On the Rug

For the past few weeks, I’ve been going in 2-3 times a week to read to Owen’s 5th grade class. It feeds my soul like none other. There are 27 kids in there, and most of them appear to still be ok with being children, occupied with children-y things. They’re adorable! I sit in a chair, and they get called in groups to sit on the rug, the first to get there claiming the highly prized spots against the wall or on the 3 milk crates with pillows. Everything is very sensual on the rug. They poke each other, and lie down, take off their shoes. There’s a dedicated hair-play group, mostly girls, but a couple of boys as well. They put each other’s hair up in braids, interesting ponytails (say, for example, all on one side or in lots of little sprouts), or just stroke and comb with their fingers, touching, feeling. The rug pulsates with body energy, which can be a little distracting, but as much as they’re concentrated on their own and each other’s physical beings, they’re also listening really hard to the story – I know this because I ask them questions once in a while and they always have a lot to say.

(I’m reading them Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White, if you’re interested.)

So there are a couple of kids of color in the class, but most kids are white. There is one African American boy, a newcomer who joined the class halfway through the year. Like the rest of them, Timmy is very much in his body when we’re on the rug, but I can tell he likes the story, or anyway, likes being read to, likes being part of the group. Here’s the thing: the teacher, who is white, is always calling him out and picking on him.

Today, Timmy told me that his sister had put a Dora the Explorer book in his backpack as a joke. I joked back, “Whattsamatta, you don’t like Dorah the Explorah?” and he said no no no, and the rest of the class got in a brief discussion about Dora, and then I said, “Ok, you guys ready to read?” and some people shouted yes, and Timmy, in the spirit of our recent joke, shouted out no, laughing. The teacher came down on him like a ton of bricks at exactly the same time I was laughing and saying, “You’d rather read Dora?” She lectured him and made him go sit at his desk, where he spent the rest of the time reading something else. I tried to read loudly and whenever there was a picture I tried to make sure he saw it, but by that time, he has removed himself from the group. He had been removed from the group. Broke my heart.

Timmy may or may not be a handful in class – I’m only there a little bit, and the kids are on good behavior for me. Still. He was joyfully participating and then he was booted out. He’s already one of very few black kids at this particular school, and then he had to sit at his desk alone. I kept wanting to invite him back, but I’m a guest in the classroom and I don’t want to step on the teacher’s toes. I wish she had let him come back onto the rug. I wish she could hear how grouchy she sounds when she talks to him. I’m sure she wouldn’t like it; I’m sure she doesn’t see herself as someone who would constantly single out a little boy because he’s black. That she somehow expects him to act up. I expect she would say she’s treating him the same way she treats all the kids, and it is true that she made another little boy (a redhead) write me an apology because he’d allegedly been throwing things while I was reading (I hadn’t noticed). But the thing is you have to be careful when you’re a white grown up with power over a child of color – not stilted, not liberal guilty-dumb, but just careful. Mindful. The thing about it is it makes you examine your own behavior, not take for granted that you can say whatever comes into your mind, act however you feel like acting. Because those things have consequences, for everyone.

We’re all on this rug together, god damn it!

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Published in: on March 18, 2010 at 5:48 AM  Leave a Comment  

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