A phalanx of white girls—long, shiny hair, post-orthodontic smiles, tiny skirts—greets anyone visiting the school where I teach. These near life-sized photos of the varsity tennis team shimmer on weatherproof banners tied to the chain-link fence surrounding the tennis courts. The fence flanks one side of the student parking lot, which has more BMWs, Mercedes, and Audis than you will see in any teacher parking lot. These are nice girls. Strong students. They participate in service projects and student government. They are the face of our school, which protects its brand.
This Good School floats on the northern border of our district where our blue city bleeds into the red county. On my commute, I drive past man-made lake after man-made lake. The mist covers the water, a beautiful mirage. As I get closer to school, I see more and more yard signs that read “Thank you Jesus” in a child’s crayon scrawl. Behind the letters, a yellow sun rises. The sun is always coming up.
Less than 20 percent of our students qualify for free-and-reduced lunch, a percentage almost unheard of in other public schools in North Carolina. 70 percent of the students are white. Many of their parents moved to the area for management jobs at corporations like Proctor & Gamble. They bought enormous houses on more enormous plots of land, land that until a few decades ago was farmed for sweet potatoes and tobacco, but now is divided into subdivisions with blandly evocative names like Harbor View or Triple Lakes. I can’t stop thinking of the man-made lakes as an erasure of the history rooted in the soil. White people made the lakes, then they made the subdivisions, and now no one has to talk about what happened in those fields—or what is happening across town.
The poorest students at our school, with pregnant girlfriends or incarcerated fathers, are also often white. They live on their grandparents’ farms or in trailers that dot the no-man’s land—unkempt fields, dirt roads—between new housing developments. Students of color tend to be more affluent, but they, like the poor white students, are more concentrated in standard classes than honors or AP classes, in accordance with national trends. Some students don’t fit any of these generalizations. A small number of my students of color moved here from rough neighborhoods in Chicago, New York, or St. Louis. They routinely write about how surprised they are to find themselves here, where, as a student born in Harlem noted, “people have horses for pets.”
Beyond the tennis courts slopes a sweep of lawn, replete with an outdoor classroom nestled beside a copse of trees. It is idyllic. In the mornings, the sunrise turns the sky above our school sorbet colors of orange and pink. Canada geese wander like ornery, lost students, traipsing through muddy puddles at the lawn’s edge and squabbling when others get too close. The football field is impeccably maintained. An eco-trail runs through the surrounding woods, where, rumor has it, there is a beaver pond. Beside the library is a community garden, sporadically maintained, depending on the rotating cast of teachers. The building itself looms—modern, H-shaped, with a two-story atrium full of natural light.
Inside the atrium are high café tables with stools, where students gather before school to quiz each other on important dates in American history. Microwaves are tucked into alcoves for student use. Inspiring quotes are stenciled in purple on the walls, like this one, by Marian Wright Edelman: “Don’t feel entitled to anything you have not struggled and sweated for with your own hands.”
Many days, as I drive up to school and walk past the tennis players beaming down at me, I wonder, “Should I be teaching here?” After spending years in schools where students were more likely to have a “God’s Soldier” neck tattoo than an add-a-pearl necklace, it feels foreign to teach in such an affluent community.
Twenty minutes down the road from my Good School—in the same district—is another public high school, but this one resembles an old motel: flat roof, one-story, the worst of the 1950s aesthetic rendered in crumbling brick and smeared glass. To visit a friend who teaches there, I drove around the jumble of trailers and athletic fields and small, gerrymandered parking lots, trying to find the front of the school. We were conspiring to get me transferred there, where I thought I might feel less alien. She had taught in the community for decades; she loved her job, despite its many challenges. When my school opened, she had had the opportunity to transfer but chose not to, because, as she said, “I knew the new school could easily get a French teacher.” She didn’t say, but we both knew, that she wasn’t sure who would take her place.
