories of being raped and sexually assaulted by family members, friends and strangers. These women were like so many other girls, women and even men whose coming-of-age narratives including navigating the terrains of sexual assault by known and unknown assailants.

It has been a week of revelations as I read about recording artist Rahsaan Patterson and icon Vanessa Williams admit to being sexually abused. The stories are endless, and the abused does not have a face. The face of sexual assault can belong to any of us. And what’s most unfortunate is that those that are abused-as children or adults-are silenced into shame because issues of sexual abuse are shrouded in secrecy.

We’re afraid to admit that we not only do we know the prey, but the predator as well. So, we choose to either act as though it didn’t happen or else we blame the victim. When another student wrote a letter to me saying that her uncle was creeping into her bed and forcing her to have sex with him, her grandmother told me that she knew her son didn’t do that.

April is National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month and we can collectively work to end the horrific practice of sexual assault and abuse in our communities. If you, or someone you know is being abused, please call this toll free number: 1-800-565-HOPE. If you want to help, please volunteer to organizations working to combat sexual abuse. Here are two: RAINN and GEMS Something else you can do is go to iTunes and download Patterson’s, “Don’t Touch Me” a song in which the proceeds will go to sexual assault and abuse survivors.

Sexual assault and molestation will never stop unless we stop looking at as a taboo topic. It’s time to talk. And it’s a call to action.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Race in America Part 2 – Jada Williams

I was in second grade when the Black Power Movement was in full swing and the sounds of James Brown I’m Black and I’m Proud pierced the air. Like any other impressionable child, I began imitating what I saw around me. At school I traded drawing women with long locks cascading down their backs for women with big gigantic afros and huge hoop earrings. I drew men with big afros and facial hair, and all of my people wore the requisite platform shoes. Then one day my white teacher told me I couldn’t draw people with afros anymore. Even though my seven-year old self could not comprehend the why of it all, I knew it wasn’t right.

The next day my older sister accompanied me to school to talk to my teacher. My teacher explained to my sister that my afros were disproportionate to the bodies. I watched as my teacher folded one of my pictures in half to demonstrated that my gargantuan-sized natural was the same size as the entire body. She told my sister that if I drew people with smaller afros I could continue to draw them. The funny thing is I never remember her telling me that my Rapunzel-like figures were out of balance.

The incident has resurfaced as of late because of Jada Williams. Jada, an eighth grader in Rochester, New York wrote an essay for a contest sponsored by the Frederick Douglass society based on the text, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in which Jada compared education at her predominantly African-American and Latino High School to that of modern day slavery. She said the white teachers at her school were no better than Frederick Douglass’ slave master. She described how students are given texts that they cannot read and how the classrooms are often out of control, and when the bell rings and students move to the next class, the cycle starts all over again.

What happened next was unbelievable. A teacher copied the essay and distributed it around the school, and the normally well-behaved A-B student suddenly became a “troublemaker” and her grades started slipping. Things got so bad, that Jada’s parents transferred her to another school because of the harassment. The school has since apologized to Jada and her parents, but the damage is already done.

As a writing teacher, I would love to have a student like Jada in my class. She is both an analytical and critical thinker as demonstrated by her ability to apply what she learned from the text to her current situation. And instead of taking the content of the essay for the teachable moment that it was, the teachers at her school further instilled in Jada’s mind that the white teachers at her school don’t care about students of color. What a missed opportunity for intellectual discourse on the problems of urban education!

Jada’s frustration with her education is understandable. But it’s so much bigger than the complexion of the teachers at her school. Those of us that teach are members of the status quo and we want our students to follow in our footsteps especially if we teach in blighted communities. We don’t understand why they don’t “want better for themselves” and in too many instances, we want to fix them more then we want to teach them.

The paternalistic nature of urban education gets in the way of the work that we need to do. Instead of looking at the pluses that our students bring to school and merging what they have with what they need, too often we teach from a deficit model. And the more removed we are from the population we serve, the harder it is for many of us to find that middle ground. Sometimes it’s color, sometimes it’s class, sometimes it’s culture or some combination of the three.

It’s impossible to live in a racist, classist, sexist society and not have that follow us in to the classroom. Neither educators nor students are exempt. We come to school every day loaded down with societal baggage and to think that our internal biases and prejudices are checked at the door when the bell rings is nonsense. But in the classroom we can create a community if we willing to heal what ails us.

My second grade teacher was an older woman teaching on the cusp of serious social change in this country. I cannot imagine what was going through her mind anymore than I can imagine what Jada’s teachers were thinking when they read her essay. What I do know is that teachers have the second hardest job in the world; parents have the first. And in neither role do we always get it right, but we can learn from our mistakes.

Education in America for students of color needs an overhaul. Jada’s essay gave a pulse to the problem of urban education. But instead of praising her we, persecuted her. And we wonder what’s wrong with our youth?