Thursday, December 15, 2011

What We Teach Them: Thoughts on Processing the PHS Stabbing

In the wake of the brutal stabbing that took place earlier today at Poughkeepsie High School, I’ve been mulling over what happened and what it says about or means for Poughkeepsie. As many people did, I spent a lot of time today saying “this is horrible” and/or “that’s crazy,” but that’s not enough. I think I--we--need to go deeper than that to really process what happened today.

* * *

Last spring, in a course on creating inclusive classrooms, two of my classmates reported on an observation they’d conducted at Poughkeepsie High School. The experience horrified them, and their report was delivered with the sort of wide-eyed incredulity tinged with judgment and disregard that so often accompanies people’s descriptions of Poughkeepsie. When they went to PHS to observe, my classmates said, more than half the class was absent, many of those who bothered to show up did so late, and the teachers couldn’t get through the lesson they’d planned with so few students, so they let them have a double period of free time. The lack of learning perturbed my classmates, as they were there to take notes on how learning happens, to receive guidance as they began their own journeys as teachers. When my classmates made similar comments to the PHS teachers themselves, they laughed. “Don’t become teachers,” my classmates were told by actual faculty. “Get out while you still can.”

By the way, PHS has the highest dropout rate in Dutchess County, about 30%. Get out whole you still can, indeed. Students learn from what we teach them.

When my classmates reported this depressing advice, a momentary hush fell over the room. Sure, none of us envied their disappointing observation. We all wanted to observe rich learning environments where we’d pick up teacher tips and tactics to use ourselves. And we were sympathetic to these reporting classmates who clearly did not have the experience they wanted. But no one quite knew what to say. Some pursed their lips and shook their heads. Some faces clouded over. Some glanced about at everyone else, their raised eyebrows offering unspoken disbelief. The dismissive advice the PHS teachers gave our classmates hung over us, a silent cloud of discouragement. So when the professor broke this silence and spoke, her words effectively enacted a sort of official statement on the subject.

“Yeah . . . “she trailed off and cocked her head at that angle reserved for those thinking they’re about to dispense wisdom. “You don’t want to teach in a school like that. You want to end up in a nicer school than that.”

Inclusive classroom, indeed. An opportunity missed to discuss inequality in our schools. A reinforcement of the teachers’ assertion that PHS is a school no one wants to be at. Students learn from what we teach them.

* * *

When the students came barreling in today, hours before they were scheduled to arrive to the after-school program where I work, they told me that they were locked out of their school, and that at around 10:30 in the morning, one English teacher stabbed another English teacher with a screwdriver. In the hallway. In front of students. Over, and over, and over, a total of 16 stabs to this poor woman’s face, neck, and upper torso. These students didn’t know how to react. They kept saying “this is crazy, I don’t even know what to say, this is crazy” over and over. No adults knew how to react either—I shrieked “what? Are you kidding me? What?” in a shrill voice for about five minutes straight—and for a long time we sort of just stood there, mouths agape with the shock of fresh tragedy.

Local news coverage here

ABC news coverage here

We tried to say healing, productive things, but they all sounded obvious, hollow: this should not have happened, she was a veteran teacher, no one could have anticipated this, she must have snapped, some extreme circumstance must have driven her, etc, etc. The students were shaken, and nothing we could say in a supportive sentence or two could make it okay.

As the platitudes trickled out, my mind wandered back to the observation report from my class. I thought about the reported indifference of the PHS teachers, about their desperate appeal for young teachers to get out while they still can. And I thought about my professor’s response, and how it speaks to the insidious ways institutional racism and classism reinforce and perpetuate themselves. This was not a person who intentionally meant to be offensive, but her intentions don’t change the fact that she still affirmed the stereotype. Nearly two dozen grad students left that day with the message that Poughkeepsie was a bad school, a bad place to teach, with bad students who don’t show up to class and bad teachers who don’t want to be there. That professor reinforced the stereotype as though it was truth, and because of that carelessness, we all got the message, loud and clear: stay away from Poughkeepsie High School, which *happens* to be predominantly students of color and in an area with a lot of poverty.

That professor is not alone in fostering such disparaging thoughts about Poughkeepsie. As the students said when they processed this today, over and over again, the youth in Poughkeepsie already have a bad rep. Measures taken in the past few years to increase graduation rates have been eerily penal and punitive in nature. More security guards and mandatory school uniforms, even as schools are closed down. Cumulatively, these measures build into what looks like a push across the board towards treating our youth like criminals, or potential criminals.

Unsurprisingly, none of these measures have made crime go away. Large-scale gang fights still take place on or near the middle and high schools all the time. Dropping out still continues to be a big issue for Poughkeepsie. Lateness and absences--the conditions of that observed classroom--are signs of a path towards dropping out. Intervention at this stage is crucial to keep students in Poughkeepsie High School, as this Adelphi study suggests. This crucial stage, at least in the instance described above, was happening at the same time these teachers were tuned-out. If the teachers don't want to be there, can we really blame the kids if they don't want to be there, either?

* * *

A few years ago, I was screening a film and doing a workshop with a group of ten students, ages 9-12, when a man shot another man right across the street from us, not 50 feet beyond the front wall of the screening room. I heard a sickening pop, not a loud kerrang like it sounds in the movies. I ran to the window to watch one man crumple as another ran away. I yelled in alarm, and the students turned their heads to ask what was wrong. I stammered that someone had been shot and that we needed to call the police. The kids crowded around the window to look out, but it was eerily quiet out across the street, with the action already over and the flashing lights not yet on their way. They immediately lost interest and returned to their seats to continue watching the film.

