“LTLT members were bewildered by Aaron’s combination of ignorance and confidence in his expertise. Members also were horrified by his egregious statements, including, “Then we go to Charles’s house and the police show up because there’s too many black people.”
By Elise Franchino
Learn Together, Live Together (LTLT) hosted a series of screenings and discussions on America to Me, a 10-part docu-series that follows a year in the life of students, teachers, and administrators at Oak Park and River Forest High School near Chicago. The series deals with issues of race and privilege within a well-resourced, racially diverse public high school. This blog post is a recap of the episode and conversation among LTLT members.
Episode 3 opens with Grant recapping the events of the dance with his parents, Kathleen and Miles. They discuss their interracial marriage, which began in the 1980’s in segregated Detroit. Kathleen’s parents, despite their positive impressions of Miles, refused to condone their relationship out of fear. Strangers greeted them with strange looks or invasive questions, especially when they were with their biracial children. Despite all of the bias, their love has remained strong and they remain optimistic about their children’s future. According to Miles, “You don’t have a lot of control who you fall in love with and you can’t let a person’s color stand in the way of that.”
English teacher Jessica explores her own bi-racial identity and pushes issues of social justice to the forefront of her instruction. She reflects on being taunted and bullied because of her skin color when she was a young student. In spite of her administration’s attempts to prevent her from using the email platform or school grounds for communication with other staff, she resiliently forms a Teacher Equity Group. While she defies racism she also subverts it, by giving students the tools to code-switch and “teaching them how to play the game.”
Racism is at the forefront of many of her lessons and her classroom is safe space for students to confront this delicate topic. In one lesson, Jessica asks students to share a time they witnessed or experienced racism. Ke’Shawn describes an incident as a child riding bikes with a friend, only to be interrogated for theft by the police and have his bicycle flipped. Other students share stories of being treated differently in stores than their friends of other races, being insulted with racial epithets, and being told to “get back on the bus and to back to where you came from” at travelling football games. In this discussion, Jessica bravely shares her own pain at the injustice of being called a racial slur by a student, encountering a lack of support from her White colleagues, and therefore having minimal consequence enforced. The effects of her honest words are written on all of her students’ faces, across all races and ethnicities.
Jessica’s co-founder of the Teacher Equity Group is Aaron Podolner, a White physics teacher who takes a different approach to issues of race in the classroom. Charles, who normally loathes science, says that Mr. Podolner makes the subject “fun” and finds humor in his off-handed comedy. In contrast stands Mr. Podolner’s relationship with Jada. Jada is an African American junior student, self-aware enough to cite her teacher’s style as negatively impacting her learning and bold enough to confront him about it. In this episode, Aaron ridicules Jada endlessly calling her “slow,” invading her personal space by touching her belongings, and commenting about her hair. He says things like, “You have no shade to throw my way,” and “Is that an OCD thing? Oh, you’re just a germaphobe.” Aaron considers himself an expert since his grandfather participated in the Civil Rights Movement, he was raised to question racial structures, and he authored a memoir about race. He makes references to hip hop music and uses slang when talking to his Black students, which he feels helps him be relatable. Struggling in his class and exhausted by his inept attempts to connect with her, Jada plainly says “don’t joke with me” – yet Aaron relentlessly persists.
Episode 3 highlights the pervasiveness of racism. It exists in OPFR’s academic tracking system, which the administration refuses to address even as Black parents argue against the low expectations for their students placed in the standard track college prep program. It’s in the social fabric, as people question or eye up interracial families and in one White mother’s refusal to talk about race. It’s on the football stadium, as OPFR players encounter a double standard by the referees who call them “aggressive” yet allow them to be called racial slurs by players on opposing teams. But mostly in this episode, it’s in the many microaggressions and inappropriate behaviors of Aaron Polodner.
LTLT members were bewildered by Aaron’s combination of ignorance and confidence in his expertise. Members also were horrified by his egregious statements, including, “Then we go to Charles’s house and the police show up because there’s too many black people there.” He’s incredibly inappropriate in his interactions with Black students as we see when he discusses Black girls’ hair, makes cultural references he assumes they’ll relate to, and jokes about police relations. He is an excellent example for White teachers of exactly what not to do.
Several of our protagonists stood out in this episode. Jada is courageous in her determination to advocate for herself and set boundaries with Aaron (which he ignores). Many of us would not have had that confidence in high school, and it speaks volumes to her character. Terrence, a student with special needs who we see struggling in so many of his classes, creates a beautiful bracelet for his mother in metalworking. His pride in himself is only surpassed by his mother’s pride in him. Jessica continues to be a beacon of social justice within OPFR, and we hope that through the Teacher Equity Group she’s able to transfer some of her wisdom to her co-sponsor, Aaron.