Have We Found Hector, Yet? A Love Letter To Educators In The Midst Of Crisis
This post is part of our series entitled Teaching and Learning During a Pandemic, in which we invite guest authors to reflect on the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic for teaching and learning. Our guest today is Michelle Fine, a Distinguished Professor of Critical Psychology, Women’s Studies, American Studies and Urban Education at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. Other posts in the series are compiled here.
Each evening we ask Caleb the same question; as the numbers of 6th and 7th graders responding to his online “office hours” increase by the day, we ask “Have you found Hector yet?”
I am quarantined in Montclair, New Jersey, six adults and an infant; a home of heterogeneous teachers and activists. We are healthy and fortunate. We spend our days in Google Meets with 6th graders, community college students, working-class 4-year and doctoral students, most with deep roots in the working-class/immigrant/public housing community, and the news gets more and more grim. Each evening around the dinner table, the stories grow more painful; more students-grandparents-parents-loved ones-siblings are ill-dead-unemployed-hungry-worried about a grandmother in Ecuador or in a nursing home or in the next room in the Bronx. We don’t eat until we have each spoken “one good thing that happened today.” It’s harder now. In the month of March we saw people dying; in the month of April we witness institutions and the precious fibers of democracy – like public schools and universities and voting – placed on life support in budget slashing season.
And they still won’t release people from prison or detention centers.
We drown in statistical predictions and calculations of [eugenic] disposability, the racialized algebra of loss, classed algorithms of who is essential and whose life is “worth the sacrifice.”
We were warned, 60 years ago:
We do not want to admit this, and we do not admit it...We are very cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly.
– James Baldwin (1960)
And today we’ve been advised: “Schools are a very appetizing opportunity. I just saw a nice piece in The Lancet arguing the opening of schools may only cost us 2 to 3 percent in terms of total mortality. Any you know, any life is a life lost, but… that might be a tradeoff some folks would consider.” (From Dr. Oz, April 2020, a TV personality in drag as a doctor.) He later apologized. But it made me realize that James Baldwin was essential – then and now.
The deep veins of inequity have been exposed. We can no longer deny or teach – or live – as if we don’t know, as if the vast homelessness, the videos of caged children, of the police shooting people of color were not enough. We know who will be sacrificed, and who will profit.
Last Sunday, I got a text from Jenesse, David’s student at Saint Peter’s: “I’m scared. My parents are both still working. They are considered essential.”
The irony stings. Jenesse’s parents are suddenly considered “essential” in a country that has long considered them disposable: low income, African American, front line workers. Essential to whom, for whose well-being, for whose profit, at what cost? The lines of worthy and expendable are clearly demarcated, as perhaps they always have been.
Little is predictable, except of course what Naomi Klein has called disaster capitalism. We know that the well-dressed man (who now comes in all genders/races/ethnicities and sexualities) lurks behind the tree, this time for real. Let no crisis be wasted, Eli Broad told us years ago. Let no tragedy be unmonetized. A well-funded “ed reform” sector lays in wait to privatize our schools, undermine our unions, defund public universities, unleash an unregulated monsoon of vouchers, charters, high stakes testing regimes and “personalized learning technologies,” railing against organized labor, preaching about achievement gaps, advocating austerity, and dedicated to severing the life line of public education. Rosa Luxembourg described this long ago as an insatiable appetite for accumulation.
This tactic of exploiting crisis for profit begins by nibbling on the raw and exposed pain of the most disenfranchised, a structural leeching off of Black and Brown, poor and working-class despair, to maximize profit. Followed by a relentless policy commitment to dismantle all things public – except prisons, military and police. Let’s call this strategic public-cide.
We have been warned. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in Crisis magazine that the “moans” of the darker race were chronic and yet would only be attended to when a profit could be made; in the aftermath of Katrina, we heard Arnie Duncan declare “the best thing that ever happened to New Orleans” was when the public schools were washed away. We witness the stealthy coyote of privatization lingering around what they view as the fiscal carcass of public education, waiting to promise “reliable” “technologies” that are “personal learning machines” so your child can “get ahead.” We have learned that privatizers will monetize any crisis – and that the only way to resist and re-build is through deep and rich solidarities within schools, between schools and communities and across educational justice, racial justice and labor justice movements.