As I dialed 911, I was more horrified by their apathy and indifference than I was by the shooting itself. Actually, it’d be more accurate to say that my white, middle-class self was more horrified by their apathy than by the shooting itself. The contrast between our responses forced me to reckon with my own white privilege. I’ve lived a comparatively sheltered life. I had never heard gunshots before. My students have definitely heard gunshots before. My obliviousness to those struggles, the fact of my privilege to go that long without ever hearing gunshots, the repugnance of the fact that I was horrified by their apathy . . . these things reflect and contribute to a society that masks inequality by (among other things) normalizing violence to the degree that kids are used to it. That kind of desensitization isn’t innate. No child is born indifferent to violence. This unequal system that we live in encourages them to be that way, whether we mean it to or not, by normalizing it and making it invisible. This is the legacy we’re leaving them.

When my own students arrived today, they began discussing what had happened and how they were feeling about it. I mulled over the aforementioned memories, wondering if and how they all fit together, hoping they might help me make sense of what had happened. And during this discussion, all of these anecdotes seemed to weave themselves together as I listened to my students react to and process what this whole thing might mean.

One brought up the fact that young people of color stab and shoot each other in Poughkeepsie's streets all the time and no one seems to notice or care, but when a white teacher from Rhinebeck gets attacked in the school, it’s big news.*

This prompted another student to say he felt like people expected it of Poughkeepsie youth, while they don’t expect it of teachers. Like youth in Poughkeepsie are all potential criminals, animals waiting to be caged. He was afraid people would see this as students’ behavior rubbing off on teachers’ behavior. Like the students had made the teacher wild.

Their earnest faces as he said this! The gravity of the discussion pooled in their eyes. They had done nothing wrong, they were simply trying to process the day’s events, and yet, they’ve gotten and/or are getting the message they will be blamed for their teacher’s heinous behavior.**

Students learn from what we teach them. The normalcy/invisibility of violence, the discouraging statements from teachers, the drop out rates, the stereotype that Poughkeepsie is bad, this unequal system we live in . . . they’re all interrelated. If youth in POK are used to gunshots, it’s because they see adults and the media trying to solve problems with violence. If students don’t want to be in school, it has a lot to do with teachers not wanting to be there, either. If we accept violence as the norm, then we’re telling our youth to do the same. They will navigate the world with the models we give them. If youth give up on themselves or become desensitized, it’s because we've taught them to do it.

The thing is, as with my former professor and as with my horrified reaction to what my students see often, these awful lessons we’re teaching our children are often not intentionally communicated. They’re in the media we make, and valorize, and encourage them to consume. They’re in our perpetuation of harmful stereotypes that contribute to thinking Poughkeepsie, and by implication its youth, are “bad.” They’re in the everyday ways that seem normal and not worth questioning. Quite the contrary! If we’re unhappy with violence being a normal occurrence in our children’s lives, I think we’ve got to start really reckoning with the ways we make it normal or invisible. We’ve got to interrogate ourselves to start making sense of this senseless attack.

I'm trying to make sense of this incident, and the clearest picture I get is when I take it as an unfortunate example of a lesson that illustrates how and what we implicitly teach our youth. If your reaction to the stabbing was "That’s crazy!” then think about why all the youth violence in Poughkeepsie isn’t seen as crazy, but rather, as normal and expected. Think about what kind of message that sends to every young person out there, how we might start working against it rather than contributing to it (whether that contribution is unintentional or not).

If your reaction was to be shocked that it happened in a school, ask yourself what kind of school environment allows such hostility and resentment to build, encourages such a climate of open violence and hostility, that suppresses us and then gives us these violent roles to play out. If your reaction was to be outraged that it happened in a school, ask yourself why you’re not outraged when it happens in the street. Ask yourself what we might be able to do about it.

If your reaction was “wow, Poughkeepsie schools really are so bad,” think about every single young person who’s being taught to internalize that message, to accept it as normal. Ask whether the message that sends to our youth is that they’re the “bad Poughkeepsie” everyone’s afraid of. Think about what that message does, and will do, to a young and growing mind.

I wouldn’t ask you to do it if I wasn’t already doing it myself. To productively process what happened today at Poughkeepsie High School, I’m asking myself all the questions above. I believe we’ve all got to ask ourselves these questions, so that the incident transcends its tragedy and becomes an opportunity for creating change in our community. Asking ourselves these questions is uncomfortable, and unpleasant, yes, but we have to look at ourselves before we point fingers. Students learn what we teach them. Let's turn this into an opportunity to take a long look at what it is, exactly, that we’re teaching our youth, what we may not even realize we're teaching them.

* (This comment really made me self-reflect, and I realized I am guilty of this thinking, too. The news of English teachers fighting seemed extreme and unusual in a way that news of shootings on Cannon street doesn’t. That’s white privilege talking. I’m working on it.)

** One student who swore he didn't really have a reaction to the event. He said he was just glad to get out of having to do homework. And again I was reminded of the shooting I saw years before, the casual attitude towards violence those students displayed.


  1. My first teaching job 20 years ago was at Poughkeepsie Middle School. I had attended city schools (NYC and lower Westchester) all my life, I thought I was no stranger to a multicultural environment. Nothing I had previously experience prepared me for pregnant 13 year olds (or girls having had more than one abortion already), kids flippantly threatening to blow up my car (which I didn't have yet), and being told to expect 1/3 of my students to fail the class. ONE THIRD was the expected failure rate. I have to say that I wasn't incredibly disappointed when my one-year leave replacement position was over. I learned more about LIFE from those students than in the following 20 years. It's very sad what those kids have to deal with, but even sadder that it's what they (and seemingly society) expect to grow up dealing with.