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The view from here: In the classroom, then and now, race plays a role in learning

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 20, 2009 - Readers of the St. Louis Beacon share their own personal experiences with race and education -- and show how they learned more than just their ABCs and times tables. Their stories help demonstrate that things can look different, depending on where you stand.

All the sources came from our Public Insight Network, a group of people in the St. Louis area and beyond who have agreed to help us cover the news by sharing their observations, knowledge and expertise with us. We hope each story will help us all understand each other a little better.

Great -- and not so great-- expectations

On her first day of high school about 25 years ago, Darlene Donegan woke in the darkness, stepped into her uniform and caught two city buses to get to school.

She was scared, new and heading into a school unlike any she'd known before.

Up until that day, she had spent her entire school life in an all-black Catholic school. At Bishop DuBourg, she was about to become a minority.

Donegan, 39, had always been a good student, and because of her grades, was placed in an advanced math class at DuBourg. She was the only black student there, and her teacher often gave her a hard time, she said, questioning aloud how Donegan got into the class.

A year later, Donegan again had another first day at another new school. Her mother could no longer afford DuBourg and told Donegan she'd have to go to public school. Donegan was terrified of what she'd heard of city schools and found out about the desegregation program. She filled out all the paper work herself.

That year, she boarded a school bus, early again, and sat inside as it drove all over the city picking up other black students, then headed south for Lindbergh High School.

"I was terrified," she says.

This time, Donegan wasn't placed in classes because of her grades, it seemed. Most of the black students were in the easiest classes.

"I didn't even have to study," she says. "I think in biology I just went to sleep every day."

During her junior year, a counselor took an interest in her and started to steer Donegan toward college. But she'd been taking all the wrong classes. No one ever before pointed her in the right direction, and by then, it was too late. She went on to serve in the U.S. Army and later attended Harris-Stowe.

Last week, Donegan had another first day of school, her ninth as a history teacher at University City High School.

Like every first day, the halls buzzed with nerves and excitement.

And like her own time in the desegregation program, Donegan sees the same crisis of expectation. She sees white students encouraged to take her honors history class, regardless of ability. And they make it through, she thinks, because of those expectations. She sees black students steered toward trade schools.

Even now, as a teacher, people see her dreadlocks and her tattoos and judge her pretty quickly. But after a lifetime of rising above, her own expectations beat all that. Students request her, she says.

And in her class, she expects the best from them and pushes them to do the same for themselves.

Go with it

More than 30 years ago, James Spies sat in the back of a classroom, observing another teacher.

Spies was still in school at Harris-Stowe, he was young, from a white, middle-class neighborhood. But his career in education brought him into the changing world, where he studied and became friends with young black men and women, and would later go on to become the principal of DePorres, an all-black Catholic school in north St. Louis.

That day, in the back of the classroom, he learned a lesson that's stuck with him, even now, at 65. And it had nothing to do with the lesson plan.

As the teacher spoke in front of the chalkboard, a blimp floated by the wall of windows outside. The students, of course, couldn't look away, no matter what the poor teacher demanded.

And Spies sat there, watching, and thought to himself -- go with it.

"You have to realize what's going on with the world," he says.

And during the course of his career, he did. From being a teacher in the city to his time at DePorres, Spies came to understand the community, the value the school had, the pride families felt when they could send their children there. He understood that many of his students were poor, sometimes hungry, and that the school was a place of comfort, not just for them, but for the community.

"I think you had to accept the problem and work with the people in trying to do what's necessary to get past that. You couldn't necessarily solve all the problems."

During the course of his career, Spies found that kids are kids, regardless of race or time.

"They need direction and they need help and the trick is learning how to get to them without seeming like you're doing that."

That day, when he saw the blimp hovering outside the window, stealing the attention of the class, Spies thought to himself, go with it. Make something of it.

If he'd been in front of the class, Spies would have made the lesson all about that great floating blimp -- about gravity and science and technology.

The blimp wasn't going away. But, he discovered, the kids could still learn a lot if the teacher would just go with it.

Like they see it

In the first weeks of school, Lisa Rodvien, 35, already sees it beginning -- the apathy, the feet dragging, the senior-itis.

As she took attendance one morning in a room of all seniors, another student said for the class to hear: "All the Filipino boys are late today."

As far as Rodvien knows, that's not reinforcing any stereotypes she's heard about Filipinos. And the student meant no malice. He was describing, not judging.

That, pretty much, has been Rodvien's experience in the multiracial and multicultural Hawaii, where she has taught high school for three years.

Brown is brown, white is white, black is black -- all just words used to tell something about a person's appearance, not their character or worth.

And what she's found in Hawaii has been nothing like what she found growing up in St. Louis.

"Imagine if you said that, all the black kids are late," Rodvien says, "that comes with so many connotations."

Rodvien grew up in the firmly middle class but affordable neighborhood of Indian Meadows. There, as a white girl, she was usually the minority in the largely black neighborhood, but she also had friends who were Chinese and Russian. In the Ladue school district, however, where she and her neighbors attended in the early '80s, it was the opposite -- mostly white. She saw kids stick to their own, black kids with black kids, white with white, and Rodvien grew up with an acute awareness of race and race issues.

Now, in Hawaii, that awareness still exists.

"Even if you don't actually talk about it, it's in the room," she says.

But the difference, for her, is that it's more an awareness, not a tension.

"When we talk about race in terms of white and black, there's definitely a sense of trying to break out of the stereotype that white is somehow better than black," she says.

But in Hawaii, where her students are many colors and many ethnicities, often from multi-racial families, that's not even part of the conversation.

"In a way," she says, "people can be very blunt about race."

Like the boy who pointed out that all the Filipino boys were late. He meant nothing negative by it, no one took it that way, and they went right on with their day.

But first, Rodvien marked them absent.

Not like the other

One morning early this summer, Mira Tanna, 39,  stopped by to see what her 4-year-old daughter was learning at camp.

Priya ran off for a moment and came back with a little wooden tray. The tray was divided into four sections, and Priya had beads in four shades of blue.

Tanna watched as her daughter started sorting, dropping the dark blue beads into one compartment, then the bright blue, then the aqua, then the light blue.

Hmmmm, Tanna thought, maybe there's another way to do this. So she took all the beads out and placed one of every color into the compartments. That way, each had many colors. Quickly, though, she realized she had beads left over.

"It was clear that that wasn't the intention of the game," Tanna says.

Maybe it's no big deal, it's just a game, after all. But Tanna looks around the worlds of her 7-year-old and 4-year-old and sees lots of sorting, lots of separating.

For a multi-ethnic woman with multi-ethnic children, Tanna finds that behavior taught early and often. How can it not become part of how they think later?

Tanna, whose father is Indian and mother is Dutch, is married to a man from Nigeria. Their children are comfortable with their black relatives in Nigeria, with their white relatives in the Netherlands and in their Benton Park neighborhood.

And Tanna works hard to reinforce that.

"I want them to understand that there are other people who have a diverse background like they do," she says.

And no matter where her children go, she wants them to be able to find a space there.

It shouldn't be about separating, she thinks, or pulling out what's different and setting it aside. It should be about taking all the pieces and making them whole.

It works in her family, anyway, so why not in a silly game?