To be clear…
We are not in a pause. We are in a struggle for the soul and sustainability of public education, at a crossroads. Every crisis has historically been appropriated as a struggle for the expansion of corporate logics and carceral practices into our schools, especially schools of poverty and color – at least to begin with. This is a moment for school districts and our unions to mobilize unapologetically and ferociously for equity, inquiry and solidarities.
This time, as before, teachers were recruited as first responders for the collective soul. They showed up, taught, held, cried, brought food, cried some more, made Tik Toks (kind of hilarious), and continue to reach into the darkness to find children lost – now and maybe before.
I live in a house of teachers – my son Caleb is a 6th grade history teacher in a very low income, deeply compassionate and gorgeously led middle school in Prince Georges County; my son Sam teaches community college; my partner David teachers at a working class Jesuit college, and I am at CUNY. COVID’s treacherous reach has drawn tears and blood in our students' – families' – neighborhoods. Caleb receives texts – can you give me an assignment? I can’t believe it, but I miss you. Dear Mr. Finesurrey – thank you so much for being in touch with our son and with us. In these dark days, it helps.
Since September, I have called Caleb, [almost] every evening at 5:00 for just “one story” of first year teaching. Caleb has 261 middle school students – history is not a “tested subject” – so he’s on an A/B schedule. Don’t ask. But most days, Hector looms large – a sweet, hilarious boy classified “ESOL,” in such a short time he has gone from “I’m a stupid…” as a declarative statement, to “Maybe I’m a smart?” As of April 23, we still haven’t heard from Hector.
Sam’s students – community college students – are losing jobs, losing fathers/mothers/siblings/step parents/“my favorite tia,” losing motivation, witnessing “conflicts between my parents because when my dad comes home from work he doesn’t change his clothes,” some feeling ill and some ashamed, stung by the stigma of COVID.
David’s students are working-class, largely Latinx. Some with documents and many without, many live in mixed status households, waiting in traumatic limbo, anticipating the Supreme Court DACA decision. Nowhere to turn if the cough is suspicious, the food is low, the money gone, the rent due – but everyone shares. Except when they don’t.
I zoom in to connect with doctoral students – from the US and internationally, diverse by race/ethnicity/living situation/class of origin/gender/sexuality – and there is an intimacy. Most show up, scared, exhausted, some ill, many caring for elders and so deeply for their CUNY undergraduate students.
We are a public sector family witnessing the cascading of inequities, the rising of vulnerabilities, the layering of collective trauma, the death of dreams and the sweet extensions of care – through schools and universities. Public education (even in a Jesuit college): always inadequate, depleted by neoliberal policies, rooted in the vicious claws of austerity and occupied by absurd metrics. And yet at each level, flooded with desire. Rethinking Schools sits on the kitchen table; stories of our students shared over dessert; feeling the inadequacies, and the warmth of accompaniment.
Public schools are never enough – and they are all we’ve got.
Whether you are an educator, organizer, poet, librarian or health care worker, in South Africa or Staten Island, you bear witness to the rising shape and bloody edges of inequality laid bare by the Crisis. You feel our collective vulnerability and then notice our deeply stratified loss and terror; you see glimmers of solidarities, hands held across the internet and state lines; we witness the creativity of finding online multicultural curriculum and reproductive justice options, memories of the AIDS crisis, domestic violence survivors calling therapists from their cars; make shift on line funerals and Yahrzeits, and teachers everywhere delivering care, dignity, tears, time, silence, space and state mandated curricula – in that order.
What have we learned?
Arundhati Roy asks:
What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to our senses. Others that it’s a Chinese conspiracy to take over the world. Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
In the mo(u)rning after, educators realize we cannot go back to normality, as Arundhati Roy has warned us. Through the portal of massive death and illness, racialized and classed, a grotesque widening of educational gaps and inequities, economic despair on the rise in ways starkly stratified, we confront the enduring inequities that pave our nation, make it easy for some of us and impossible for others. So now we know, and can’t deny, that some schools have “pre-existing conditions,” and are thereby more vulnerable to the virus, racial injustice, privatization, testing, over-policing, deportation raids and trauma. We can never again say we didn’t know.
