For some reason, people cannot pronounce my name. Though it is an uncommon name outside of Jewish culture, it is not a difficult name. It has 5 letters and no crazy punctuation. It is, for the most part, phonetic. It rhymes with a common American name so I use that comparison to explain the pronunciation. But still, people refuse to learn how to say my name. As if my name doesn’t matter. As if my name isn’t important enough to commit to memory. As if I am invisible.
“I don’t like it when they don’t say my name right”
This is the title of a chapter in a book I read yesterday entitled “Multiplication is for White People” Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit. While I was not impressed with the book overall (I read it to see if I wanted to use it for my Diversity and Equity in Education course. I do not), some sentences really stood out to me. That was one of them.
Four chapters later, she talks about the invisibility and disidentification many African American students (her area of expertise) face on college campuses. She quotes Ralph Ellison’s (1953) text Invisible Man:
I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone…I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….They see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination.
This excerpt is powerful. It embodies what many students—many people—feel on a daily basis. I do not limit this experience to African Americans, but believe it is applicable to any person who has ever been the [ethnic, religious, sexual, gender, linguistic, intellectual] minority. The feeling of being invisible may be one of the most hurtful and devaluing emotions one could feel.
And this is what many of our students feel on a daily basis in our schools.
Many teachers, though well intentioned, ignore the students in the middle. The ones whose test scores are proficient, but not advanced or below proficiency. The ones whose IQ is average, not gifted or developmentally delayed. The ones who don’t raise their hands to answer every question, but will respond if prompted. The ones who don’t get straight As, but consistently earn Bs. They are the ones who ‘don’t need special attention’ because ‘they are doing fine’.
But are they?
Is it ‘fine’ to never have your teacher look your way? To never be chosen as the group leader because you are simply overlooked? To speak up and not have your statement affirmed or even acknowledged? To feel like people refuse to see you no matter what you do?
It is not fine. It is even less fine to know that what is visible about you is your background. Where you live, your parents’ education level and employment status, your older sibling’s performance in this teacher’s class three years ago, your assumed ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and aptitude derived from your skin color, style of dress, and speech patterns.
This is what our education system encourage us to see in our students, although these aspects are what surround our students. The way we aggregate and disaggregate data promotes the analysis of students as test scores representative of a segment of the population. Our policies, our instructional practices, and our assessment methods render our children invisible.
And in rendering them invisible, we veil their educational and emotional needs. Districts do not alter their curriculum to help those performing at mid-level proficiency to achieve high-level proficiency. The government does not dedicate billions of dollars to programs aimed at turning C students into B students. Teachers do not invite the mediocre students to after-school tutoring sessions or to the student government informational meeting. Parents who hear no news from the school interpret that as good news. So what do we do for them?
We don’t even learn their names.
But we can do something. I am reminded of an Albert Camus quote:
“It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.”
Just because you don’t have children or your child is in a private school does not mean you are excused from participating in public education discourse. You are not. It is your duty as a thinking person to inform yourself about the experiences of your fellow community members; to understand their perspective not as an ‘other’ or a ‘deviation’ from what you perceive to be the norm, but as a valid point of view worthy of consideration. You have the right to vote in this country, but you cannot solely vote on issues pertinent to you. The marking of that ballot affects those not in your income bracket, your neighborhood, your church, your school, your life. So even if you don’t have student loan debt, chronic healthcare needs, concerns about job procurement, a desire to marry the love of your life whose sex happens to be the same as yours, a need for social assistance, aging parents who rely on social security, or children for whose future you need to plan. Even if you are not included in that infamous 47%, you still have a responsibility to not be on the side of the executioners; to not be blind to the existence of visible needs.