This is a story of my past life as a teacher. I know I do not owe anyone any explanations, but it felt pretty good to finish this piece, and someone might get something out of it besides me.
. . .
So, I used to be a high school teacher; actually, I taught 8th grade through 12th grade. It was a pretty awesome experience. I felt like I was making a real difference in many kids’ lives. I often had students return to me after they graduated and thank me for preparing them for college. Or, they told me I was their favorite teacher. Even the kids who sat in my room day after day doing nothing, even some of those kids said I was their favorite teacher. And I didn’t even give “free time”.
Instead, I was rigorous, thoughtful, thought-provoking, challenging, and fun. I had the Juniors for both their English and U.S. History courses, and taught them in tandem, so we could make connections across curriculums. It was a lot of work for all of us, but those kids got ready for college. The ones who decided to invest in their education anyway; the ones who showed up to my class already equipped to succeed. The kids who had fallen behind years ago didn’t have much of a chance in my classes. But to their advantage, I was available for tutoring all the time, and I gave tons of extra credit. They just had to do the work.
But really, I designed my courses with the state learning standards in mind; so I, for the most part, expected from them what the state of California expected. Though I was told by my first principal that my classes were harder than the community college classes our students were taking. I was fresh out of grad school and academic rigor was my M.O. (I have lots of opinions about how we should re-vamp the education system in this country, if anyone cares to hear.) There are many things I would have done in addition to, and different from, what I was doing, if we had smaller class sizes and less workload, among a plethora of other necessities. I can not tell you how many hours I spent at the copy machine so my kids could learn. I also took on several extra curricular projects in order to ensure student success and enrichment. I spent most nights and weekends working for my students. But as far as teaching positions in LA, it was among the better ones. Perhaps that’s saying something about the quality of education in LAUSD, and I’m not blaming the teachers. We were expected to perform miracles with minimal resources. And I performed a few, for sure.
My school is a really great school. It’s a little magnet school, K-12, smack dab in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, an oasis in the morass of urban, large-scale schools. In its hey-day, it went above and beyond the status quo to provide as much hands-on learning as possible for its students–with Los Angeles a vast field-trip resource–until No Child Left Behind’s mandates dampened the curriculum and loaded us down with testing. We went from several field-trips a month to one a year per grade level. The district is, regardless of how they attempt to sub-sect it, a giant, multi-level bureaucratic organization. The downtown office is self-contained in its own high-rise, over 30 floors of pencil-pushers. It employs tens of thousands of disgruntled, frustrated teachers.
My school is a gem. We are safe from most of the harrowing city dangers. We call each other by our first names, a school policy, eliminating false respect that titles provide. We consider ourselves a “family” and usually get to know each other fairly well. Most students are encouraged to pursue avenues of interest, and are fostered by the staff to follow their dreams. We have murals painted by the students all over school (except the one I helped with that got painted over, the one that said, “Stop Wars”). The mural (painted before my tenure) on the outside of my classroom wall says, “Never Give Up on a Dream” and depicts a rainbow and smiling things. (On closer inspection, one can also see lots of pencil-drawn cock ‘n balls depictions. lol) We have a small animal farm with peacocks and goats and roosters.
I did not want to leave my school when I did, I enjoyed working with my colleagues, I had a lot of respect for most of the students, and I believed in providing a quality education for my students to the best of my ability.
I was essentially driven out.
Our student-body at the time that I was there (and I suspect it is still about the same three years later) was 40% Armenian. Before moving to California from the Midwest, I had never even heard of Armenia. If you haven’t either, it is a small country squished between the eastern border of Turkey, the southern border of Georgia, and the western border of Azerbaijan. It is the only Christian nation in the Middle East. So, although we were a magnet school, mandated 60% minority and 40% white, the Armenians counted as our “white” students. When the other magnet schools have their very bright white students keeping test scores high, our “white” students are a language and cultural minority, and addressing all the issues they brought to the table was a tremendous challenge.
I learned more about Armenia and Armenians over my six years teaching at my school than I ever thought I would. If you have never met any Armenians, let me describe them a little. And although I will be making generalizations and referring to stereotypes, if there ever was a group that reflected stereotypes, it is the Armenians. Stereotypes are bred and beaten into Armenian children. They have no choice but to adhere to stereotypes. If they attempt to behave or think differently from the rest of the group, they are outcast, shunned, treated as an Other. The Armenian kids I taught were often first- or second-generation immigrants, and their parents were educated under the Soviet system, which controlled Armenia until the fall. Then followed the economic depression. Armenians who have been settled in the U.S. or Canada over the last century may not know how to speak Armenian. But the ones at my school and in enclaves throughout Los Angeles are F.O.B.s, emigrating throughout the decade after the Soviet collapse.
