“LTLT members discussed the academic and social pressures put upon these high school students, a relatable struggle for many. It was debated whether Grant’s mother took the correct approach by enrolling him in standard courses when he is academically…”
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 4 examines the pressures of high school. Chanti, a junior at Oak Park, has sunken into an anxiety and stress-induced depression. She tries out, but is not chosen for the Spoken Word team and she expresses a former romantic relationship makes her feel unsafe. Her mom, Lynn, describes her daughter as a perfectionist who would stay up until 2am working if she could. Offhandedly, Lynn remarks, “As a parent, I can’t watch the kids avoid challenges in life because there’s an easier road – wow, am I pressuring Chanti?”
Lynn’s not the only parent questioning the correct amount of pressure to apply to their young scholars. Grant admits to slacking off occasionally but feels as though he “has to do well on tests.” Meanwhile, his mother openly debates whether to keep him in the standard college prep classes so that he can be academically successful or to encourage him to take more AP classes to increase his appeal to universities. He’s a new freshman, doing well on the standard track, and taking one AP class so far.
Tiara and her mother, Tamara, go to dinner to celebrate her 17th birthday and inevitably the conversation turns to the topic of grades. Tiara says she has all A’s and B’s, except for a C in chemistry. Days later during parent-teacher conferences, Tamara is told by the chemistry teacher, David, that Tiara actually has a 27% in class because she isn’t handing in assignments. Tamara sees herself in her daughter, reflecting that she also struggled or excelled in subjects based on her interest level. Still, Tamara urges David to warn Tiara that her mother will be notified when assignments are missing.
Science teacher Aaron returns to this episode in a scene where he is inviting Jada and Charles to discuss race and encouraging them to read his memoir on race. He cites his respect for them as his reason behind this request, then says to Jada, “I’m curious just for any feedback you have for how I’ve handled race in the classroom. ‘Cause, I know, I mean, you’re certainly very willing to racialize things, to talk about it from a black perspective, but sometimes I can tell you’re not always a fan of what he says or what I say.” Jada explains that she has asked him to stop talking about her hair and he continues on as though he’s entirely missed her point. “And I think what’s hard is that we get a lot of pressure here at teachers to like, make a difference, to like, fix Black people, to improve scores, and we’re not given any ways to do it. So, someone who’s aware like you, you could be a great resource to us teachers.”
Without any obvious choice to refuse the assignment, Jada and Charles agree to read Aaron’s memoir. They meet days later to discuss and Jada arrives armed with annotations. She starts with the obvious, “You can take a class, or you can teach black kids, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily know everything there is about race.” Jada expresses confusion at the dichotomy between the conscious he displays in his memoir and his behaviors in the classroom. Aaron tries to defend his actions, “When I see black students in my class, I kind of label it as an extra priority because I know what you guys have dealt with.” Jada suggests that Aaron starts to see his students as equals rather than singling out Black students to “shuck and jive.”
Finally, we see the structural pressures, such as school suspensions, at play. Ke’Shawn received a 3-day out-of-school suspension for an incident with an OPRF security guard. Ke’Shawn says the cause was “walking while Black.” The suspension overlaps with the theater showcase, in which he is supposed to perform for academic credit. His teacher, Michelle, is told that Ke’Shawn is prohibited from school grounds and that she must call security if he comes to his showcase. Though Ke’Shawn arrives prepared and motivated, Michelle is forced to turn him away. As behavior interventionist, Michael, emphasizes, “This is a young man that we’ve been trying to encourage to come to school, and then once he gets here, we seem to find a lot of ways to suspend him and send him right back out.” Though Michael and Ke’Shawn were meeting during study hall for academic and emotional support, Ke’Shawn’s disciplinary dean has precluded this ongoing mentorship and required Ke’Shawn to stay in study hall moving forward. Though teachers like Jessica, Michael, and Michelle are rooting for Ke’Shawn, developing his skills, and advocating when possible, the systemic pressures he faces are overbearing.
Once again, Aaron completely missed the mark, though this episode elucidates his reasoning. He revealed his “White savior” complex in this episode when saying that he felt as though he needed to “fix Black people,” which he apparently believes he will accomplish by making jokes about race and hyper-focusing on his Black students. Jada once again shines, unafraid to scorn her teacher’s racist behavior and demand equality. Jessica also gives Aaron some pushback in this episode, asking him why he feels he understands his Black students’ experiences, and why he’s more willing to talk about race in the context of Black students rather than White students. Jessica states, “I know that you’re trying to help your Black students, but I do notice that when I start to push you on talking about the miseducation of our White students, you’re less likely to want to engage in those types of conversations.” Aaron flounders and fails to justify his actions and truly listen to the valuable insights the two Black women are sharing with him.
LTLT members discussed the academic and social pressures put upon these high school students, a relatable struggle for many. It was debated whether Grant’s mother took the correct approach by enrolling him in standard courses when he is academically successful and may be more challenged in honors. That approach is far from the one taken by Terrence’s mom, who appears to be pushing her son into classes where he is struggling, or Chanti’s parents, who appear to be supporting and encouraging her to the point of exhaustion. Each family takes a distinct approach, which we respect and empathize with, as we see some of our own experiences mirrored back at us.