MY FIRST JOB out of college was teaching at-risk black and Puerto Rican kids in an alternative high school setting. At 20 years old, fresh from a critical theory-oriented undergraduate curriculum, I basically taught what I had read in college: bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Paulo Freire, Noam Chomsky. I was thrilled to do it. After all, in front of me were the people that I had studied in those critical-theory classes—“the oppressed.” And here I was to deliver liberation.
“Is this going to get me my GED?” a skeptical student named Angel asked me at one point. “If I pass, I get $1 an hour more at Cub Foods, and my girlfriend is pregnant, so, you know, I gotta get that. I ain’t slanging [dealing drugs] no more.”
I wanted to tell Angel that I was providing him far more than material gain. I was the bearer of soul freedom.
When Joel, the math teacher at the school, caught wind of what I was doing, he about put me up against the wall. “Are you crazy?” he said. “You walk in here from your privileged life and start delivering oppressive-systems mumbo jumbo to kids who need to learn how to read? Teach them that they need to work their butts off to pass the damn test. Stop giving them an excuse to blame the system.”
It is one of the most important lessons I’ve ever gotten in my life: People closest to a tough situation usually want to find the most direct way out, not the most ideological critique of injustice.