Same Like Me
– Nonfiction by Jennifer Russell –
“Can we pray for my brother?” She asked as I petitioned the class for prayer intentions. “We just found out he is going to be incarcerated for the murder of his daughter.”
Staring blankly at my student, I had to keep in mind that I was, in fact, the one running the class and had to keep a poker face for the group of sixteen year olds in my classroom and under my care. Her ebony skin glistened with sweat right up to her hairline. Her dark weave of braids flowed from the silk green and orange scarf on her head. I heard the white air conditioning window unit laboring in the late September heat and was grossly aware of the man, the white man, who donated the unit to my classroom.
“This room gets really warm,” he had said to me when he put the unit in the window. “You need to keep it running so as not to smell the stench of the students and their sweat.”
I remembered nervously laughing at his off color comment. And yet, here I stood before this young woman, aware of how warm her plaid skirt and sweater vest uniform must be.
Although I understood that it existed in the past, up until I was twenty-nine, I told myself that racism hadn’t existed in my lifetime in my pocket of the world. Slavery ended, Martin Luther King died and James Earl Ray rotted in jail until his death, Rosa parks sat in the front of the bus and George Zimmerman’s reputation got the drag through the mud that it deserved after his acquittal. Racism had been reconciled.
“For Azyah’s brother,” I responded keeping my face as solemn as I would at a funeral.
I had only known Azyah for a few weeks. She and her attitude, brazen at best, would come into my classroom at both homeroom and sixth period. For the first three weeks of the school year, she allowed me to mispronounce her name as Ah-z-eye-ah, as opposed to the true pronunciation Asia. Daily, I would call roll, and she would allow me to say her name wrong so that she could laugh with her friends at my error. These mistakes made the discomfort I already felt, in front of this class of minority students, stronger than anything before. Upon discovering how her name was said, I tried to regain my footing, but knew I had already lost ground.
As a second year teacher, I still struggled with the feeling that I was an impostor – a fraud that slipped into the education system because someone was looking the wrong way when my application, laced with years of working in the movie industry, came through. During my first year, words of endearment had flowed from both my co-workers and administrators. The small boosts of confidence dried up after I completed my first year.
It was sheer bad luck that landed me at Christian Academy for that school year. Christian Academy had become a name known among the teachers in the large school system I was a part of in Philadelphia. With words like “the poor school” or “the dumb kid school” or worse, (and what I would later learn was “typical” of many in Philadelphia), “the black kid school.” It became the place known as no man’s land; no teacher wanted to end up there. “Academy” was a name slapped onto the school located in the poorest neighborhood in Philadelphia to give the students, who were required to live below the poverty line in order to receive free lunch, something to make their diploma seem more robust. Couple that with everyone knowing the school was located in West Philadelphia, an area of urban decay made famous for its decrepitude noted by Will Smith and his opening of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” it was a black hole and a year sentence if you were placed there.
In my first year teaching I was placed in a school that had become my dream job. My then boyfriend helped me get the job because his mom had gone there. When he proposed several months later, I was greeted with congratulatory praise from the school’s board of directors which consisted of several of his uncles and cousins. Although uncertain if I even wanted to be engaged to this man, I was excited to bridge my world of work with my relationship.
I worked with a demographic of suburban white kids, which was exactly where I was comfortable, and I got involved in all things that defined me such as yearbook moderator. Many of the students at that high school were the definition of entitled. Each came from families of strong blue collar workers and white collar professionals. Their parents lived a gilded existence of happiness rife with hidden infidelity and immoral activities, all the while sending their students to a Christian school based on morality and virtue.
In their strictly hypocritical state, these parents funded their own alcoholism while supplying their children with a variety of methods of self-medication and addictive outlets in order to cope with the slow decay of their family life. Although not the family lifestyle I personally came from, I had found a place where I felt I could help these students. I felt free and, ultimately, alive by their baggage as each of them came to my classroom at the end of the day to talk about what lude picture they received from a friend on snapchat and how they couldn’t talk to their mom about what it meant because, frankly, their mother was a drunk who barely acknowledged the existence of her children.
I relished in their sorrow, not because I felt better or more secure than they did, but rather it gave me purpose. I liked the feeling of being needed.
It was early May when the principal came to see me.
“Enrollment isn’t where it needs to be and we need to cut six positions,” he told me somberly. “Since you have the least seniority, you will be one of the first ones we have to lay off.”
A part of me shook from my core – despite all I had done for these people, they were ridding themselves of me and I hated it. I had no protection and I was alone.
In my distress I turned to the one person I thought could help: my fiance. His only consolation was to point out what I could be doing differently. “You need to be happy you had this year experience and accept that you don’t have a job,” he told me, in his regular drunken stooper. He had told me I was depressing for complaining about wanting to keep my job. “Don’t be selfish like you usually are,” he had said, words slurring.
For the next month, I positioned myself positively within the school hoping that by some miracle enrollment would go up enough to keep me on payroll. By the time June rolled around, I became grossly aware that the chance of that happening was not likely. This suburban community I had fallen in love with was being taken away and I had no way to stop it.
