A Letter to My Students (of mourning black death, and celebrating black life)

A Letter to My Students:

This July is that kind of hot in New York City that makes your blood boil to the sound of drums in the subway stations and breath stick to the sides of your throat. I am amazed by you, that you show up to my classroom at City College, 25 teachers and me crammed into a close room without air conditioning. Many of you are bilingual teachers and are teaching in the neighborhoods you grew up in.  I honor you for that. I know I push you hard, giving you theory and research that I myself find difficult to read with years of practice. I tell you it is because you are brilliant and I respect you, just like my teachers in graduate school pushed me– out of respect. But there is another reason: and that is, to teach in this world you must be armed with the latest, the most cutting-edge, the most relevant. You are teaching in a hurting world.

We read Kris Gutierrez’s work on “cultural repertoires of practice” and Marjorie Orellana and Carol Lee’s work on “cultural modeling.” Kris Gutierrez was the first Latina professor to head the American Educational Research Association, our largest professional organization. Carol Lee opened two African-centered schools in Chicago and influenced legions of researchers.  Marjorie Orellana studied immigrant children translating for their parents in doctor’s offices and legal settings, then measured their rigorous literacy learning and the expertise they contribute to erstwhile adult interactions. These researchers I am sharing with you look at the things that kids and youth do in their everyday lives, and document the learning that young people accomplish as they talk, laugh, play and interact. By introducing you to Kris and Carol and Marjorie, I want you to understand that we believe schools should change. We believe that schools abstractly decide what kids *should* learn based on adult values, filling kids up like they are empty containers. (Usually white, heteronormative, middle-class adult values). However, Kris and Carol and Marjorie and I all think that instead, schools should meet young people where they are, honor their lives, and build upon the assets and skills they carry with them like precious jewels.

You have been putting your researchers’ hats on and observing youth and children engaged in daily activities out and about in NYC. You identified the everyday skills in youths’ practices, and wrote lessons connecting youths’ out of school learning and in school learning. One of you observed youth on the NYC subway– how kids carefully suss out what car to get on and where to sit and how to move; you wrote lessons about how to make inferences and predictions. Another of you observed kids taking boxing lessons and connected it to physics. And my dearest Lali. I loved your project! You brought double dutch jumprope experts into your classroom in Brooklyn and talked about the story-telling work inherent in black communities. Opal, you looked at the mathematics involved in African hair braiding salons in Harlem. Your work is political and subversive. You look at things that would otherwise get dismissed and trace the intelligence and value of the work. 

When I got home tonight, I had an email waiting from one of you, thanking me for teaching her how to *see* her students, in the way she had always wanted to be seen and be known by her teachers growing up– who were not black.  But I can’t help but worry about our conversation earlier during which some of you pushed back on me. You asked:  isn’t this just about making school more fun for kids? What about the serious work of trigonometry? We have to teach to the Regents! 

My hands shook as I reminded you: 61% of youth labeled English Language Learners (I prefer “multilingual” students) do not finish high school in New York City. NYC educates the largest percentage of black students in the country, graduating only 28% of black males. Creating classrooms that identify, honor, and encourage youths’ cultural practices as worthwhile and brimming with learning is not just about “fun”– it is about saving lives. (Although da-ham, why not have a little fun while you are at it. Joy is also a way of saving lives). And you snapped your fingers at me, approving of my words, nodding your heads. I appreciated that. I appreciate you.  But I can’t help but worry that you will forget everything I am telling you under the pressure of high-stakes tests and the lack of respect you are facing as a teacher. I can’t help but worry that  the never-ending blah blah blah about American’s “failing urban” (yawn, I’m bored) schools will get under your skin. I can’t help but worry that schools and the rhetoric of how they are failing (you are not failing! you are living!) will hurt your bright spirits and open faces, your bright eyes and open hearts.

It is a hot July, and many things are happening. With many others, I choked on desperate tears as I watched Philando Castile bleed to death in front of his girlfriend and her little daughter. The girlfriend streamed the three sitting immobile in their car live on Facebook, the phone a seeming protective measure against the police officer’s gun that reached in the window as Philando Castile’s girlfriend repeated over and over with jewels in her throat: “He was reaching for his ID sir, he was reaching for his ID sir.” I say with many others because the white women in the cafe where I go to write to you are seemingly oblivious to the news, day after day, oblivious to the nation’s pain around them, to riots in the streets and protests and marches and Black Lives Matter’s aching screams to listen, listen, we are dying, listen. Inside this cafe in the white, white East Village life goes on like nothing is wrong, like black men are not being slaughtered in the streets by police, and like the world– broken since forever ago, now stretched to the seams in ways it didn’t seem possible– is perfectly alright. These white women around me giggle and laugh about this and that, boyfriends and jobs, and their travel to foreign places and my heart breaks over and over because black people, brown people, bilingual people, immigrant people, trans- people, are dying and I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.

