The first day of my second year of teaching, a third-grader walked into class, saw another student and punched him in the nose. He didn’t say anything or give any indication that he was going to do this. It just happened. After cleaning up the blood and redirecting the class, I asked the attacker why he wanted to punch someone else. “He’s Mexican,” he said. “He don’t belong in my class.”
A year before, the principal explained that this was a year-round school with four “tracks.” Kids were divided up by native language: English-only, Spanish, Vietnamese and “other Asian.” Each track had about 10 classes and its own schedule, so that only three-quarters of the school was in session at any given time. The tracks were extremely homogeneous, especially because all of our native English speakers were black; teachers even referred to it as the “black track.”
Within the first month I asked the principal if it caused any problems to have the kids separated by race. She was clearly very offended and said, “We don’t separate them by race, we separate them by language.” I could tell by her tone that I shouldn’t ask anything further, but I thought, “Exactly how many black kids speak Vietnamese?”
I don’t know how many years the tracking system had been in place, but at the end of my first year, the staff voted to go off tracks and onto a traditional school year. Starting that fall, all of the students, regardless of language or ethnicity, would be at school at the same time and would attend classes together, with the exception of a few Spanish language classes.
This seemed a much more inclusive model, but in my naïveté, I never considered how the children would react. I learned that separation has a price.
Although these children attended a very diverse school, they never had the benefit of learning or playing with children from other ethnic backgrounds or who spoke other languages. In many cases, they had never even spoken to, let alone shared crayons with, a child of a different ethnicity. Their lack of diversity was reinforced by the adults in charge.
The initial idea behind the tracking was to focus on better instruction and efficiency. In fact, what happened was the breakdown of civility. Separating the children robbed them of the opportunity to interact with anyone who wasn’t like them.
In many ways, it was easier to be a teacher in our segregated school. There were fewer conflicts, fewer cultural misunderstandings and more of a shared background among students in each class. What I found, however, was that it was better to be a teacher in the integrated environment. In some ways, my job was messier and harder, but I had the chance to help students wrestle with and overcome their fears and prejudices. It was difficult and immediate. Children are trying to work out the world for themselves. It starts in school. And it’s worth it.
Harris is a middle school English teacher in California.