Being laid off was something I was accustomed to. It had happened before – in fact, I had been laid off a total of 5 times since graduating from college nine years prior. While I finally found the profession that I loved, teaching, the anxiety that I would not be able to find another job slowly seeped into my life like a sponge soaking up water. My mind echoed all the comments from family members and friends over the years stating how difficult it was to find a teaching job.
The idea of unemployment pervaded my every move; while I used to be comfortable going to the grocery store, I now was trying to pinch every penny to ensure that I wouldn’t fall behind on my rent. It was early July when the president of our teacher’s union called and asked me if I wanted to interview at Christian Academy. “I know it is very far from your home, but if you get into one of the schools in our system again, we will be able to move you to a different school in the system closer to where you live,” the union representative explained to me. I graciously took the opportunity to interview recalling the perpetual mockery that came with the name Christian Academy.
On the day of the interview, my fiancé drove me to the school. Since he was a native of Philadelphia, and I was not, he told me he would help me locate the school because it was unsafe for me to go alone. We drove silently, aware that there was nothing to talk about. When I spoke about my concerns, he minimized and shut them down, telling me to be grateful. I was grateful, I thought, but that didn’t take away my feelings of fear.
The uncertainty I began feeling about my interview, on the car ride to the school, felt good. It overtook the other inevitable thoughts saturating my mind. My relationship, the four-year relationship that ended in an engagement, was crumbling before me. Driving in the car with him, his comments about how drivers in this area were “bad” because they probably were driving stolen cars, made me more anxious than the interview.
Sitting at a stop-light at the corner of the street in front of Christian Academy, I watched the young girls enter into the life choices clinic on the corner of the street. They were young and pregnant and I noticed that not one of them was white. The little bodegas lining the street were all gated up waiting for the businesses to open. Abandoned cars decorated the street, some with bright yellow boots on their driver’s side front wheel. The streets were littered with small papers and the houses remained dark and lifeless. Aside from the occasional bright orange eviction notice plastered on certain windows, the streets were colorless and dim.
Pulling into the gated parking lot, I gathered my belongings and exited the car. The panhandlers outside the fence looked in at me. Where was my suburbia? Why was I where I was?
I accepted the job knowing very little about the school’s demographic and, frankly, I didn’t care. My union representative kept telling me I wasn’t going to be there long. I wanted my out – I wanted the transfer I was promised that would get me back to a place where I felt safe. I defended my desire to get out, stating that it was not merely a racial issue; yet, deep down, I knew it was.
I never considered myself as someone racially charged. I had many friends of different ethnicities growing up. My middle-class white family always encouraged the mingling of all people without limitations based on race, gender, religious affiliation or sexual orientation. Yet, here I stood, at the start of a new school year, realizing how uncomfortable I was with the students who were on my roster – students I had yet to have met but already profiled as trouble. I had come from a school of Ryans and Christinas and now I was teaching Samiers and Tykeras. Nothing felt secure, including my ability to teach. The weak scaffolding I had built as a teacher was collapsing. I threw my aggression at the only person I thought would be able to help: my union representative. Feeling alone, neglected and tricked into taking this job, I wrote a number of angry e-mails that were returned with apologetic platitudes that stemmed from the union’s satisfaction on filling a position that no one wanted.
The advice from my fiance had dried up too. This solid strong man that I used to rely on to help me in my quest for employment indicated he no longer had advice for me and I needed to seek out others for advice and assistance.
After school one afternoon, as I stewed in my own misery, I heard a quiet knock on my door as Trayier walked into my classroom to verify that I received his homework assignment. Staring at this young man before me, his thick glasses masking his deep brown eyes, I could see a sense of sorrow in his face that I had never noticed before. Maybe it was because I hadn’t been looking, or maybe it was because I hadn’t cared to get close to him – and all of his classmates for that matter – I saw something in his face that I never realized was there.
Double checking my gradebook, I saw that I did in fact get his homework.
“Thanks, Miss,” he said to me in his Philadelphia accent. “Can I just say, I am glad you’re here?”
Taken back by his candor, I stared at him. “Really? Why?”
With a braces encrusted smile, he stated, “You seem like you will be a positive addition to the school. We need that here.”
Looking at the seventeen-year-old boy in front of me, I felt a small pebble form in the back of my throat. I was needed. Smiling back at him, I mustered a thank you while fighting tears. He told me about his job and his girlfriend, and I slowly felt the barrier I had built around the differences in our backgrounds and skin color melt away to see that he was very much the same as the students I had taught the year prior.
He spoke of how his father had walked out on his mom and four siblings leaving Trayier to be the oldest and, now, the man of the house. With tears in his eyes, he stated how he was trying to help provide for his mom and family, by working two jobs after school, in order to make sure his sisters had an opportunity to go to get an education. Letting the tears fall from his eyes, he spoke of how he wished he had a father figure in his life but knew that, at this point, he would move onto college, marry a great woman, and be the father that his father never was.