The women are lovely, demure, intelligent, strong. They are always beautifully made-up and dressed to the Nine’s. Get them together, and they are fun, charming, endearing. Many of them could easily be scientists and engineers. They do the hard work for the boys. The girls are raised to wait on their brothers, even if they are younger, hand and foot. They are encouraged to let the boys cheat off them in school, and berated if they do not wish to adhere. To illustrate further this disparity of the sexes, we had a mother come to school at lunch time every day to hand-feed her six-year-old son. The boys are expected to inform the parents if an Armenian girl becomes interested in a non-Armenian boy. Even though many of them are acutely aware of their oppression, they often are voiceless.
The boys, on the other hand, are raised to be boss, and bark orders at their women, and dismiss anyone who is not Armenian. They have absolutely no respect for women, and do not even recognize that there are other cultures worth a damn in the world besides their own. These men are superbly homo-social, yet vehemently homophobic. Adult Armenian men can negotiate the outside world to an extent, but adolescent boys boast of their cultural heritage from the rooftops. In LA, there are independently-minded male Armenians, but they are not the cultural norm. Heaven forbid if any Armenian child, growing up in Los Angeles, wants to break out of the mould, have friendships with non-Armenians, enjoy the cultural feasts of LA. The few who did just this, got a lot of support from me.
Every once in a while, when tensions would get high, my students and I would end up in a long, open discussion about the culture clash at our school and within greater LA. One of these conversations was sparked by a statement from a more open-minded Armenian boy that “the Kardashians are not Armenian because they don’t speak the language.” We were supposed to be learning about Emily Dickinson that day. Instead, it was an intense two-hour talk on being Armenian. The Armenian boys would often conclude these discussions with a, yeah, maybe they could try to be friendlier (maybe even friends?) with non-Armenians. Many of the girls would end up weeping, frustrated at their second-class status within their family and community. The rest of the students had a chance to pipe in once in a while, and their input was valuable, though probably fell on deaf ears. There were so many other cool cultures at school that we could have been learning about, but the Armenians demanded loudly that we pay such close attention to them, that other kids’ cultures were neglected.
I made attempts to bridge the cultural gaps the best I could. I attempted to learn some Armenian phrases, I enjoyed Armenian food, I learned a little of the history and culture, I always appreciated attending an Armenian social gathering (though I’ve never been to a wedding and I really wanted to), I was sensitive to the issues surrounding my students. And I’m sure they appreciated my attempts to learn about their culture. But in school, there were seldom attempts made by Armenians to learn about other cultures. While I included Armenian girls on the Peace Day committee, most Armenian boys boycotted the annual event that celebrates our cultural differences.
Many of the Armenians would insist on speaking Armenian inside the classroom, and when asked to speak English because it’s nice to include everyone in such a loud and open conversation, they would give some bullshit translation. “Oh, yes, I was just telling my friend, Hovik, here, that he should open his book to page 452. That’s it, I swear.” Yeah. Right. On campus they would only spend time with each other, roving in a large gang of boys, and a few girls, all speaking Armenian, the boys wearing velour tracksuits with huge gold chains glistening around their necks. Some of them idolized the Armenian Mafia. The girls usually wore designer brands. Other kids expressed a desire to try to be friends with them, but felt this gang-like behavior to be very intimidating.
Historically, the Armenians are a people who have seen genocide, so their cultural identities, and the preservation of those identities, is paramount. There are now more Armenians living outside of their mother country than inside it’s political boundaries. These boundaries changed after the genocide of 1915, so their beloved Mt. Ararat is in Turkey. They hate the Turks. Every April 24 the Armenians have a march (or car parade?) through Hollywood, appealing to world governments to recognize the Armenian Genocide that was inflicted by the Ottoman Empire, ancestors to today’s Turks. The older generations are sad, quiet, venerable, on this day. The young Armenians use this day as an opportunity to show off their expensive cars, their flashy bling, and perhaps find a hook-up or two. I have heard this critique of the Armenian Youth Parade by some of my more courageously open-minded Armenian students willing to express their discontent.
