Growing up in Queens, New York, I took advantage of neighborhood-based busing to go to a middle school and high school that were far from the struggling schools near where I lived (in a rougher part of Queens called Jamaica - famous for musical stars like 50 Cent and Nicki Minaj).
At these schools, I saw how tracking and my own middle class/white privilege separated me from the mostly African-American students who were on the same bus as I was every morning. We would take the bus together to school, but then I wouldn’t see those other students for the rest of the day because my middle school tracked students into the ‘honors’ classes, the ‘regular’ classes, and the ‘special’ classes - if anybody had any doubt, they were actually numbered from 1 to 8 so everybody knew how we were ranked.
In my senior year of high school, I benefited from the demands of the Black and Hispanic Student Union for an African-American history elective...
The high school administration finally agreed to offer a Black History class, which I enrolled in out of curiosity. I learned so much that semester, not only about history but also about the lie that those students were supposedly not academically prepared to be in classes with my white and Asian peers. The African-American students asked a progressive white teacher who they trusted to teach the class, which also taught me something about the role that progressive white allies can play in schools if they are willing to follow the lead of students and families of color.
The 1980s were difficult years in New York, with a high rate of violence and a lot of racial tension. I wanted to escape Queens and see someplace very different, so my best friend and I were the only two from our high school to choose California colleges - he went to Stanford and I to UC Berkeley. Just before my 18th birthday, I left NY for good and headed out to California where I have remained.
My parents had raised me with socialist ideals which were very unusual in Queens in those days, but those ideas stayed with me and made me want to work for social change. After graduating college, I started teaching in adult education in 2001 in Union City, and continued teaching English as a Second Language to immigrants and refugees for a decade, including at a program that was part of the Justice for Janitors movement with SEIU USWW.
(to be continued...)