Once parked, I sat in my car, staring. I had already forgotten what most public schools look like. I hadn’t earned a nicer school, but I’d already gotten used to it. Here, the blinds were broken, bent, slanted at mutinous angles, or missing so many slats the windows look zebrafied. I have taught plenty of years. I could easily imagine the overwarm din in which a quiet, compliant, utterly bored student casually snaps off half a blind slat to wield as light saber on the boy beside him. I could imagine the chaos inside, or the stultification, either of which might prevent the teacher from noticing. Or maybe, after years of use and abuse, the blinds began to snap on their own, with one roughly pulled cord. Maybe it was nobody’s fault.
My friend met me in the office. To get to her classroom, we wound through a maze of trailers covered with a makeshift plywood roof. It was damp and dark. Dingy, mismatched carpet remnants lined the trailer’s floor. I fantasized about our city’s newspaper coming to do a photo essay, comparing these two high schools, supposedly funded by the same taxes. Our gleaming, LEED-certified building limned in purple. This bleak, dirty shantytown. Our white classrooms with overhead projectors mounted in each room. These trailers. Our library crammed with books, not to mention a chess set and puzzles and a Maker Space. This library, where each shelf looked orphaned, barely half-stocked. A student walks in one place and thinks, This was built for me. I deserve this nice school. A student walks in the other and thinks, No one here cares about my education.
Once I sat in an anti-racism training for educators, where we discussed what a “good” school and a “bad” school look like and feel like. When we talked about the “bad” school, people called out things like “no supplies,” “crowded classes,” “high teacher turnover,” and “programs and mandates imposed from the outside.” One woman said, “Sometimes at these schools, it feels like no one wants to be there—the teachers or students.” We talked about the effect on all the people— “the humans who gather in that space,” as our facilitator said—of being in these environments. We talked about the rusted playground equipment, the anxious, defeated energy in the halls, and the defensive obsession with raising test scores to cast off the label of “failing.” We talked about why people who had the choice might not want to be there, and we talked about the children who have no choice but to be there.
My students, to their credit, mostly recognize theirs is a nice school. I don’t hear them say they’re privileged, though. They say they’re blessed.
Blessed is a word I hear often at my school and almost nowhere else. The outgoing message or email sign-off by a parent might be “Have a blessed day.” My students write “I’m so blessed” in their college admissions essays. Though most of these students come from wealthy white families in North Carolina, I first heard blessed in this way at the high school in South Central Los Angeles where I taught 14 years ago. At that school, where over half of students didn’t live with their biological parents, grandmothers over voicemail also implored me to “have a blessed day.” Whether spoken by black foster parents or wealthy white parents, the word always sounds to me like code, hinting at a worldview I don’t hold or understand. I never use the word blessed.
A word I do hear and use a lot is privileged. In my older, scruffier neighborhood, where the houses are so close together you could string a tin-can telephone between them, people discuss privilege frequently—usually white people talking to other white people, but often in code, only sometimes saying the word. We say “diversity” and “inclusion” more often than “privilege.” The children here go to neither the Good School nor the Bad School, but to Good Enough schools with student populations that, if you squint, appear like a middle-ground chimera: a wavering compromise of diversity and achievement.
We live near universities and locally-owned coffee shops. People spend criminal amounts of time on the neighborhood listserv trying to find each other’s dogs or berating outdoor cat owners for what their pets do to the American songbird population. We encourage others to vote in the city’s participatory budgeting process. When not about cats or local politics, the listserv chatter often concerns strangers in the neighborhood, usually black men, who may or may not be selling things with what may or may not be a valid solicitor’s license. If someone wanted to lampoon white liberals, my listserv would be a great place to start.
Why is it, I wonder, that some people think in terms of being blessed and others think in terms of being privileged? Most people use one word or the other, but not both. These two words suggest very different stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how we got here.
