Single Stories versus Equity Warriors

I am part of a cohort of folks who like to talk about inequitable hiring practices for teachers. Sounds thrilling, I know. Anyway, we are getting ready to present at yet another conference and I get an email from a cohort member, asking us to post a picture of ourselves from our student days so we can remind all the ESL specialists that, “look, we were your students once! Believe in us!”

After a perhaps too-dramatic groan, I emailed back. Here is the gist:

“I was never in ESL classes. Let’s not perpetuate the stereotype that every Latino student needs English language development support.”

To my amazement, the response I got back was something along these lines:

“I wasn’t either, because ESL classes were after my time! How old are you? There’s no way you’re older than ESL!”

Well, she’s kind of right. I’m not older than ESL. I wasn’t in ESL classes because I came to this country when I was three years old and was placed in an all English-speaking preschool, where I caught up with my monolingual peers in about six months (this is in now way me bragging. Three year-olds don’t know a whole lot of words in any language, so it’s not like I had a lot of ground to make up). Also, I had the grand luxury of having parents who were conversationally fluent when we first arrived, giving me a sort of language boost.

Essentially, the message I was getting from my cohort member was: you must be older than ESL because girl, there’s no way that you, as a Latina student, were not in ESL!

This is not to say that I wasn’t tested. Between 1st and 3rd grade, I was tested three times. Three times that I was hauled out of my classroom, led down to the basement, and tested in my English skills. Each time they realized that I had absolutely no need of ESL services. Yet, each year the nice lady who would speak to me extra loud and slow would come back.

You might argue that maybe my school cared sooooo much about supporting all of their students that they just reeeeeally wanted to make sure that I was being taken care of properly. Sure, you might argue that, and I would have to say that you’re full of crap. In my case, if anyone had read my file, they would realize that I tested somewhere in the 98th percentile for reading and writing in English. In 2nd grade, I was reading at a sixth grade level. None of these facts are exactly red flags for language testing.

Perhaps this is why I bristled so intensely at my colleague’s email. In a way, I was back in 2nd grade, telling that lady that I didn’t need this test again, and being ignored. In a way, I was back in high school, defending my AP classes to my counselor. In a way, I was back to being ostracized by the Latino students who were in ESL, yelling “sell out!” and “coconut!” at me in the halls (get it? Brown on the outside, white on the inside?). Oh yeah, I bristled.

Also, I was afraid of the message, however full of well intentions it might be, we would be sending. And, I was afraid of what my very own cohort, these champions of equity, might be assuming about young Latino students.

Yes, we want our students of color to be rightfully acknowledged and respected. But we must be wary of pushing forward single stories about them. Not every Latino student is in ESL, was in ESL, or needs to be placed in ESL. Not every black student comes from a broken home. Not every Asian student is going to be ridiculously hard-working and excel in science and math.

I teach my students about “single stories” and about how dangerous they can be. About how they can strip a group of people of their humanity and often, their dignity (the term “single story,” was coined by the amazing Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche. You can watch her powerful TED talk here).  As a teacher, I strive every day to help my students see each other for who they are, and to ignore the damn single stories that may surround an individual like a shroud.

And here I was, feeling like I had to have this talk about single stories with my colleagues. I felt somewhat betrayed. Like, man, you guys, too? I thought we all knew better.

I was now finding myself smack dab in the middle of a single story, thrown at me by another Mocha. Also, I was finding myself struggling with a single story of my own. The story that all people of color, fellow Mochas, were on the same page I was in our How to Be an Equity Warrior Book. That email showed me that this was not the case.

Obviously, as teachers, we want all of our students to succeed (unless you’re of the Umbridge variety, and in that case, you can go away. Shoo.) and we want to honor their backgrounds, whatever they may be. We must always be mindful of the single stories we may be hauling around with all of that not-finished grading. Often, they are disguised as good intentions. But peel back a layer and you find a student’s dignity at risk. That is a risk that none of can afford to take. Especially now, in this political tempest in which we find ourselves.

I suppose that this is a reminder, to you all, as well as myself, that single stories can come from anywhere, and anyone. I am leaving now to write an email to that colleague to further explain how her message made me feel, and then I’m going to gorge myself on Olive Garden breadsticks. My biggest hope is that it moves her a page or two forward in her Equity Warrior Book (the email, not the breadsticks. Although, if carbs could be utilized to move people forward in equity work, this world would be a whole different place) and I hope that you too, find the courage to confront those single stories, be they your own, or the ones you hear from those around you. Your students will love having a true Equity Warrior fighting for them.

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