I was so proud of myself. Before graduation from New Jersey City University in 2011, I’d landed a teaching job. I was scared I wouldn’t be able to find a job afterwards. A lot of my friends, who majored in subjects other than education, decided to stay in college to pursue their Master’s Degree in order to avoid joining the 8.9% of Americans who couldn’t find work. “There’s nothing out there,” they’d say. “I’ll just stay.” But I was lucky. I could finally quit my job at PetSmart. I could save up and move out and live on my own. The interviews were tough. I was hoping to get called to work in Union City High School, where I’d done my internship, but they never called. I also applied at West New York’s Memorial High School, where I’d done my practicum, but they never called either. Urban public schools were notoriously difficult to get into. I recall a job fair where Jersey City Public School had a line for on-the-spot interviews that went nearly out the door. I didn’t bother trying. Hudson County, as with many school districts, was all about who you knew, and I didn’t know anybody. My parents asked, “Why don’t you put in for Bayonne High School?” but I didn’t want to. My father was a politician, and I didn’t want anyone thinking that favors were done for me. It was a given that most of us in my graduating class would end up cutting our teeth in a charter school for our first few years of teaching, and that’s exactly what happened.
One of my professors got a tip about open interviews for a brand new school opening in the fall, called METS Charter School. I arrived early with my CV that Dr. James made us buy and was the first one to be interviewed, a mistake on my part, I thought. The first one interviewed never gets the job, right? It went quickly. They didn’t look at my CV that I so carefully put together. They asked me a few questions, and it generally went well, but I still felt bad about being the first one interviewed. While I figured out what to do next and lamented how much longer I’d be working at PetSmart, I eventually got a call back for a second interview. They asked many of the same questions, and I believed I answered them well, but I still left with this feeling that it wasn’t happening. Then, finally, I got a third call back. This is it, I thought. You don’t get a third interview if they’re not going to offer it to you, right? At the end of the interview, the CEO of the school said he wanted to offer me a job. I was elated. When I got back into my car, I was dripping with sweat. This is it. I could quit PetSmart. I could get my own place. Everything was going so well.
The school was located in downtown Jersey City, an area I was familiar with having grown up in Bayonne. Newport Mall, where I had gone to Zoomies to get my sneakers, JCPenney to get my shirts, and other places to go Christmas shopping, was right across the street. Three years prior, I worked at the Duane Reade that was only a short walk away. In other words, I was in what I thought to be my neighborhood. I’d been everywhere in Jersey City, had friends and peers in all parts, especially after entering the art scene with the literature and art magazine I started with my friend, Narciso. They’d been my city neighbors my whole life. I thought I was in my neighborhood. I learned quickly, however, that I was not.
The school had a large population of students with Hispanic heritage and people of color. There were White children, and even fewer Asian students. To my surprise, I witnessed a great deal of colorism amongst the student body. Colorism is prejudice or discrimination against people with darker skin, particularly from people within the same racial or ethnic group. I saw the ways dark-skinned Black students grouped themselves separately from light-skinned Black students, and vice versa. I thought about this book I’d read about, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, by Beverly Daniel Tatum, and saw even deeper separations in my school’s cafeteria. Not only were the children segregating themselves, they were deepening that segregation within their own racial and ethnic groups. As much as I noticed and questioned this, I failed to fully analyze what was happening in my school. I was a first year teacher teaching five different classes across three grades. I walked into most classes not even knowing what I assigned for homework the night before.
Race was an ongoing conversation in this school. On first days, students were more interested in my racial background than they were my teaching philosophy or grading policies.
“I’m Italian, Spanish, and mostly just a mix of other White European,” I would say.
“Mr. Chiappone, you’re Spanish? From where?” one student would say, suddenly elevating me in their internal hierarchy.
“Spain,” I responded, and my standing was diminished.
“Oh, so you’re Spaniard.”
“Well, yeah, Spanish.”
“So you’re just White?”
“Yep,” I said, resigned.