Strictly in a language sense, blessed is a nicer word than privileged. It flows off the tongue, without the awkward, alveolar bump of the -g against the -ed. It’s quicker to get in and out of. Silkier. Privileged is a swamp of consonants. You wade in and, halfway through, panic your tongue will never make it out.
Blessed conveys something of divine favor, of being chosen, of the belief in predestination and ambition that (some of) our forebears brought to the New World. Blessed feels light. It arrives from above, like fairy dust, spontaneously. Thank you, Jesus. Something larger than us is holding the wand. We are merely the lucky, passive recipients.
Privileged, however, carries weight. It is ropes and chains, a harness and reins. It tugs us down, binding us to a past that we may not know, remember, or want to understand. My white students regularly exclaim, Well, it’s not like I owned slaves! Or even my parents or grandparents! That was a long time ago! Privilege yokes us, from below and behind, to places we’d rather not claim but are ours nonetheless.
My school consistently posts some of the highest scores in the district. People buy homes to enroll their kids here. The PTSA has a yearly budget twice a teacher’s salary. It is a cushy job compared to every other teaching job I have had. Still, it is not an easy place to teach—or rather, it’s hard in different ways.
The number of students who sport American-flag-patterned socks astonishes me. Some of my students are likely just as astonished by the mug on my desk that reads, “The Future is Female.” The kids call me “ma’am,” something I found startling and a little off-putting my first year, as if I’d been teleported back to the 1950s. My conservative students roll their eyes when I use the acronym LGBTQIA+ in a discussion about discrimination. Some of them like me, I think, despite the fact I’m a vegetarian and former Peace Corps volunteer who didn’t take her husband’s name, in the same way that I like some of them despite the fact they call themselves “meninists” or mock the Black Lives Matter movement.
When colleagues who have never taught elsewhere complain about student behavior or apathy, I try not to roll my eyes. These students tend to believe in the American dream. They mostly want to go to college. They mostly aim to please. They mostly believe that if they keep plugging along at the same steady rate, the system will reward them. This attitude makes being an authority figure relatively easy but getting them to question authority much harder.
In previous schools, I’ve found teenagers’ innate sense of injustice and desire for rebellion easy shortcuts to classroom engagement. This crop of students takes more work. They defend the status quo when I play devil’s advocate. Some of them explain that the societal problems I want us to discuss, such as the killing of unarmed black men, are not in fact societal problems, but rather fabrications by the media. “If the news would stop making such a big deal about this, it wouldn’t be such a problem,” some inform me.
The sense of entitlement among their parents can also be wearing. Though plenty of parents have sent me lovely emails or gift certificates to fancy restaurants I’ve never been to, each year teachers quit or transfer, in part because of parental interference. These teachers cite being worn down. Some parents send emails that question every B- or zero on a homework assignment. Other emails demand letters of recommendation for a child who can’t be bothered to ask himself. Still others contain screenshots of a child’s online grades accompanied by the parent’s rationale for why the gradebook is wrong. Once I received an email detailing a child’s missing assignments that ended with an all-capped question: “IS ANYONE EVEN TALKING TO HIM ABOUT THIS?”
Schools have always been where I come into proximity with people outside my own mostly white, progressive bubble. My first teaching job was as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal’s second-largest city, where my students lived in families of six or eight in two-room concrete houses painted yellow or aqua. Some lived alone in rented rooms in another family’s house, maybe an eight-by-ten-foot space, where chickens pecked the dirt outside. They had left their families in the rural villages and, at 17, come to the city to continue their schooling.
Children cried out, “Gure! Gure!” (White person!) as I biked through the bazaar. My female students and host sister bought skin-lightening creams and compared the tint of their arms as they admired the palest girls in the class. These girls had long black lashes, silky ropes of hair, and flawless skin. When they told me I was beautiful—a word I had never applied to myself—they added, in English, “So light.” For two years, Nepalis told me, “You are from a very rich country, but Nepal is very poor.” For two years, I responded, “I know.” By the time I left, I was newly sheepish over the weight of all I’d been given. I had never thought much about being privileged or blessed.
