American miseducation

Tuesday, October 9, 2018 - 1:07pm

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Illustration by Tatiana Lopatin

It was the first day of sophomore year, and my biggest concern was whether or not I would get a five on my first AP exam. A few seconds after the bell rang, in came Mr. Delap.

Mr. Delap was not an enigma, but there was certainly a legacy attached to him. He was my first teacher to ever, vocally, teach history without editing out the more violent and oppressive moments of American history.

He once said that slavery was the illegitimate child of America, hidden in a closet, never talked about. It was through images like these that my idea of America solidified.

It was here, in sixth hour, that I first became interested in history — a passion I maintain today.

***

At the end of my sophomore year Mr. Delap retired, and at the end of my junior year I left the comforts of Fayetteville, Ark., for Ypsilanti, Mich. I traded the Natural State for the Pure State.

In Arkansas, my last name granted me firsthand judgement and second-class citizenship. It wasn’t that Arkansas, or Fayetteville, lacked diversity, but in the halls of my high school I wasn’t eager to tell anyone that I spoke Spanish. As I look back, it almost felt like the Latinx students were there to fill in the seats, and leave — quietly. I never felt overt racism but there was almost a passive aggressive attitude. You didn’t always see people of color in AP classes — there was an implicit division.

In Ypsilanti, I became a different kind of minority. This was a school where my skin color, my heritage and my name were no longer the parts of my identity that stood out. It was saying things like, “Oh my parents are professors” that did. I became much more aware of my own privilege. Ypsilanti is a low-income working class town that has had a struggling school system for years.

It wasn’t until I sat down in Ypsilanti High School that I witnessed the realities of Mr. Delap’s lectures. He said that America was born shackled to racism. Here, I realized that not only had America never freed herself of those shackles, but she had built an empire on the backs of those she deemed less worthy. At this school, teachers were “let go” in February, textbooks were older than me and locked up, the library wasn’t open and school lunches were served frozen. I faced an education system that stripped students of their educational rights. It wasn’t a school, but rather an incubator prepping America’s next generation of laborers.

I graduated and did so with an unimagined support from my teachers. It was the teachers who, despite the system, tried to keep an idealization of education alive. It was a support I was never afforded in Fayetteville. With this in mind, I decided to email the few people, teachers, who had made a difference in my academic career.

I emailed Mr. Delap and I told him I had been accepted to the University of Michigan. I told him how his class had made me aware of realities I would have otherwise missed. I said I wanted to study history. But most importantly, I thanked him for teaching honestly.

***

Since then we have held correspondence for two years. In those years we have discussed, even debated, several aspects of American history. It was while I was studying in France earlier this year that I got his latest email. The tone of this email felt almost defeated — a tone I had never associated with Mr. Delap, who, despite talking about American history without stripping it of its violent and oppressive nature, never sounded like he had lost hope. The developments of the last two years had gotten to him. He couldn’t reconcile the America he had taught with the America that was developing before his very eyes.

I remember rereading the email and not being able to come up with an articulate reply. I decided to call him.

For the first time we didn’t discuss history, or at least not directly. Instead, he told me about his life — how he became a teacher and why.

Mr. Delap was a teenager during the Civil Rights Movement, he began his teaching career during the Vietnam War, and is now as retired as Trump is overhauling American politics.

“Back in those days, in the ‘60s, I lived in Kansas City. You can’t really say that it was segregated, in restaurants people ate together, but housing was segregated. The only “mixing” was in sports,” he paused.

He discussed his childhood memories, highlighting that there were injustices, similar to those that I had witnessed my senior year.

“I would come home from school and turn on the news and watch footage to see what was going in Selma, dogs and police with fire hoses,” he said. He continued by saying that even after all of these years the prejudice persists  — he says that people never got over their racist roots.

In the natural pause of the conversation he broke the silence saying, “Maybe we have to wait for enough of us to die off.” He sighed and followed this comment by saying that that really wouldn’t change anything because racism has taken hold of a new generation — our generation.

He went on to tell me about how he almost got drafted, but that it was a time where they were bringing soldiers back so that he was promptly rejected.

I asked him if he thought he would have gone and he replied, “I always understood the anti-war movement, and sympathized with the anti-war movement” but, “I was a straight and narrow guy so that if the government asks I would go.

This is quickly followed by, “Seventeen of my high school classmates were killed — what makes me sick is not one of them was what I would call a patriot.”

He said in his town most of the students went into the military. They followed the path of their parents. They went in to find a skill and then a job.

“No one wanted to triumph over communism, they just followed tradition — learning a skill in the army, it was the normal thing to do,” he said.

I asked him if after all of these years he felt discouraged to see the state of America, having spent most of his life teaching its history.

He sighed and almost laughed.

“I’ve said this many times, I don’t know if it is true but I say it a lot so maybe there is a grain of truth maybe I would be better off selling life insurance, teaching was a calling, religious people talk about calling, and teaching was my calling, but my career was, I don’t know, maybe I deluded myself.”  

I interjected, “That teaching was your calling?”

“It might have been but the last few years I didn’t feel satisfied, and I think that is my fault — maybe I just wanted too much, I wanted everyone to be as interested in what we were supposed to be studying, and as the years went on they were less and less interested.”

He continued by saying that the last year was the most frustrating. He felt more pressured to make sure students passed so they could graduate. He felt as though he was no longer there to educate people, but to train them.

Through the many lectures on American History, Mr. Delap’s voice over the phone and my own experiences, I began to see the figure of the American student morphe.

It was only by leaving Arkansas that I began to witness my own privilege, but most importantly I got to see a broken system. In some ways, we are witnessing the tragedy of the American education play out before our very eyes.  It is the color of our skin or our class that determines the education we receive. This divide shows education as a funnel, a function of the state to answer the demands of a country and a market. Once it was soldiers, today it is the poor and minority working class. This is the tragedy of a miseducation.