To be honest, I hadn’t acknowledged the qualities of my own cultural identity. My memoir professor, Edvige Giunta, was dismayed when I told her I don’t think of myself as Italian-American. I thought of myself as without culture entirely. I realize now that this comes from a position of privilege, to be able to view everyone else’s culture as “other,” and my own Whiteness as the default. My dad’s father was Italian, too, but when his family came to America, they assimilated. They dropped their Italian language and their food and their music and their art, as far as I could tell anyway. My grandfather married a Spanish woman. I don’t know much about her, but they divorced and my grandfather remarried a German American woman. I never got a strong grasp of her German culture either. It seems that they both assimilated into American culture that was no different from my mom’s, whose ancestors come from Ireland, England, and Wales. Our dinners at home weren’t very different from dinners at my grandparents’ house–lots of mashed potatoes, cheeseburgers, grilled chicken, string beans, corn, broccoli, peas, pork chops, the occasional London broil, and heaps of Rice-a-Roni. There were rarely any meals that one could say, “This is an Italian meal” or “This is a traditional British meal” (this is probably a good thing; British cuisine is awful). While discussing this post with my wife, she pointed out that my dad is a very picky eater, and maybe this is why. My mother tends to branch out with her cooking a lot more nowadays.
I was teaching a 9th grade class (among two 6th grade and two 7th grade classes), and we were reading Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. The other English teachers and I, while inventing the curriculum for this brand new school, worked hard to have representation and diversity in our materials. I’d read Things Fall Apart in college. I thought it was one of the best books I’d ever read. The kids in my 9th grade class didn’t think as such though. While finishing a round robin reading of the text, the student whose turn it was to read reveled in misreading the last word of the text, “Niger,” as “nigger.” I wasn’t horrified as some teachers may have been. As a staff, we’d been trying to curb the use of the word throughout the school, so it was more of an eye-roll moment than a pearl-clutching moment.
The class erupted in laughter and they were quickly out of control.
“C’mon, Angel,” I said. “You know that’s not what it says.”
He looked at me wide-eyed. “What’d I do!”
Through a series of back-and-forths, the student asked me, “Mr. Chiappone, do you not like Black people?”
And suddenly the class went quiet.
I responded in what I know now is a terrible response. “Why would I work in Jersey City if I didn’t like Black people?”
It was logical to me at the time. If someone disliked Black people, why would they work somewhere that a lot of people of color lived, right? What I didn’t acknowledge was my position of authority and how a person who doesn’t like Black people would have no problem, might even enjoy, working in an authoritative position in an area with a high population of people of color. In fact, that’s kind of how people tend to accumulate power in the United States and have been throughout our country’s history.
Over time, I won over the kids at the school. I wound up having great relationships with them. Some of them I’m still friends with on Facebook. Not Angel, though. I’ve tried looking him and others up, but a lot of them have really common names and they’re hard to find.
After three years, I went through several interviews for my current position. I felt guilty about leaving Jersey City; I was one of the only constants in the building after most of the teachers left since its inception. In fact, by the end of my third year there, I was one of four original staff members. The others had been fired or quit for greener pastures. I told myself that if, when I offered my resignation, my principal offered better pay, or even tuition reimbursement to get my master’s degree, I would consider staying. However, when I handed him my resignation, he said, “Okay,” and looked at me with a face that questioned why I still standing in his office. Okay, I thought, if I’m not wanted here, then I don’t want to be here. In afterthought, I don’t blame him for responding so curtly; he’d spend three years already watching teachers come and go for a variety of reasons. I was no different.
I consider myself very fortunate to be where I am right now. I have a degree of freedom in my classroom, despite having a scripted curriculum. I’ve made it a point to have a diverse classroom library, where students can see themselves in their book choices. And it really does work. When I started teaching here, my mission for teaching language arts was unclear. I was, am still am, at heart, a high school English teacher. So my big question upon starting in the district was: What books do the kids read? and I would go from there. Instead of solid answers, I got a lot of wishy-washy responses that didn’t really clear things up for me. My mission now is much clearer: first and foremost, get the students to read a lot of high quality books. Everything else is secondary to that.
When I started, my classroom library was pathetic:
It was made mostly of my books from college, Shakespeare collections, and some books I found in the classroom.
This is my library today. I currently have 961 books, many of which feature characters of color, are written by authors of color, feature Asian characters, are written by Asian authors, feature gay characters, are written by gay authors, and are diverse in other ways. It features adventure, fantasy, mystery, historical fiction, horror, science fiction, teen and young adult, poetry, drama, short story collections, nonfiction, and classics. I’ve made it my mission to not just have the best classroom library in the building, but to also have the most inclusive. I think I’ve achieved this goal.
Working so hard to build this library has paid off. Students visit it constantly, and I know that students are able to find themselves in my books. I believe that having these books pays off not only because students are more likely to find something they’ll enjoy reading, but they also view me as an ally. When a student sees, for example, Boy Meets Boy, by David Levithan, they know that I am not going to judge them for their orientation. When a student sees four well-worn copies of The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, they know I’ve got their backs.