When I moved from Asia to California, I didn’t understand why some of my students in Los Angeles acted hostile towards me, specifically. Not the system, not the man, but me. Wait a minute, I’m on your side. I’m here to help you, I thought. These kids, who lived in low stucco houses with bars on all doors and windows or faceless apartment buildings, saw me for what I was: a young idealist, dipping a toe in South Central and almost certain to leave after a few years. Even my bafflement, my hey-guys-why-are-you-mad-at-me?-ness, smacked of privilege. I had the luxury of being so far removed from their experience of resentment that I couldn’t understand why it applied to me. Remembering my blindness to my own culpability in L.A. gives me a little more compassion for current students who say, “It’s not like I owned slaves!”
My students were right; I did leave L.A. I began teaching in a high-need school in Durham, North Carolina. There, too, some of my students saw me as bougie, an outsider do-gooder, even though I considered myself aligned with them. When I saw students crying joyful tears the morning after Obama was elected, my eyes welled up, too. They came off the buses that morning—hoods on, earbuds in— dazed with the knowledge that our new president was going to look more like them than me. We agreed that was a good thing. Part of what I liked about teaching in high-need schools was that occasional sense of solidarity, times when I stepped into the same bubble as my students. Politically, we were on the side of the oppressed, the downtrodden, the black and brown and disadvantaged, rising up against everything white and corporate! Or maybe I was the only one who thought that.
As a parent now, I imagine the hardships some of my students face that my own children never will. I think about the white girl with no mother and no internet at home, who tore through Ellen Foster and The Glass Castle and Bastard out of Carolina. I think about my student who announced, once when I asked for some good news, “My pops is fixin’ to get released.” I think about my black students in hoodies, who giggle coming down the hall and hang on the doorjamb, who slide bags of Skittles out of their pockets, who write poetry, shyly. Their moms have to worry so much more than I will have to worry about my white son when he becomes a teenager in a few years. My worry for my students is not the same as a mother’s fear. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of how bottomless and cold that fear must be. To know your son is viewed as predator. To teach him how to respond to police officers. I recently heard a black woman sum up her conversation with a white friend about police shootings by saying, “I went full-on black mama on her.” We white mamas have no idea.
Many of my students also have no idea. They come from a land of weekend cookouts and lake houses, the real-life ambassadors from a mythical idea of America that I had mistakenly assumed existed only in life insurance commercials. Some wear Christmas sweaters unironically. Although their lives seem picture-perfect, some of them have dying parents; others sell drugs. They defy stereotypes just as my less-fortunate students do, whether at this school or my former schools. All of them teach me not to make assumptions about them based on their bumper stickers. I hear their teenage hopes and troubles in their essays, journals, and debates.
Their words remind me everyone in high school both is and is not who she will be in ten years. My empathy for my students is the same I feel for my own clueless, high-school self. I remember the serious, near-fatal distrust of my own intuition and opinions. I didn’t know exactly why I was buying cardigans at Goodwill or wearing Doc Martens with my baby doll dresses or slathering on eyeshadow, but I knew the timid fear I walked around with—a sense of paralysis—stemmed from an uncertainty about who or what I was. When I see all the ways in which my students are trying to be brave, question their assumptions, and find their voices, or when I see the quiet ones in the corner nearly crippled with anxiety, zipping highlighters back into a tidy pouch, I feel a shot of love for who they are now, for what they might become. Who knows what potential lurks there, eyelids closed, but kicking.
Each year, with my AP seniors (who tend to be the school’s most privileged students), we do a privilege walk. I facilitate and participate. We start with our backs against the building and take a step forward into the wet grass for every statement I read that applies to us. I can buy Band-aids that match my skin color. I grew up in a house with more than 50 books. I move through the world without fear of being sexually harassed or attacked. In elementary school I was tested in my first language.
