John Thompson is an education writer currently working on a book about his experience teaching for 18 years in the inner city of OKC. He has a doctorate from Rutgers University and is the author of Closing the Frontier: Radical Responses in Oklahoma Politics.
I became a teacher after my neighborhood in Oklahoma City was wiped out by the 1980s oil bust. That’s when the Hoova set of the Crips street gang took over and I befriended the children who ran from the crack houses to pet my dog. The New Yorker’s Katherine Boo’s described my part of Oklahoma City as an “archetypal post welfare society,” where single parent families created an epidemic of “father yearning.”
During my first semester, Davina (as I will call her) did not ask permission when I was in the middle of a sentence; she just got up and walked across the class as if she owned the place. Taking a seat in the far back corner next to the only white kid in the room, a new transfer, Davina put her hand on the girl’s hand and said, “Honey, you look scared. Don’t worry. You will be alright.”
I stayed in teaching because of the adrenaline rush from the tragic, the weird and the joyous, and because of their wonderful unpredictability. I cannot think of another activity where I could keep my feet planted on the level ground that would provide the thrill of teaching. Before the morning bell, I would sip coffee, chat, joke, pass out newspapers, magazines, flowers, and fruit. The instant the announcements were over, I completely threw myself into instruction. I forgot about my ever-present cup of coffee, often not finishing the last of it until after lunch.
One of the best times of the day was when the lunch bell rang, and my students and I became basketball buddies. We rushed down the hall, trash-talking our way to being chosen for the first game. Despite my lack of skills, I was always selected because what the kids wanted most was a dad to play ball with, and I was the next best thing.
In Government class discussions, I had three basic rules: no subject is off the table, be diplomatic and use evidence in articulating a position. Most of my students were pro-life, for example, but there was no call for censorship. And when we disagreed over the First Amendment, my students’ parents and pastors just prayed for me, instead of calling for my head or withdrawing their flock.
Betty, a recent transfer, was a white conservative who loved debate and did not mind being in the minority. We were discussing Oklahoma’s new parental notice law, which requires teens to notify both parents before having an abortion but which required a judicial bypass for minors who had parents who might not be fit to make such a decision.
“When my father got me pregnant,” the new student volunteered, “the clinic didn’t tell me that …” A couple of girls quietly moved from across the room to seats near her. Other girls moved their desks closer. As the white newcomer and her new black friends conducted their own conversation, the rest of us shifted our discussion over the constitutional right of privacy to the other side of the room.
By the end of my career, I started to feel sick to my stomach every time I was covered with a student’s blood. And I had been to too many hospitals and funerals, worried over too many unconscious kids, and heard too many stories like Juan’s. As we discussed the Arizona immigration law that authorized policemen to investigate the immigration status of routine traffic offenders, Juan explained why he missed two months of school. During such a stop, an Oklahoma City policeman promised he would not turn them over to the federal authorities if Juan’s family would get on their knees and beg. They were still sent back to Mexico.
In my last week as a teacher we watched John Sayles’ “Lonestar,” a brilliant study of families on the border. In the climactic scene, a Mexican American reaches out his hand to a immigrant, helping her across the Rio Grande with the words, “Welcome to Texas.” At that moment, Wilson, an African American, turned around, offered his huge hand to Juan and said, “Welcome to America.”
I taught because it was a privilege to be invited into the hearts of young people. I learned that the key to effective instruction is listening, so the kids can teach you how to teach them. As I taught, I learned that if we build on our students’ moral consciousness, our democracy will be alright.