On pre-existing conditions
Schools with pre-existing conditions – hollowed and threatened by the corporate and carceral logics – succumb first. These are schools with too many police, too much testing, high teacher turnover, heightened (and racially disparate) suspension and expulsion rates, too many long-term subs, and aggressive threats of closure if scores don’t rise. These are the pre-existing conditions that create a host environment for the virus – COVID or privatization; these pre-existing vulnerabilities are held in the bodies of the children, and in the precarious structures of their schools.
Neuroscientist Bruce McEwen has written for decades on the embodied consequences of oppression, particularly for children raised in contexts of sustained economic and racial dispossession. Recently deceased, McEwen was meticulous in documenting how structural violence – fear, noise, lack of security or stability, environmental stressors – move under the skin and hobble immune systems, ravage the neurological pathways of children and adults, sickening and also hampering their capacity to “rebound” when the next assault lands. He called these stressors “allostatic load.”
A progressive scientist, McEwen knew that children are not coated in Teflon; that stress enters the pores and undermines their immune system, with waves of embodied consequences thereafter. McEwen and colleagues also found that children with high allostatic loads who have been raised in environments of what he called maternal support have better neurological outcomes.
The question for us asks: how would schools (and educational labor unions) be organized to facilitate structural contexts of care and connection – between and among students, educators, staff and families – so as to mediate the impact of acid rain on the children? Even if we can’t stop the rain.
It is of course a grotesque irony – an American tradition – that children with the highest allostatic load tend to attend the schools that are the most destabilized by finance inequity, high teacher turnover, inadequate materials, relentless high stakes testing culture, police presence and severe disciplinary practices. A shattered relational fabric, held by very new teachers amidst rising collective trauma. Students who are the most housing and food insecure – vulnerable to ICE and the long arm of the carceral state, and perhaps struggling to find clean water – come from families with the least reliable access to computers and broadband internet access. They attend disproportionately the schools that serve our nation’s 1.3 million homeless children and the 30 million who rely on schools for breakfast and lunch, schools that serve the more than 5,000,000 children with a parent in jail or prison.
In schools serving high rates of “high poverty” students, the Economic Policy Institute finds: heightened rates of teacher turnover, provisional licenses and non-certified educators. The consequences of teacher turnover are well documented: low morale for staff, and diminished achievement for students. In high poverty schools a full 39.8% of teachers are in their first year of teaching (compared to 33.8% in low poverty schools). The Brookings Institution reminds us that in high turnover schools, there is an increased reliance on provisionally licensed educators and swollen class sizes. These schools were profoundly uneven in resources, relationships, recognition, trust and care – even before the virus.
Moving from school to home, the disparities multiply. Millions of children live in homes with at least one undocumented parent. A full 5.1 million children, more than 80 percent of whom are U.S. citizens, live in mixed status households and are more likely to move frequently (job insecurity leads to housing insecurity leads to school mobility). Their parents are more likely to avoid contact with public institutions for fear of deportation; these children are far less likely to attend pre-K or receive regular health care, and far more likely, according to the American Psychological Association, to experience depression and anxiety, trouble sleeping and eating, and withdrawal and clinginess. These young people have been carved out of the CARES legislation and will be denied financial support to help their parents keep a roof over their heads and put food on the table.
The ever-expanding digital divide at home exacerbates these in-school inequities. While the US Education Department estimates that 14 percent of children aged 3 to 18 (or some 9.4 million) are without internet access, advocates argue that the actual figure is closer to 12,000,000. And the racial, ethnic and rural/urban disparities are predictable and significant: 37 percent of American Indians or Native Americans lack internet access, as do 19 percent of Africans American households, and 17 percent of Latinx and 12 percent of White and Asian children.
High allostatic load, high precarity, vulnerable schools where 40 percent of teachers are in their first year. COVID-19 is not their first crisis, but just magnify the inequities like a perverse fun house mirror.
Schools cannot compensate for a nation organized through racial capitalism, expansive inequality gaps, an insatiable appetite for the carceral state and containment of immigrants. But we must reorganize to support, anticipate crises, attend to trauma as a collective experience, and as schools and unions, advocate for solidarity and radical transformation, as we bear witness.