By the end, I am always near the front. Even among these students I call so privileged, I am one of the most privileged. Perhaps what makes me uncomfortable about teaching in this school is my recognition that, like it or not, I am aligned with this community, in my whiteness, in my affluence, in my privilege. I’d love to atone for my privilege through my politics or my job, but maybe it’s not that easy. Walking by the tennis team each day, standing at the front of the privilege walk, I have to see it up close. I stew in my discomfort.
After the privilege walk, we debrief.
“I never thought about how growing up in a family that tells you they love you and you can be anything you want is a form of privilege,” one student says.
They ask each other about Band-aids. When white males listen to females of color talk about the foundation aisle at the drugstore, I remember my Nepali students who are in their 30s now, mothers, maybe still buying skin-lightening creams.
A white girl, one of the sharpest kids I’ve ever taught, beckoned me over to her desk the day after the walk and asked quietly, “Are there people who believe white privilege doesn’t exist?” And I said, perhaps not quietly enough, “There are probably people in this room who believe white privilege doesn’t exist!”
Not everyone likes the privilege walk. One angry parent wrote, “We believe all children should have the same starting point in life.”
Yeah, but they don’t.
Some of the students reject what they perceive as my agenda. On his course evaluation, a student wrote, “I think there was way too much emphasis on literature by women and minorities. Some is fine, but 50 percent? Really?” Still, he was the first student to come back and visit me after he graduated, and I was glad to see him. I gave him a big hug. I’ve stopped trying to figure out how such contradictory feelings toward my students can coexist.
At the end of our privilege walk discussion, I ask, “Would you be willing to give up some of your privilege so others could have more?”
A few say yes. Many are silent. Some hedge. “Well, I don’t want to have to give anything up,” one says.
One year, after debriefing the privilege walk, the students had a few minutes to chat before the end of class. Straightening papers, my back turned, I eavesdropped on a few girls talking about which dorms at their university had granite countertops in the kitchenettes. They all wanted the granite countertops.
In the end, I didn’t transfer. I had reasons for staying at the Good School: my principal there adjusted my schedule so I could be home in time to pick up my own kids from their bus stop, something the principal at the Bad School couldn’t offer. Still, everyone can come up with reasons for what they do that, on the surface, sound banal and sane. For example, “We moved here because the schools are better.”
I never teach in a classroom that leaks when it rains, though. I walk by those spotless tennis courts each day. My blinds aren’t broken. I never drive to the part of town where the Bad School is. I can imagine, if I had transferred there, I might feel despondent some days. Days when the heat in my classroom was on overdrive, when a student I’d done battle with was returning from a suspension, when grades were due and I had back-to-back IEP meetings and I had to create lesson plans for the class down the hall where the teacher had, out of the blue, up and quit. All those things happen at the Good School too, of course. It’s just that on those heavy days, at the Bad School, I might think, I’m sick of working so hard in a place so forgotten. I might think, I deserve better. I might think back to the mown lawn in front of the Good School, the basket of fresh fruit and granola bars left in the teachers’ lounge by the Moms’ Prayer Circle, moms with the disposable time and income to stuff those baskets and bring them by our school. I might well miss it.
This year, I stopped teaching the AP seniors and began teaching standard ninth graders. These kids are not on the tennis team. They do not fit the brand. They are hungrier to talk about bias and privilege than my seniors were, and in a recent discussion about stereotypes, they listed page after page—the family-decaled minivan of the white soccer mom; the ghetto black kid with the absent father; the Latino who must be both undocumented and Mexican. Right after we listed stereotypes about white people, I loaded a clip of a documentary on race to show them and a Toyota ad came on. Ecstatic, white, middle-aged faces ballooned behind the steering wheels of various beige Camrys, and at least ten of us said, shaking our heads, “White people!” Everyone laughed.
