City Kids, City Dreams

By William Ayers and Patricia Ford

“What is it,” we asked a huge gathering of urban school administrators, “about the presence of large numbers of poor, African-American,or Latino city kids in your schools that makes those places …,” we paused dramatically, “wonderful?”

There was stunned silence. Several looks of disbelief. Some nervous laughter. And then a forceful response: “Come on,” said one older man, his voice ringing, almost angry. “Our jobs are hard enough without you ridiculing us.”

The opening question was not meant to ridicule but to examine a glib fiction about city kids. It is true that the last word “wonderful” sounds a decidedly discordant note. Until then the question hums along quite comfortably, a familiar melody. But when the anticipated last bar — something like “terrible,”or “difficult,” or “challenging” — is not delivered, the whole thing sounds out of tune.

It is within that jarring discrepancy that we want to begin to think about city kids and city teachers.

An insidious assumption sits heavy and dogmatic on most city schools: that there is nothing about the presence of African-American, Latino, or immigrant youngsters — especially, in today’s environment, Black boys — that is deemed valuable, hopeful, or important. Their very presence in school is seen as an encumbrance. They are an obstruction, a handicap, and a burden. If these youngsters are known at all, they are known exclusively by their deficits and their putative inadequacies.

Schools tend to focus on the least interesting and simplest of questions: What don’t these kids know? What can’t they do? School becomes, then, entirely a matter of remediation and repair. Good intentions not withstanding, feelings of hopelessness and despair define these places for kids and teachers alike.

We were asked recently to look at hundreds of applications filled out by city teachers who had been nominated for an “outstanding teacher” award. One question asked, “What is the biggest obstacle in your teaching? “To our amazement, nearly half of the respondents answered in one way or another that the kids were the biggest obstacle.

Not everyone just blurted it out. Many said things like, “I used to be a better teacher, but kids today have so many problems.”Some wrote, “If these kids could only speak English. …” It added up to a powerful message: that schools and classrooms would function much better if the kids would simply not show up.

Picture the Perfect School

Picture the perfect city school: the classrooms are always quiet, the cafeteria calm, the hallways orderly. No fights, no hassles, no graffiti. Bells ring, mimeo machines hum, paychecks are delivered. The place is efficient, clean, peaceful. No kids? No problem. In this context, even to raise the question of the value of city kids is to sound slightly mad.

Most city teachers struggle mightily to do a good job despite inadequate resources and difficult circumstances. But the structure of most city schools — the strict schedule, the division of knowledge, the press of time, the pretense toward rational efficiency, and the huge numbers of students — leads to a factory-like operation characterized by hierarchy, control, and anonymity. This structure, in turn, transforms teachers into clerks and students into objects to fear and coerce.

We do not contend that teaching in the city is identical to teaching in wealthy suburbs or rural areas. It is better in some ways, harder in others, interestingly similar yet importantly unique.

Most powerful, hopeful learning begins with the learners. Knowing city kids as learners, discovering them as three-dimensional beings, as fellow creatures, is an important place for teachers to begin. What experiences, knowledge, and skills do kids bring with them to school? What kinds of thought and intelligence are there to challenge and nurture? A sustained engagement with these questions is a basic starting point for city teachers. It is followed closely by the demand to create an environment for learning that is wide enough and deep enough to nurture and challenge the huge range of students who walk through the classroom door.

We reject the notion that city kids (or city teachers or the city itself, for that matter) can best be understood as all deficit, all danger. We see, instead, a sense of life, energy, freedom, and hope in the city and in poor, immigrant, and African-American communities.

This country faces an unmapped future whose core demand will be learning to live together, united yet diverse. It is a future being rehearsed in our schools and in our cities today. We need to embrace the energy and the freedom that is the signature of our cities and the hope of our city kids. Only in that way can helping our students create the future.

The above is an adapted excerpt from City Kids, City Teachers, edited by William Ayers and Patricia Ford (New York: New Press, 1996).

William Ayers is an associate professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Patricia Ford is a lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a community organizer.