Last Friday, I walked out of my classroom for the last time. Two years of teaching, done, just like that. Though I still haven’t had the chance to process that last day I will do so soon. This is, I guess, the first post of “Year Three,” made semi-official by Alumni Induction a few weeks ago, made official-official by the fact that the school year is over.
The following day, still feeling awkward that I wouldn’t be leading a classroom anytime soon, I attended a TFA alumni BBQ entitled “A Gathering for Men of Color.” Though TFA has recruited minority teachers at a rate above that of the workplace, it has not done much to connect these alumni of color. This event, hopefully, would bring us together, allowing us to share common experiences, problems and beliefs, and set us up to move forward.
For, surely, as a recent initiative by the College Board (“The Educational Experience of Young Men of Color“) attests, we do need to move forward, lest we see a disheartening educational future:
The fastest growing populations in the country are those minority groups with the lowest levels of male educational attainment.
If present levels of education and current population trends hold, the United States will see a decline in the educational attainment of the country as a whole. The goal of ensuring the future global competitiveness of the U.S. cannot be met without the full participation of our nation’s young men of color.
I will admit that I find events like these discomforting. It’s not that I don’t like to acknowledge my skin color, or the broader dialogue on race. Rather, I feel strange when I’m invited to an event simply because I possess characteristic X, Y or Z.
Anyways, I went. I was invited, after all, to reflect on my experience as an Asian teacher in a school district with practically zero Asian students. I also knew that the work that I was doing through TFA was, at its foundation, one linked to the problem of race in America.
Surprisingly, I found that I was able to transcend my initial reluctance at attending the event. We began by casually conversing over a Hill Country BBQ feast. Our alumni coordinator gave brief remarks, I offered my reflection (full text below) and then Kwame Griffith ’02 shared his learnings as Executive Director of TFA Atlanta. We finished by reading and discussing a provocative Jill Scott column, “Boys to Men.”
I was deeply moved by the honest and real conversations that we had. I recognized that, as a man of color in education–a field that Kwame pointed out was devoid of men as well as people of color–I could and should make an impact. That is what I hope to do.
Here is my speech:
One of the obvious questions that people like to ask me about teaching in DCPS is this: “what’s it like being an Asian teacher?” After all, in a school that is 70% black and 30% Hispanic, the short Asian man who wears bowties is certainly somewhat of an anomaly.
Indeed, I’d have to say that teaching here is in some ways rather challenging:
It is challenging to be constantly referred to as “Jackie Chan.”
It is challenging to walk through the hallways and have students, left and right, palms clapped together, bowing their heads towards me, squealing “ching chang chong” or “wing wang wong.”
It is challenging when one of my students, with whom I’d thought I’d had a strong, real relationship, said words that cut, like a sharpened dagger, right through my teacher armor and into my heart. I had redirected an off-task student, he in turn apologizing, when this student blurted out: “Don’t say sorry to him. He’s nothing. He’s just a Chinese person.”
These are just some of the challenges of being a yellow person in a decidedly non-yellow school.
I have to admit that, during moments like these, I feel the same type of anger and resentment, simmering in communities across America, whose presence then-Senator Obama acknowledged in his 2008 race speech.
It was anger and resentment like this, drawn mainly on racial lines, that I felt during those moments that challenged my temperance. Inevitably, I would ask myself, “What am I doing here?”
Indeed, after witnessing President Obama’s inauguration in this great city, I chose to volunteer, on the MLK Day of Service, at an Asian-American community center. On a brisk, wintry day, I had the pleasure of mentoring several students whose skin color resembled my own.
Juxtaposing this experience—one in which I felt genuinely appreciated and understood—with some of the episodes I’ve experienced in my school, it’s hard not to ask: “Why aren’t I teaching students like them?” “Why didn’t I, when applying to TFA, put Hawaii, home to a sizable Asian-American community (and a paradise in itself), among my list of highly-preferred regions?”
It’s hard for me to answer my own questions. But I think the answer lies somewhere in the words that President Obama shared with us just over 3 years ago. In his speech, given in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright controversy, Obama explained why he was running for office: “I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together, unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction—toward a better future for our children and our grandchildren.”
And that is the key. A better future. An educated future. That is what I want. And that is what I believe—and what Obama believes—everyone in this country wants. Getting there requires that we first recognize this truth, and then bridge our differences, close cultural gaps, help one another.
So what happened to my dagger-throwing student? How did I bridge our differences?
I began by explaining why he had crossed the line, by reversing the situation, putting himself in my shoes: “if someone said the same thing about you but replaced ‘Chinese’—which, by the way, I’m not—with ‘black,’ would you be upset?” Like all proud adolescents, he denied it.
I could tell, of course, that he knew he had said, and done, wrong. All of a sudden, he, a lanky 6’6” basketball star, had become a reticent student in the classroom.
But music helped break the ice.
During the beginning of class, my iTunes shuffled to a new song. Hearing something decidedly non-Asian, the student saw an opportunity to chime in: “What do you know ‘bout Tupac, Mr. K–?”
And I seized the moment: “What? Just because I’m Asian I can’t know anything about Tupac? What do you know? I’ve listened to Tupac since before you were born!”
And, yep, I’m not black. I’m not even Chinese. I’m Korean.
The student looked at me, stunned. But at that moment he finally understood. The stunned expression gave way to a sincere smile. Seconds later, a more serious look. “I’m sorry Mr. K–.”
Though this episode began by having feelings of anger and resentment bubble to the surface, one small but genuine encounter became an opportunity to diffuse negative emotions, to break down monolithic notions of race and to promote mutual understanding. Even though we looked different, we were, in essence, not that different.
By recounting this story I don’t mean, in any way, to discount the very real significance of race. Just as a man can never truly know what it’s like to be a woman, I, an Asian man, can only know so much about being black in America.
Still, these are the moments that give me hope. These are the moments that convince me, in just the same way that Obama was convinced, that we can come together and become the more perfect union that our Founders sought.
But forming a more perfect union takes effort—hard, too often thankless work. Work that may compel you to ask, “Why am I doing this?” But it’s work that needs doing.
I’d like to think that I’m playing one part, however minor or insignificant, in moving towards this vision. I hope that you’ll continue to play yours. Thank you.