On such days I’m content to do anti-bias work in a mostly privileged community, in a school where my standard ninth graders sometimes feel invisible. On these days, I can spin my job to others in my progressive bubble in ways I feel good about. I think less about the Bad School down the road. It’s still there. I wonder why, as a society, we are so reluctant to acknowledge all the bad at the Good Schools, or all the good at the Bad Schools.
When I lived in Nepal, I often received a puja, or blessing, at weddings, ceremonies, and goodbyes, sitting in a thatched roof, mud-wall house, or kneeling on a flat rooftop patio. The Hindu blessing is a glop of uncooked rice, held together with water and red tikka powder in a kind of paste, applied to the forehead just at the hairline, in an anointing gesture. Throughout the day, the tikka would dry, and I would forget about it until evening, when the rice, finally working its way off my skin, fell grain by grain into my lap—tiny, startling reminders. Blessings may carry weight after all. Every gift weighs something; perhaps privilege is the luxury of forgetting that heft.
The few fiery feminists at my school in the Women’s Rights club, which I advise, declare they are never getting married and can discourse on intersectionality for hours. (They gave me my mug.) In my room after school, they break down every misogynist comment uttered by their peers in our AP English discussion about sexual assault, and then, a breath later, are planning elaborate promposals. We give each other a home at this school.
During one club meeting last year, my student Cole strolled in, unfinished essay in hand. A white student in AP English, he was smart, compassionate, and inquisitive, but hated school. We disagreed about plenty, especially politics, but both of us thought the other was funny.
Before he could ask about his paper, I said to him, “Cole, you are a feminist, right?”
He seemed to consider backing out of the room. “What? Well… how exactly do you define it?”
“You think women are equal to men, right?” I asked him. “I know you. You don’t think women are below you.”
“No, of course not,” he said, relaxing a little.
“Then you’re a feminist!” one of the girls said.
“Well, yeah, then, I guess so. But I probably wouldn’t say it. It just sounds—I don’t know.”
Winter passed, then spring. Cole was slacking. His college prospects looked dim, and his despondency over this became an excuse to slack off even more. Then, in March, I gave him Invisible Man. He came in before school to talk about it with me. He pronounced it his favorite book. I saw something in him that he was just beginning to acknowledge in himself: as he shifted to peer outside his bubble, the angle of his view changed slightly. When he gained acceptance into a university, he came by my third period, waving the college pennant in the door and giving me a thumbs-up.
A few days before graduation, he came to see me.
“What are you thinking of majoring in?” I asked.
“Probably business or marketing,” he said, the same answer many of my students gave.
“What good are you going to put in the world?” I asked him.
“Good?” he repeated, disconcerted.
“Yeah. What good are you going to put in the world?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I’ll figure it out.”
“I’m sure you will,” I told him. I suggested he take some literature courses, maybe something in African American studies. I said I could see him in the humanities. Only later did I realize he probably had no idea what the humanities were. It was a word from my bubble, my world.
We daily reinforce and recreate the barriers built around our children, both visible and invisible. The increasingly segregated schools in our country are both symptom and cause of what George Lipsitz calls “the possessive investment in whiteness:” the idea that these Good Schools and strong real estate values, and the feedback loop between the two, represent the financial stake in privilege that white people, regardless of their politics, won’t relinquish. I’m not sure how we will dismantle these barriers. Some days it helps to imagine that acts might poke holes in them, like wedging a stick in a fence to pry the chain links apart and force a jagged gap.
Some days it helps to get an email, like the one Cole sent in August after leaving his first African Studies class: “I love the class and surprisingly to me, maybe not to you, I think it will be my favorite class.”
He was right. I wasn’t surprised, just pleased. I felt privileged to know Cole and to have taught him. No, that’s not quite it. His email, a tiny, startling reminder of my students’ potential for change, landed like a grain of rice. For a moment I felt blessed. Not that I would ever say it.
Header photo by Lincoln Beddoe, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Anne Beatty by Katie Klein.