“Every day, every day” growing up my mother would motivate my brothers and me with this simple phrase. She got it from Mercedes, the busser, at Elsie’s Restaurant where she waited tables. It was the mantra in my family, every day you get up and handle your business. She was a waitress for twenty plus years and her husband, my father, was a cook. In order to avoid the financial struggles that marked their life they emphasized education and sacrificed to put my brothers and me through private school.
This meant my education was marked by a certain otherness. My life experiences were not the same as the majority of my peers. I went to DeLaSalle High School, and even though you could see melanin when you walked through the hallways, very rarely would you come across someone from the working class. They were there, of course, but by and large the school is wealthy. I remember feeling a certain way when I couldn’t afford the newest shoes or name brand clothes. My father talks about feeling judged when he couldn’t afford to donate to the booster club.
While the above certainly had an effect on my education, nothing had more of an effect than the actual curriculum itself. Like the millions of other students that go through our education system, I was taught my heroes should be the wealthy white men that founded this country and have ruled it ever since (yes, even though we have a black president, but that is a different essay). As a matter of fact I was told that those who would be my heroes, folks like: Eugene Debs, Bobby Sands, Malcolm X, John Brown, the Black Panthers, Nat Turner, Stokely Carmichael , and Fred Hampton were, at best, misguided but more often they were deemed fanatics, unworthy, and “Anti-American” (whatever that means). And that is if they were even mentioned at all, which more often than not they weren’t. I was taught to understand the world from the perspective of business and American exceptionalism. So, America’s choice to drop the atomic bomb on Japan is taught as the only option for ending World War II. The actual truth remains untold: America was intimidating the other world power at the time: Russia. Worse than that, the millions of unnecessary civilian deaths are not even discussed in many textbooks. Above all, school told me if I worked hard America would allow me to be successful. This is what the teachers wanted to hear and, like a good student, this is what I told them. Everything I was taught told me my existence wasn’t typical. The working class and the poor were either rendered invisible or pathologized as evil. Nowhere, in a final or on a standardized test, was I asked to consider the myriad of policies and government sanctioned actions that created the circumstances of my life. Even those giants of history that could not be ignored, folks like Martin Luther King Jr., were sanitized to make them palatable for the elites in charge of dictating curriculum. This sanitizing limits Martin Luther King’s analysis to simply civil rights and leaves out his vehement anti-war and economic justice message. It keeps Cesar Chavez, the powerful Latino labor organizer, out of the curriculum completely. The tilt of education towards the rich and powerful should not surprise us. Just as the ruling class has not, and will not, build in space to vote them out of power, neither will they allow for a critical narrative to be told, regardless of its level of truth.
It is hard to put into words the effect this had on me, and I imagine, those like me. There are seemingly only two options for the working class within school: identify with the elite or quit. For much of my education career I was stuck in this false dichotomy. This resulted in a visceral anger. This anger came from my very core. It is the type of anger that can only be birthed by being torn from your values. Every message I received told me all that I held dear, everything I found beauty in was, in fact, worthless and ugly. I was told that the struggles I saw my family overcoming with pride and dignity were in fact their own doing. After all, if they would just work hard and stay focused they could and would become wealthy. Let my school tell it. The result of these conflicting messages: what I observed and understood from experience, and what school taught me, was an identity crisis. For many they simply said “fuck it” and dropped out. It was either that or learn how to “play the game.” This is the route I went. How could I go another? My parents had sacrificed so much for me and my brothers so, we did school, for one reason or another, and learned to leave that world entirely behind. It wasn’t until after college that I learned I didn’t have to interact with education in that way. I learned there was a difference between school and education. While school attempted to strip me from my class consciousness, education strengthened it. I learned about my ancestors’ struggles. I learned the necessary vocabulary to speak to my reality and honor those that my official schooling wanted to disrespect and put down. I still carry with me the anger, but now it is more directed. Instead of being unleashed at those closest to me, living in the same situations, my anger is targeted at the systems responsible. Beyond that, I am able to love unconditionally. I move through my neighborhood with pride. I see strength where others see weakness. I see beauty in the war wounds of my family. These are the things that raised me. This is where I find god.
This knowledge presents its own set of challenges. For many in the working class community it is impossible to be educated and maintain your relationship with where you came from. We must reject this notion. We, the working class, must be hungry for knowledge. We must search out truth and educate ourselves in order to fight the battles necessary to create a world free from poverty, exploitation and oppression. We must be cultural warriors intent on speaking truth to power.