The year I showed up in a classroom in an urban High School in south Atlanta, was the year after the movie “Freedom Writer” came out. I know this because the kids called me that as though it was my name.
“Who you got for English?”
I acted annoyed and told them I was younger and cuter than Hillary Swank, but secretly I was pleased. I was there to save them. I was there to bring them their freedom, show them a better way. Maybe I was hoping to be a little more edgy, like Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, but they saw me for what I was hoping to be.
I was hoping to be the white savior. I was planning on it really.
Spoiler Alert: The white savior figure isn’t real. We already have a savior, and I am never it. Instead of spending the year winning over hearts and minds by showing up with brilliant lesson plans and a hear of gold,
I learned that I wasn’t enough. I wasn’t even close to enough.
I learned I was underprepared. I had not done the work I needed to do to serve the community. I had not read a single book about black identity. Really the only stories of black high schools I had familiarized myself with weren’t actually about the kids. They were about people who looked just like me being changed and affirmed by black communities. Those were the stories I was interested in.
I learned just how egotistical I was. What made me think I could change the system just because I really wanted to? What did I think all those other teachers who had been there before me wanted? To be honest, I didn’t think much about the system at all. I mean, I had been an honors student at a middle class, mostly white school. The system had worked for me. Didn’t that mean the system worked? I just needed to show all of these other people who were more qualified and educated than I was how it worked, so they could work it too! At 22 with exactly zero work experience, I really thought I knew better.
I learned the realities of my students lives. Despite the fact that I was ill-prepared and egotistical, my students opened up to me anyway. Through the sharing of their lives and stories I was able to see the ways they were being set up to fail. I learned how much they had to get through just to show up every day. I learned how the system did not account for all the extra hardships poverty and systemic racism had thrust upon them.
I learned how to listen. I learned how to really listen to my students, what they were telling me. I learned how to pay attention to the ways the system was unfair. I learned to see the ways they were overcoming it anyway.
But mostly I learned that I wasn’t their savior. I wasn’t going to swoop into a community that I did not know, let alone love, and just make things all better. I wasn’t going to be able to fix anything in the time frame I was expecting, and certainly not all on my own.
It turns out they didn’t need a savior. No one needed me to come in and offer hope; they already had hope. No one needed me to come in and offer dignity; they already had dignity.
I didn’t learn that I was the white savior by accident. Our culture is full of stories that teach people like me that I have the power to bring people hope, dignity, freedom. I learned them in church. I learned them in movies. I certainly learned these stories in teacher school. I learned that I was supposed to go save people. So I did.
And then, I really learned. I learned that we all are in need of a savior. I learned how wrapped up in each other our salvation really is. I learned about systemic racism and the ways I was complicit. I learned about how systemic racism hurt me too. I learned we need each other, desperately to point to freedom for everyone.
Mostly I learned that I was not the savior. I could not be more grateful for that lesson.