I haven’t read all of these books. I haven’t even read nearly all of them. I’ve become really good at recommending books based on student feedback. A few days ago, a student asked me, “Mr. Chiappone, have you read all of these books? It seems like you know a lot about a book when someone brings it up.” I couldn’t have felt more proud.
I am also proud that since I’ve been here, I haven’t faced any questions about my own racism, though I have to admit that my answer would be kind of complicated. It’s very nice to say, “I’m not racist,” but it’s not honest. The truth is that everyone, including myself, has biases, racial and otherwise, that are both conscious and unconscious, as a result of generations of white supremacy culture in the United States. I try my very best to be anti-racist by supporting anti-racist policies and making my lessons and library as inclusive as possible.
In the beginning of the year, I received a copy of How to Be an Anti-Racist, by Ibram X. Kendi, from my supervisor. I joked about it with a Black co-worker. “So are you an anti-racist?” I generally enjoyed the book. It taught me a lot about American history, as well as about myself. In no specific terms, he writes that it’s not enough to just not be racist, you have to actively engage in practices that combat racism head-on. In other words, it’s not enough to eradicate racist policies, we must create policies that reverse the detrimental effects of pre-existing racist policies. This is a philosophy to which I subscribe. To say, “I’m not racist” is akin to saying, “I’m not a cactus.” It means nothing and helps no one. I believe that we must be anti-racist in order to achieve racial equity, especially in the classroom where so many inequities begin.
There’s a school of thought out there that White liberals never stop talking about race, and maybe I’m guilty of this. However, as a teacher, I have to think deeply about racism in order to treat my students with the best quality education I can offer. They need to see me as an ally, as someone they can trust, as someone who may not fully understand them, but someone who wants to. They need to know that I don’t practice color-blindness, that I see their history, their identity, and that I understand how my ancestors’ history affected theirs.
These are the things that I don’t know how I could be more instrumental. As a teacher in a diverse district, we don’t face the trends to the same degree that students across the country suffer. However, I must be honest when I say that in the accelerated classes, there are many more White girls than Black girls, Black boys, and White boys, significantly more Black girls than Black boys, and significantly more White boys than Black boys in the same class. I am happy that we don’t have a significant detention/suspension problem.
I do wonder how my district as a whole handles statistic #3. It makes sense that it happens because newer teachers are often given general education courses, while more experienced teachers handle honors, AP, or accelerated courses. This is kind of backwards though, and something that I think my current school handles well. There are three or four accelerated classes and three or four general education courses. My 8th grade counterpart and I split so I have two and he has two. I think this is a problem born of staff seniority (“I’ve been here ten years, and thus, I should have ‘the good kids'”) and not necessarily one that is inherently racist on its own. It becomes a racist practice when it affects one race negatively when compared to others, which it does in a lot of places.
You cannot make decisions in the classroom without being aware of the inequities that take place at large. The fact sheet from UNCF is frightening because the disparities are so clear. As a teacher who tries his best to be anti-racist, I have to question my classroom policies, I have to think about how I treat my students, how they can be better served, and what equality means and how to achieve it.
I’ve done a lot of reading to get where I am today. I don’t intend for this to be a brag, but instead, to show from where my ideas have grown. I enjoyed reading these books. I don’t always agree with everything in them, but they’ve got me thinking, and that’s the important part. I strongly recommend them:
- So You Want to Talk About Race? by Ijeoma Oluo
- How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi
- Me and White Supremacy, by Layla F. Saad
- We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
Along with these, I also recommend these literary works:
- Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. This is one of the first books I’ve read about the Black experience in the United States. It blew my mind. It’s a difficult book to read, as Ellison a masterful wordsmith and the events in it are sometimes so shocking.
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley. Malcolm X is such a transformative figure, and one who is often misunderstood for his “by any means necessary” philosophy. He is often seen as a foil for Martin Luther King, Jr., but I’m not sure that that would be the proper way to characterize him.
- The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass. This is one of those books that I’ve read several times, as I taught it in high school., and I always enjoyed it. Every time I read it I continue to be horrified, which, to me, is a mark of skilled writing.
- The Xenogenesis Trilogy, by Octavia E. Butler. Okay, so this one is sci-fi, but if there’s a better hard sci-fi allegory for colonialism and slavery, you let me know. Butler is essential reading for any African American studies class.