In two voices

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In the fifth and sixth grade classroom that Lou Bradley and I shared, one of our favorite writing activities, adaptable to so many situations, was called Two Voice Poems. In alternating stanzas, two characters who were connected in some way shared their perspectives on the same situations or events – mothers and daughters, teachers and students, slaves and slave owners, immigrants and border guards. (We never actually used this last one, but it demonstrates how adaptable the idea is.)

And, lo and behold, here we are back at our old tricks. It’s not a poem, but it is a reflection from our two different perspectives on how two teachers of different races willingly engaged in the hard conversations about race for the benefit of their students. Trust is not easy to come by across racial divides, but we made it a good distance down that road and, even now, many years beyond that classroom, we continue to learn from each other.

Marv: I believe that every white person could benefit from a mentor of color who can help them navigate through the landmines of race that have been planted everywhere in our society. My mentor was, and continues to be, Lou Bradley. Don’t be deceived by the name. Lou is a strong Black woman who came to Chicago from Arkansas after college and has devoted her life ever since to teaching children and aspiring teachers. We were colleagues for an intense six years, first sharing an office and, later, a classroom. Those spaces were settings for intense conversations about our own upbringings, particularly as they bore on matters of race. Toward the end of our time together before she moved on to a new job teaching in a school serving students from one of the most troubled public housing projects in the city – Lou never chose the easy path – she paid me what I consider the ultimate compliment. “You know,” she said, “after all this time together, I think I now trust you about 80%.”

               There’s a lot to unpack in her comment. First, it’s all about trust. That trust doesn’t come easy. It is constructed out of a thousand deeds and actions, each of them a trial to test what you’re made of as a person reaching outside the boundaries of your own past, your own experience. It’s not made from a checklist of acknowledgements of racism, particularly as those items are shared through what for me is the most impersonal medium of the telephone. It’s about the endless grind of day to day work toward a common goal in the context of a classroom, a school, a teacher education program. The path is never smooth. In spite of my three years in the racial cauldron of Mississippi, where it seemed as if the very air we breathed was heavy with racism, there was much I didn’t know or understand. Many times Lou saved me from stepping on one of those lethal land mines by firmly, but respectfully pointing out the need to see the situation through a different lens, one that was primarily available to someone who had spent every moment of their lives inside a different colored skin from mine.

               And that’s where the 80% part comes into focus. It was Lou’s way of reminding me that the centuries of suffering had left scars that were near impossible to heal in our current circumstances. It was important for me to understand and acknowledge that there was a molten inner core of pain that wasn’t going away any time soon. Although Lou and I shared so much in common, from politics to pedagogy, we were different in ineradicable ways and we both needed to be on guard for missteps that could erode the trust that had slowly accumulated, drop by drop. There was much in her personal history and in the history of our country that justified this wariness and much in my own background that was a perfect breeding ground for saying or doing the wrong thing.

               I want to return to this issue of the importance of deeds over words. My experience in a teacher education program committed to students reflecting on their own identities, particularly on how those identities might affect their work with children who were different from them in race or class, suggested that the most productive opening gambit was not to brand everyone as a racist, as our anti-racism list does. You may see this as a way of protecting white people from being uncomfortable, but I’ve watched too many people curl up into a protective ball against this kind of assault. For me that’s different from helping people come to an understanding of the ways in which they are beneficiaries of systemic racism. They only deserve the label of racist if they don’t ACT to disrupt this system. 

               I want to add one final point, which perhaps pains me more than any other in our discussions of racism, as they’re represented in this anti-racism piece. My exchanges with Lou were honest and two sided. What often emerges in these situations is not a conversation but a one-sided talking to, where any disagreement with what is being said to the white member in any exchange cannot be challenged, questioned or disagreed with without those very acts being branded as evidence of racism. There is a silencing that results, the obverse of what Black people have been experiencing for centuries, one that leads us toward unspoken resentments and away from honest dialogue. I long for the time when we can move beyond that obstacle, as I think Lou and I did in our time together. That move did so much to help shape my understanding of race and racism.

Lou: I subscribe to the idea that we bring much of who we are to most situations.  Our lived experience helps shape our worldviews, beliefs, ideas or impressions and the passion that we attach to them.  This notion was brought into sharp focus for me when I began working with Marv Hoffman at the former Center for School Improvement at the University of Chicago and its charter school.  How would a Black woman, who grew up in a segregated, rural town in Arkansas, educated in all Black settings, with the exception of Master’s studies, navigate and contribute to this new, mostly white environment? 

My work with Marv at the Center and at the charter school was intense and required long spans of time to plan, share our thoughts and coalesce around ideas that created wholesome teaching and learning outcomes.  What became evident was though our backgrounds were different, our pedagogy was amazingly in sync and catalyzed a mutual respect for each other as professionals but also as human beings.  Our extensive collaboration allowed entry into our heads for sure, but very importantly, our hearts, too.  The connection and cooperation between us grew exponentially.  We learned to depend and rely on each other and to contribute what was needed for the common good.

I can’t say that I ever forgot that Marv was white and I was Black.  An I-don’t-see-color declaration would never work here because we were both keenly aware of the diminishing returns such a statement implied. What I saw instead were two teachers who were committed to nurturing the minds and souls of our Black students to be proud of themselves from the inside-out, while growing up in a society that didn’t always affirm their unique giftedness. I’m reminded of my own experiences in the three-room schoolhouse in Arkansas that my friends and I attended.  I remember the dedicated Black teachers who led us through lessons from hand-me-down books discarded from White schools but who were determined to not let that minimize who we were or could become. They saw us as precious jewels whose abilities and talents only needed to be unearthed.  Though I may not have always been conscious of how these memories informed my teaching practices, I’m convinced of their impact.

Sitting in our office, I recall the conversation that Marv referred to when I rather bluntly said, “I trust you about 80%!” This statement addressed the point that Marv had earned my trust, given the racial dynamics and the long-standing racial inequities that stubbornly persist in our society.   But as l reflect on this statement some years later, I also believe that we both made a decision that we could be vulnerable and trust each other.    Since Marv and I embraced the idea of culturally relevant teaching, we realized the necessity to have authentic, transparent, but bold conversations that set us up for meaningful engagement with our teachers, students and parents.  Talking about race and racism in our work was vital and could not be incidental but intentional.

We shared our talents and learned from each other.  Marv engendered a welcoming and affirming spirit that respected and valued the cultural perspective that I contributed to our work.  It was an experience that required us to go deep within ourselves, baring our racial souls, and opting not to stay at the surface where it may have felt safer.

There was so much that we had to accomplish.  We would sometimes say, “We are building the truck while driving it.” Imbued in this process also was the fact that we were building and enhancing our own racial and cultural selves which supported and fine-tuned our professional practice. There were challenges and conflicts of course but we shared unforgettable levels of pride and satisfaction in the work we set out to do.  Together, we did it!

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Marv Hoffman

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