“Miss, you like it up the butt? I bet you like it up the butt.” That is the question that sealed my student’s fate. In my six years of teaching in city schools, I have been punched in the face twice, had several chairs thrown at me, had been cursed out more times than I care to count, and ended up at the bottom of my fair share of hallway and classroom brawls, but it was this callow query that ensured my student’s removal from school. In every other instance of direct harm to me by a student, the student had returned to my class within a day or two if not minutes. So, why was it different this time? I know I will carry this question with me and hope that by exploring it I might find some solace in an answer.
I am a thirty year-old, white woman and he is a fifteen year-old black kid. Is it that violence and indirect threats are expected and acceptable by the powers that be, but perceived sexual perversion is not? Was his true mistake to be so brazen that he could ask a sexual question towards a white woman? To put his comment in context, we were discussing mood and atmosphere by watching and analyzing movie trailers. With only four students in class due to the strike by the city’s bus drivers, the classroom vibe was of collaboration and friendship. As I asked the class to wrap up their thoughts on the horror story version of Mrs. Doubtfire, the student asked me about sex. Being my easily flustered self, I laughed a little too loudly and stated how this conversation was not appropriate. He then put his hands on my shoulders and asked again, “But, I bet you like it up the butt, right?” The smile on his face was juvenile and jovial. When I told him that what he was asking could be viewed as sexual harassment, he was genuinely perplexed.
The fact is: the question was not appropriate, but the school’s response was disproportionate. I had jokingly told the anecdote to a co-worker in order to use it as an example of my poor classroom management and the response was to insist that I write the student up. To compromise, I wrote it in our student log under “other” instead of “infraction.” I knew I had not handled the situation correctly, but in my mind it might not hurt to make the student’s slip-up known to the administration in case similar negative behaviors became a pattern or worsened. The next day I was confronted by the principal, vice principal, and dean consoling me for the appalling ordeal I had gone through. I was confused as they told me the situation would be handled and the boy would be given a ten day suspension and move towards expulsion.
Their viewpoints seemed sound out of context, but having been the supposed victim in this case I was baffled. I thoroughly explained that it was my lack of classroom management, my too-friendly laxness that day, and my inability to appropriately address and dole out consequences in the moment that caused this to be an issue. The teenage boy shouldn’t be blamed for being a gross teenage. But I was shushed and consoled further, which truly has made me question why the punishment for this child was so harsh while others so lenient. On the one hand, violence and aggression are tolerable, but a direct question about a white woman’s sexual experience is expellable?
As a special education teacher, I have worked with many students diagnosed with Emotional Disturbance. What specifically does that mean? In school terms it refers to a disability brought on by an emotional state that impedes the academic and social progress of a student. In order for this to be considered a disability the student must be several grades behind in math, reading, or writing or perpetually failing his or her academic courses. I have scoured the internet for research on the racial and gender breakdown in diagnosing Emotional Disturbance to no avail, but empirical and experiential evidence clearly shows a correlation between black boys in poor neighborhoods in failing schools suffering from the same imprecise disability. A disability that in most cases explains away negative behavior under terms like Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Conduct Disorder.
To me, the terms are that of a cunning magician set on normalizing an unjust status quo. He distracts by labeling the child so that the audience cannot see that the child’s behavior is a product and symptom of a failed system. When my student was removed from school, I realized how much I am a cog in this defective machine.
As a woman with a history of sexual abuse and a woman who almost daily suffers the verbal oppressiveness of patriarchy, I am outraged, insulted, and saddened by my student’s remarks. He does not know and may never know the struggle of being a woman living in a society where men believe it’s acceptable to demand that I smile because it makes me prettier, or that being followed home is an attractive quality. He will never understand what it is like to be a woman in a man’s world with the fear, paranoia, and abuse associated with womanhood.
On the other hand, I am white. I have more opportunities and privileges that I will ever be able to accurately number. I could choke on the plethora of benefits from being born middle class and blonde. My school is located in the Fairhill section of Philadelphia, the second poorest neighborhood in the city. The school’s population is more than 65% African-American with 100% of students qualifying for the free lunch program. We’ve been on lockdown three times in three months for shots fired in the neighborhood. Within the first full month of school a nineteen year-old was killed a block away just after school let out.
However in that same vein, I will also never understand my student’s reality. I thought I was an ally and advocate for my students, but now it’s clear that my station in society makes that nearly impossible. How do I define myself in this newly realized position? Ultimately, I don’t have an answer and no cliched hope of educating myself and pushing for social justice will give that student the equality he deserves.