Astounded, I stared at him. He wiped tears away as he spoke. “We need someone to bring positivity to this place. We are all so broken.”
Later that week, with Trayier and Azyah in tow, I helped chaperone a spiritual retreat for thirty of our students in one of the wealthiest areas of Pennsylvania outside of their urban comfort. Driving to the retreat center, I was astonished at how the sight of rolling hills and trees that didn’t have roots buried in concrete seemed to amaze them. Although not the town I grew up in, this area felt familiar. I felt needed by these students – student’s that had a retreat fully funded by donors; students who were being brought up in a world where they were told there were race issues – all of which I never knew or saw. Still unsure if racism existed, I was determined to
come to my own conclusions and not let anyone tell me otherwise.
My first experience with the staff at this retreat center in the affluent suburb was when I went on a personal retreat there years prior. Treated like family, I remembered being welcomed by all the wait staff. When I discovered that my sheets were stained in my room, I was immediately given new sheets. When I found that the rooms were too cold because the heat wasn’t working, I was given a new room. When I found that the water in the sink was coming out a color other than clear, I was provided with a refund for part of my stay. I was certain these students we came with would be treated with the affability that I was treated. They were no different than I was, I had determined, so they too should be given the decencies I was.
After arriving at the retreat center, we were notified by our contact person, after she saw our group, that we would no longer be able to use the rooms we had booked for a portion of the event. While we accepted this inconvenience, it became apparent that this was just the jumping off point for what I could only categorize as brazen bias and unbridled prejudice towards this group of underprivileged students.
From not being allowed to eat in certain areas, to our students not being allowed to use certain bathrooms, I was flabbergasted at the injustices that these young adults met in the faces of those that were supposed to be hospitable towards them. When the heat wasn’t working in some of their rooms, the retreat staff told them where to get more blankets if they were cold. If they didn’t have clean water, they were told they would not be able to shower.
To my surprise, my students seemed unaware of how poorly they were being treated. They accepted it the way a child accepts candy. Hurt by their lack of acknowledgement, I let my growing detest for the retreat center boil up in my core and overflow in the evenings when talking with friends and family via text or phone. Calling the workers racist and xenophobic, I began to realize that these people – the people running this center – were very similar to the man I was engaged to.
Placing people in categories was never something that I liked to do, but somehow over the course of my relationship, I found myself gravitating towards the cubbyholes that my fiance had so eloquently put people into. Aware or not, he was intolerant and, although I hadn’t intended it to be this way – I became increasingly aware of how much, I too, had been in that narrow hallway of a limited worldview. Not only had I been treating those around me without the dignity and respect they deserved, I realized that these students had been conditioned to think that the lack of reverence that they received was not just normal but acceptable.
As my ego slowly melted away, I became tuned into how much I learned about race relations within this school setting. I always talked about human dignity in my classes, preaching about how we all have it and deserve to be treated with the same amount, all the while being unaware of how I didn’t meet the bar that I tried to bring my students to.
What became more telling was when I returned to school and realized how stunted many members of our staff seemed. Calling the students “idiots” or “dumb” as I glided by their classroom during my free periods, I was stunned to see how disrespectful many of the teachers were to the students entrusted to them.
The turning point, after the retreat, came when Azyah came into my classroom at sixth period and sat next to me at my desk. She stared at my ring finger, which was now bare. I didn’t want her to ask, so I spoke first.
“Can I help you, Ms. Taylor?” I posed to her lightly, though the tension I felt at what could have been an impending conflict bubbled in my stomach. My heart ached, and my head hurt. I was tired of fighting. Fighting with my fiance, fighting with the union, fighting with her. I didn’t feel like being on the defensive anymore.
“Can I just sit next to you?” She asked. My expression must have read the sheer confusion I felt at her question. She continued, “You are one of the only teachers who treat us like we are human.”
I let her words wash over me like a cold rain. I had not been nearly as welcoming as I had with my students from the past, and yet, this young woman indicated that I was one of the only teachers who treated her with dignity. Knowing that I had fallen short in how I had treated these students, I felt a pull at my heart, knowing that the half-hearted way I dealt with them was still more care and kindness than they had ever received.
Looking at her I was aware of how different we truly were. She came from a single parent home where her father had walked out on them and her brother had murdered his daughter. Her student record said her mother worked three jobs. On most weeks, while her mom was working, Azyha had to work as the mother of the house for her three siblings. But she wanted to be treated with decency; she wanted to be treated with respect. She deserves to be treated with dignity, just as I do.
So I guess we really aren’t that different after all.
About the Author – Jennifer Russell
Jennifer Russell is a writer and filmmaker based out of Allentown, Pennsylvania. She holds an MFA from Fairfield University where she was the recipient of the Fairfield University MFA fellowship. She works as a Journalism and Media teacher at a local high school and has worked in the publishing and film industry prior to teaching. Her works include several short stories and an in-progress novel. This is her debut publication for her non-fiction writing.
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