So, not knowing what to do, I teach you. I walk from the loud chatter of East Harlem through the gracious tree-lined streets of West Harlem to castle-topped City College. I wave and nod at the security guards, hard-working people who are always up for a chat and a laugh. I stand in front of you on a hot July day in a classroom with no air conditioning and no fans and I tell you that your cultural lives matter. That your students’ cultural lives matter. That bringing cultural practices– valued historical practices and dynamic contemporary practices– into your curriculum matters because it could, perhaps, I pray, help your students to feel that who they are is meaningful and valued in this institution that forces them to attend and keep their bodies still in tiny little chairs. I teach you to read rigorously, I share my ideas with you as my teachers shared ideas with me. And I watch you as you gather up your things to leave, cheerfully exhausted and immersed in your learning and I think about how all we have is this. This one action. This one attempt. This one moment. All around us racism is taking lives while white women laugh in cafes and we can only learn, and teach, and try– today. This now. And no more.

In solidarity,

Your Teacher (Christine)

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Natalie Tejada says:

    The emotions poured into this piece of writing are so REAL in every way that the word real is used today. With my eyes watered up in mixed emotions like pain, grief and content (because misery loves company), I appreciate and honor your fight professor. Please continue to help us inspire our NYC students through your teachings and inspiration and, ultimately, through your fight. I bring your beautiful spirit with me into my classrooms every day. I help shift uncontrolled and misguided anger into productive pride and resilience. Thank you for teaching me the proper ways to fight this. You put up a great fight and I am so proud to be a part of it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are welcome, and I am proud of you, so proud.


  2. Michole Brown says:

    This is such a beautiful piece, Christine Malsbary–and infinitely relatable: “You are teaching in a hurting world. …it’s about saving lives. …people, are dying and I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.” Those who ‘don’t know’ are our greatest teachers. Masters of conventional wisdom are not agents of change. Thank you for your living example of our responsibility to remain compassionate and teachable (the true maxims for revolutionists)!


  3. Georgia Christgau says:

    I read and reread your piece, and now I’m sad. I am one of the “many others,” and yet I am also one of the “white women” in the East Village. Why infer that that “white women” sitting in an East Village restaurant are indifferent to what you feel so passionately about? Women, by the way, to whom you have not spoken — even though you seem divine what they are talking about — and who, to you, are emblematic of a racist society? We all — black and white, young and old, male and female — live and work in New York City, where, agreed, class differences are striking. Your work with young teachers sends me back to reread Carol Lee and look up the other two authors who inspire. Thanks for that. But please, don’t generalize. Leave that to others who can’t do better. They’re doing it in Cleveland, and next week they’ll do it some more in Philadelphia. But we, NYC teachers on the NYCWP listserve, can be different. Let’s.


    1. I understand the impulse to take my reference to “white women” personally. As a biracial woman, I am also white. I understand the impulse to turn the lens off of self. But, white women have a lengthy history of turning their (our) backs on people of color– women of color. This is a reality and one that must acknowledged and atoned. The “white women” in the piece are the narrative symbol of white privilege, which is the ability to turn on and turn off the experience of race and racism. Black women don’t ever get to turn off race.


  4. This is gorgeous, & I so needed this to exist in the world. You shared this on the NYCWP ListServ & I needed time to prepare myself to read this, & I’m so glad I finally did. There was a comment on the listserv about your scene in the cafe, a comment that suggested the portrayal of white women here was flawed. But I want to thank you for that moment, for capturing succinctly & viscerally the feeling of sitting in a bubble representative of the larger world – where race creates the privilege to express joy, & to create a space where sorrow & anger are not welcome or “seemly.” I felt like you put words to what I can so rarely articulate but what I am so often experiencing-feeling alone in grief, feeling like everyone around me is able to return to normalcy & carry on while I stand awkwardly & wonder what to do with my hands. Thank you for this, so much.

    [A small correction: Philando Castile.]

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are so welcome. Thank you for coming into my world with me for a moment. It is so meaningful, and your comment is beautiful.


  5. RaVen Pritchard says:

    I miss you way too much! This was amazing!


    1. Thank you! And I miss you, but I also know you are out there being amazing and full of service.


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