Issues of Diversity on a Volatile School Campus

A First Year Teacher in the World of Difference and Same (Part I): Dealing with REAL Issues of Diversity on a Volatile School Campus

Written By: David Carr Photo By: Barbara Penoyar

I can remember it like it was yesterday. There I was, a first year teacher at Compton High. I was idealistic, young, a bit naive and in over my head. It was the month of October and September had seemed like the longest month of my life. I was teaching English as a Second Language at the beginning, intermediate and advanced levels. The woman who taught Spanish was going to be gone for an entire week and she had asked me if I could take her 4th period class into my classroom while she was gone. She had a lesson plan and work for the students to do. It seemed like a slam dunk.

All of my students were recent Latino immigrants. All of her Spanish students were African American. Back in the early 90’s the demographics of places like South Central, Watts, and Inglewood had seen a huge shift. During the 80’s these aforementioned places were 90-95% African American. By 1993 these areas were now 50% Black and 50% Latino. With the shift in demographics came racial tension. The tension on the street with the gangs was fierce. The tension also manifested itself politically. These areas were now half Latino but were being governed by a virtually all African American political elite. At times, the Black political establishment found itself at odds with its new found community members.

Compton had seen the biggest shift out of all of the neighborhoods. Compton was now 60% Latino and our high school reflected that demographic in terms of the student’s population. The tension on school campuses was also an issue that needed to be dealt with. There were many fights and full-scale riots at big inner city high schools. I had found myself in the middle of two of them on my campus. All of these issues swirled in my head as I told the Spanish I teacher I would take all of her kids in my class for a week during my fourth period.

The following week, as I began the drive to Compton High, I started thinking to myself about the fact that on this Monday, my fourth period my classroom would have 30 Latino kids and 30 African American students in it. My students usually just kept to themselves on campus. On the campus the racial divide was thick. The Black kids played basketball at lunch. The Latinos played handball. The sports teams were not racially mixed at all. Unless they were forced to do so, you rarely saw any interaction between the Black and Latino students. The racial divide in my mind was a huge issue that someone had to deal with at the school and in the community.

As I pulled on to the campus I decided that my fourth period would be the place where change would begin. I didn’t care about what the Spanish I teacher’s lesson was. I simply threw it away and as soon as her kids came into my class I was going to be the one to bring these two factions together! So I threw her lesson away and as I taught periods 1-3 I feverishly tried to figure out what I was going to do with these two groups of kids once they hit my room. I knew I wanted to do something, but I didn’t have a clue as to what that “something” would be. As the first break after third period ended, I began to sweat. At that point, I was wishing I didn’t throw away that lesson plan!

As the bell rang, my students walked in and took their seats. I was given the typical greeting I had quickly become accustomed to in both English and Spanish (Hola Mr. Carr, hi Mr. Mr. Carro…my favorite was que onda Meeeester.) My kids took out their notebooks and started copying down their first assignment. “Maybe I lucked out and the Spanish I kids won’t show,” I thought to myself. No such luck.

All thirty of the Spanish I students arrived. I quickly tried to seat them throughout the room next to my students. As I did this you could hear the racially volatile questions coming out of the mouths of both groups of students. “Damn, why are their so many Mesakins in this class? How come you don’t teach any Black kids?!!?” It seemed, that for the African American students, if you spoke Spanish, you were Mexican. At times they were just not aware of the diversity within the Latino community in the neighborhood.

“Hay porque los mayates esta en este classe?” I had heard some of the Latinos use this word to describe the Black students on campus. The literal translation of the word “mayate” is a small disgusting black bug. I learned quickly that this word was the Spanish equivalent of the word ‘nigger.’ The students passed these phrases between each other with the greatest of ease on campus and now they were doing it in my classroom. After I situated the students I went to the front of the classroom. You could cut the tension in the room with a knife. The thirty pairs of eyes I usually had staring at me were now sixty pairs of eyes, all wondering what we were going to do. They all seemed to be wondering what would come next. Interestingly enough, I was also wondering what we were going to do and what would come next…

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