First Person

Race Against Time: A Teacher’s Constant Struggle

Classroom management decisions are all about timing, and time waits for no one — not even a white teacher striving to capture the sophisticated racial commentary her students are never shy to espouse. I am often forced to choose between my established parameters — learning objectives and the rules of my classroom — and a teachable moment that, if done right, my students will remember long after those parameters have stopped mattering.

In my second period 10th-grade world literature class, which tends to be the most precocious and defiant of my three classes, a restless energy fills the air. We are concluding a human rights unit in which students focused on how survivors of human rights violations demonstrated courage, and I’m trying to psych them up to write the final project: an essay about someone they know who demonstrates great courage. As we are brainstorming potential people we could interview, a student named Joseph blurts out, “I want to interview you, Ms. Lustick! You got the courage to come in and teach us black kids every day.” I wait a beat, for a burst of laughter or some other response, but rest of the class waits silently for my reply.

When a student calls out, two sides of a teacher’s brain light up. The content-driven side of my brain gets excited: wow! That student made a fascinating point! I’d really like to hear more! I bet other people do too!  Listen to the content-driven side of your brain and students will learn very quickly how easy it is to get you off track. So a teacher quickly learns to beef up the management-driven side of her brain. The management-driven side of my brain can hear a student call out just about anything and it will compel me to do one of two things: repeat, flatly, that I’m only calling on students with their hands raised, or show this by flat-out ignoring the comment in favor of a student whose hand is up. It’s usually this latter strategy that I employ. It’s less disruptive to the lesson, while sending the same message: I will take your comment as soon as you raise your hand. I always feel it’s the more impartial and professional of the two strategies. It says, “I don’t discriminate against specific students or their opinions; I simply only acknowledge those with their hands raised.”

But there’s a layer to this particular comment that complicates that. It is so personal and racially charged that ignoring it could look like it is being done out of fear, or out of embarrassment at the answer. Because to be entirely honest, I do think I have courage. My students challenge me every day to prove to them that I see and care about them for who they are, and if I’m not willing to prove that in every fiber of my persona, everything else I’ve planned will probably be a waste. Joseph senses some of this, I’m sure, but not the nuances. To pretend what he’s saying is ridiculous or not worth hearing would be fake of me, and my students can’t stand it when I am fake.

So I’m left with an impossible decision: Should I respond to his comment, showing I can engage in a racial discussion but forgoing part or all of my lesson? Or should I ignore him in favor of a student with his hand raised, allowing the learning to continue? In a split second, I know I must make the latter decision and speak with Joseph later. I’ll know whether I made the right decision at the exact moment it is too late: When I call on another student, I almost flinch in anticipation of raucous laughter and exclamations of “Yo, Joseph, she violated you man! She totally ignored you. Oooooh…”

But no — there is just silence, with the exception of Thomas asking if they have to turn the interview notes in with their papers. “Yes,” I respond. “You have to show your own process.” Phew, over the hurdle. Class continues, and the two sides of my brain are back in action as one.

I speak privately with Joseph later about his comment, asking him all the questions I wanted to ask him in class. He says he didn’t even mean to say the word “black”; it just came out. What he meant by it was “kids acting like this”: He gestures around as the rest of the class talks, laughs, and otherwise wastes time instead of working on their essays.

“Poor behavioral choices?” I prompt. He nods. I’ve heard other black students complain about “black people” when they really mean to complain about irresponsible or disrespectful behavior. I want to ask Joseph why this is, whether it’s a mere joke, and whether he agrees with me that perpetuating negative stereotypes, in jest or not, is an example of internalized oppression.

“So why didn’t you say that?” I ask him.

He shrugs. “I don’t know,” he insists. He doesn’t seem interested in engaging in the topic anymore. I’ve given him the space to have this conversation, and now it is he who is shying away. I wonder what it will take for me and my students to be able to have the kinds of conversations we so clearly want and need to have, still play our roles as teacher and students, and still get our work done.

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.