Relationships and Solidarities Matter
We have learned, again, that even in crisis (or perhaps especially in crisis), those schools serving low income communities that are organized democratically focus on relationships, cultivate restorative practices and performance assessments, engage culturally competent pedagogies, treat students and families with dignity, respect educator wisdom. Those schools seem able to hold the fraying edges of an academic blanket, to catch and warm bodies as they fall.
We have known this for a long time. Many have documented the relation of “school culture,” trust and engagement including Tony Bryk and Barbara Schneider, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Pedro Noguera, Angela Valenzuela, Renee Antrop-Gonzalez and Tony de Jesus, and most recently Vanessa Siddle-Walker in her AERA address on the historic role of Black educators and Black teacher organizations. We can feel, smell, hear and experience relationships and soft solidarities when we enter schools rooted in trust, culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogy, performance assessments, restorative justice, organized through democratic governance and caring relations with local community. These schools are anchors in the storm, BC (before COVID) and during.
Held by a strong collective of educators – public or charter, community schools or even “citywide,” racially/ethnically homogeneous or integrated, traditional or transfer schools – these schools are not waiting for the Central District “to tell us what to do.” Usually with insufficient material resources, these schools are nevertheless already connected to children, parents, caretakers, food delivery, searching for Good News Fridays, delivering chrome books, hosting happy hours for educators, crying in the evenings because schools can’t close the raging gaps even/especially in the middle of the apocalypse. But if desire were enough, they would.
These are the schools that are still looking for Hector. When we open again, we must design as if crisis is always about to recur, because for many of our students, it is.
Thru the Portal: Imagining sweet solidarities
I once read, or think I read, in the Science Times, about an experiment involving small pox and bees. Scientists infected one bee in a hive with small pox to watch the other bees respond. Well – they didn’t incarcerate her, detain her, shame her or let her die. As I recall, they licked the sick bee clean, and as a result she lived, and the collective immunity was strengthened.
We have witnessed the life sustaining significance of schools stitched together through relationships. We have learned again, as biologist Janine Benyus has told us in her book Biomimicry (1997), in forests ravaged by hurricanes, only a few trees remain standing, in the aftermath, surrounded by the strewn remains of the “sacrifice trees.” These mighty oaks appear tall, strong and solitary. But dig below and you find deep, winding, and entangled roots. Like the mighty oaks, schools are rooted in place, with long entangled tendrils to families, community based organizations and social movements that vibrate in the lives of their students. These schools are a source of collective immunity and sustainability.
As one modest action, perhaps the Shanker Institute or the AFT could curate an Archive of Educational Struggle and Radical Possibilities (thank you Jean Anyon), so that k-12 students, but also pre-service educators, can become familiar with their activist ancestors whose stories we have been denied, whose legacies we carry forth.
Wouldn’t it be lovely for 6th graders and pre-service and current educators to learn more about Septima Clark of the Highlander Center who brought literacy to rural Islands off Georgia and the million young people, who in the opening years of the Cuban Revolution, journeyed to the mountains and farms to teach Cuban farmers to read and write in the 1961 literacy campaigns? (Watch the film "Maestra.") Or sit with interviews of the 14 grandmothers of Little Village Chicago, who launched a hunger strike, demanding a local high school; read about the Harlem 9, Black mothers who held their children out of schools in 1958 demanding quality education, clean facilities, up to date textbooks and teachers of color, who were charged with truancy and then found innocent and congratulated by Judge Justine Wise Polier for acting on their love and fierce resistance for their children. Doesn’t it seem important for children – and soon-to-be-teachers – to learn about the Chicago Teachers Union and Red for Ed, the NAACP moratorium on charter schools, Social Justice unionism, the very local and national movements of educators and community activists, who demand racial/labor/educational justice as if one word, in coalition with housing, environmental and transportation justice, immigration and “out and proud” teacher movements, a dismantling of the school to prison pipeline, as a condition of contract negotiations? And in this not-yet-archive-of-radical-immunities and imagination (thank you Maxine Greene), let us not forget the sweet, small, intimate activisms – engaged every day by educators, nurses, janitors, secretaries, counselors – rarely celebrated, never compensated, perhaps always remembered by a student who might have been otherwise erased.
