Saturday, November 26, 2011

Occupy the Classroom

If Occupy in its infancy has some of the characteristics of a child, it makes me wonder what should be preserved and what refined and matured. I ask myself where innocence should be maintained and where boundaries become practical and necessary.

I think of the movement's struggle to forge a community out of diverse classes of people who have made their way to various sites of encampment or protest. As a teacher and union representative, I am aware that some in our association balk at the prospect of teachers standing shoulder to shoulder with the homeless, addicted and mentally ill in a joint day of protest for Occupy Santa Rosa and the Santa Rosa Teachers Association. SRTA has officially endorsed the Occupy Movement, but we have yet to make our presence felt at the site of resistance.

Several people in our community have reached out to me about organizing this day of solidarity, but the concern that we will weaken our credibility by consorting with society's outcasts continues to stall any demonstration of common ground. As a parent and teacher, this saddens me deeply. There is no question that some troubled and alienated people have gravitated to City Hall alongside the more lucid political activists. The only question is how the Occupy community is prepared to greet them.

My son is now three years old and lately I have been reading him a book that I had as a child called Jack the Bum and the Halloween Handout. The story is about a guileless New York City homeless man on Halloween who goes trick or treating after some kids good-naturedly explain to him how it's done. Predictably, Jack meets with horror and revulsion as he knocks on the doors of various apartments. My son seems to really like this book but I don't think he understands its dramatic irony. How could he? He is too young to realize how savagely class divides us.

When I was his age growing up in NYC, my mom likes to remind me of the way I ran gleefully into the arms of a "bum," a guy who looked and smelled like Jack, someone who would repulse any properly socialized adult. There is pride in her tone when she tells this story, but it is mingled with a residual alarm that most cautious parents would feel at the incongruous sight of their young, tenderhearted lambs leaping into the arms of something wild, someone whose official stamp of humanity has faded. There is caution and then there is calcified callousness.

I would like to see Occupy preserve some of the unrestrained humanity of children as it evolves from its infancy, but I recognize the challenges this presents, no more so than when I am faced with annoying, obnoxious, or even outright disturbed students in my classroom. Almost from their earliest experience of school, kids are socialized in stratification. They are placed in different tracks and not so subtly ushered into very unequal destinies.

When I teach a "low-performing" class I frequently encounter kids with mild to severe behavior problems, which is another way of saying they are having a hard time. As teachers, we are institutionally encouraged to control the behavior of these kids regardless of its cause. We learn strategies to shut down the symptoms of distress, pain, poverty, abuse and neglect. But if as teachers we want to guide our students into a shared and inclusive community, we must be as concerned with the way our students feel as the way they behave, with the cause as much as the symptom.

There are occasions when a student harasses, bothers or distracts others to the degree that the only appropriate response is to remove this student from the room. However, more common are the many times when such an extreme action is taken gratuitously as part of a systemic marginalization of "problem people." I believe it is part of a teacher's job to model how to treat each member of a shared community, how to empathize, be flexible, and show kindness even to those who annoy or aggravate us.

The other day, one of my more obnoxious students in a class full of struggling learners was acting out and trying to derail a lesson. Precisely speaking, his aim I'm sure was not to derail this particular lesson, but rather to express some dimly understood feeling that cried out for attention. Another student immediately said "you should send him to the office." I saw the exasperated kid's point, of course, leaving aside the irony that he is a rascal most days himself. In that moment I weighed the importance of removing an obstacle to other kids' learning with the dehumanizing logic that reduces a child to an obstacle.

I asked my students how many of them had been sent to the office at least once since elementary school. The majority raised their hands. I asked how many had visited the office numerous times. The hands stayed up. "How many of you have ever been suspended?" A few hands went down but at least half stayed up.

"Did all those years of detentions and punishments make you better learners, or more respectful or more caring?" Unanimously, they said no.

"Did they even make you behave better?" Sometimes, they said, on a particular day or with a particular teacher they feared. But the good behavior didn't stick, they acknowledged. It had even gotten worse over the years. We then talked about the fact that California spends more money on prisons than on schools. An unplanned lesson began to sink in. These kids get that many in their midst are headed to the margins of society. They have been conditioned to expect it, just as they have been conditioned to reinforce its logic in their dealings with each other.

"Send him out! Send him out!" I wonder where they will all go? In a shared human community, there is nowhere but here. I hope Occupy continues to contend with the social misfits, though as the movement ages certain lines must be and will be drawn. For instance, I don't think Occupy needs to provide a platform for an anti-immigrant sentiment that I regretfully noted in a few signs during one very large protest gathering here in Santa Rosa; of course, a dialogue is always preferable to an expulsion. But we should not be afraid to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people whom society has thrown away. The Occupy community can model for the larger society what humanity looks like.


  1. Simone: You ROCK! This gets at the heart of it. The question then becomes, where do we draw those lines that you speak of? The school I work in is the institutional version of the "outsider" you mention. Well-intentioned (and not-so-well-intentioned) teachers and administration deal with (and add to) this marginalization by treating the symptoms and not the causes. The real disease is the hopelessness, despair and ANGER, brought on by doors that have been closed for so long that many are left with only a (as you describe above) a "dimly understood feeling" that there is something more beyond those doors that they should, as members of the human community, have access to. The obsession with testing, particularly in these communities, serves only to further marginalize our students (and teachers, and communities) while pretending to be about increasing access and equity...
    Thanks for the thoughtful writing! ~Bb

  2. Lovely. As a parent and an Occupier with a child 5yr old who is very protected, no media ect. I can tell you it can be difficult. It is his first 'eye opening' experience. I choose the times we are there and what we do. Luckily I have a husband who is also involved and we trade off. My son has only benefited and I'm glad to be a model for him that he will keep always in his tender heart.

  3. Please contact me, Ric, at to discuss a fresh paradigm for action. I am particularly interested in hearing from Simone Harris who had a piece on education momentum in Santa Rosa on Dissident Voice today, but one and all are welcome, of course. Feel free to call 707-994-1839 also, at any hour.