Now that we know… we can’t deny:
- Our deep interdependence,
- Our throbbing desires to connect,
- That sweet solidarities rise, even when everyone is existentially trembling,
- That the original loss – older, white, famous – would be replaced by bodies browner, blacker, poorer, with no names to recognize – color in the full portrait,
- That children yearn to learn, connect, be recognized for their gifts and their needs,
- That parents appreciate the call home to say Erika spoke aloud, in English, for the first time,
- That public school, and public university educators, give 200%, even as the sky is falling on and around them – except for the few who don’t.
We are obligated to think about how we would organize our schools, unions, school districts to function more like beehives than sorting machines, to build anti-racist collective immunity and imagination, relying on a progressive ethics of equity, inclusion and democracy, rather than return to the severe normalcy that our schools reproduce and legitimate: (un)natural selection, educational hierarchy, racial and (dis)ability based segregation.
Public schools are fragile, precious, deeply uneven and they are under siege – from the outside and from within. They can be a mirror and often an accelerator of social inequities, but are sometimes a window onto radical possibilities. We must of course resist the pull to the corporate savoir, the neoliberal predatory “innovations” that drive by and disrupt, low income communities, picking off a few. No judgements on parents or educators who choose a charter when the options for safety and dignity are slim; but huge judgments and resistance against public official who re-route money, waivers, legitimacy and land to corporate charter entities, extracting from the public sector. We must close the chapter on metric madness that sorts and kills and devastates academic desire and professional dignity from within schools.
The external threats to schools, particularly public schools in high poverty communities of color and to public sector unions (excluding correctional officers and police) are severe. The external threats of privatization – corporate charters, cyber-charters, vouchers, school closings, land grabs are matched by the internal threats of over-policing, over-disciplining, over-testing, over-tracking, over-segregating. We don’t need schools to reproduce society; that can be done for free – or with a virus. Instead we need schools to challenge, resist, disrupt and re-imagine a just education system.
We build collective immunity by developing anti-bodies that resist inequity, structural violence and privatization. We build collective immunity by growing ligaments that connect schools, libraries, shelters and food pantries, community organizing and educating, economic/housing/educational/racial/immigrant/indigenous/clean water/environmental justice. We build collective immunity by reaching back to the elders from indigenous, immigrant, coal mining, communities of color, who struggled all their lives so they can tell us how to move through the pain, isolation and despair to build little paths of liberation for ourselves and others, what Gerald Vizenor has called “survivance”. We build collective immunity by relying on those at the margins, who know well these lessons, and together we build campaigns for educational justice from that wisdom.
We End with a Public Service Announcement About Assessment in the Apocalypse
Dear NYS Regents, University of California and the NJ DOE Assessment Directors:
Congratulations! You finally found the courage to drop the racist/classist/anti-disability and exclusionary investment in high stakes testing. I offer you a note: Once I was afraid, I was petrified, but you will survive – without your tests. Take this opportunity to consider the rich alternatives sprouting around the nation – in private schools, performance assessment consortia, in IB schools… to consider how we might assess young people’s hunger and academic desire in ways that are ethical, inquiry based and equitable. Check out the New York Performance Standards Consortium. You have an opening – use it well, ethically and equitably. Don’t screw this up.
With warm regards,
“I will survive”
Antrop-Gonzalez, R., and De Jesus, A. 2006. Toward a theory of critical care in urban small school reform: examining structures and pedagogies of caring in two Latino community based schools. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 19(4): 409-433.
Benyus, J. 1997. Biomimicry. New York: Morrow Books.
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1903/2016. The Souls of Black Folks. New York: Dover Press.
Ladson-Billings. G. 1994. The Dreamkeepers. New York: Jossey Bass.
Mc Ewen, B. 2013. The Brain on Stress: Toward an Integrative Approach to Brain, Body and Behavior. Perspectives on Psychological Science 8(6): 673-675.
Valenzuela, A. 1999. Subtractive schooling: U.S. – Mexican Youth and the Politics of Caring. Albany: SUNY Press.
Resources (projects and organizations)
- New York Performance Standards Consortium
- The Public Science Project (The Graduate Center, City University of New York)
- Restorative Justice Now (The Advancement Project)
- EJ-Roc Policy Hub (Education Justice Research and Organizing Collaborative, The Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, New York University)
- Rethinking Schools