How do you bridge gaps with a culture that continuously shuts you out? I made friends with the girls. The Armenian girls are lovely, so lovely, and bright. They used to take me out to lunch on my birthday. I needed to somehow save these girls from the fate that awaited them. Usually, it is as a teenage bride marrying a man in his mid-30s. Some of the smarter girls, get to go to college and pursue a short career before getting married and having many babies. A few get to marry men closer to their own age because they have fallen in love. Most of them end up fat, but very hospitable.
As a more independent thinker, and fortunate enough to be a college-educated white American, I encouraged the girls to be assertive about their needs and wants. I feared for their fate, and wanted to help them learn about the world, and encouraged them to explore it. Let them know what other ways of thinking were out there, what other options they had. In hindsight, I probably created a lot of tension between daughters and their parents, as they made attempts to speak up for what they knew in their hearts to be what they wanted. I never intended to cause familial riffs, and I probably didn’t beyond the normal teenage drama stuff. I wanted to, instead, teach these girls about all the amazing things this world has to offer and help them discover what they can do to add to it in their own amazing ways.
In addition to teaching my students the subject-specific courses they needed in order to graduate, I thought it was my obligation as their mentor to teach them about life. I have a hard time lying to people who ask in earnest, and I would usually answer earnestly, if time permitted, when my students asked ‘off-topic’ questions. What a good opportunity to address some of the issues facing these kids! We talked about sex, sexual identity, racism, corporate impacts on our lives, current politics, drugs, tattoos, manga, music, and much more. Why not discuss what kids want to talk about, and get them to think about their choices? (Even if it did get me in trouble once in a while.) I didn’t ever glorify stupid behavior (not really). If a kid needed a condom, he could get a couple from me and know they weren’t out of date like the ones in the health office. Really, I wanted my students to be prepared to negotiate a world that is more diverse and filled with more choices than they could imagine. For the liberal-minded students, I wanted to develop their sense of civic-mindedness, and responsibility to their community to make this world a better place with the time they have on it. If I ran into a student at a march or rally downtown, I offered extra credit if they wrote a paper about their experience.
And my students taught me, in return. Such wonderful people, my students. And many of them are now going on to grad school or working in fields that will make a difference, or making babies. I am proud of my contribution to their lives, and grateful for their contribution to my life. There are dozens and dozens I would love to thank today.
For most of the Armenians, I was just trying to get them to hate less. It seemed to me the boys hated everyone not Armenian. If I could just get them to hate less, then I would have a more peaceful classroom, providing a sweeter space for learning. If I could just get them to hate less, they wouldn’t be seen as huge assholes to most of their SoCal brothers from different cultures. Is that too much to ask for?
I started to lose heart for teaching during my sixth year at my beloved school. The Juniors, a tremendously bright group, were acting lazy. I knew they had so much potential, and month after month they were giving me half-assed bullshit. My efforts to motivate them were not working. I was distracted with an important election and a crumbling relationship. Additionally, with my Senior writing class, a series of events played out, which I won’t line up on display here, now, for it would double the length of this essay. (But I’ll tell you over coffee sometime if you don’t want to wait for the post.) The combined result was that I lost my heart for teaching, or at least, teaching at my school. The Nay-sayers of my pedagogy and practice were Homophobes and Bigots, many were Armenian parents. Why didn’t I just call the ACLU? (Now, with the passage in California of the Gay History curriculum mandate, I would have been completely protected.) I ended that school year feeling totally disheartened.
Throughout my tenure at my school, I tried so hard to be a fine model of another possibility, another way to live, besides the closed-minded, closed-hearted way that many of my students were raised to think, feel, and act. I was able to use the contents of my courses to help teach those lessons. Everything we learned was about people from the past, making mistakes and reaching goals. But over the course of six years, after feeling very little success in some of these difficult battles, and sometimes not always being the best model myself, I was exhausted.
The following summer, I transfered to a continuation school in a predominantly Latino neighborhood. I lasted for one semester before I quit altogether. The school was comprised of kids trying to recover enough credits to graduate; mostly gang kids, teen mothers, unmotivated stoners. There was some question as to an available position because of personnel shuffling throughout the district. The math and English coach positions had all been eliminated in the budget cuts and now there were several dozens of displaced teachers looking for classrooms. When I got the call that I might not have the transfer after all, the first thought that coursed through my mind was, “I can not teach the Armenian boys another year.”
Because I also taught 8th grade, I had already experienced the next group coming into my Junior classes, and I did not want to deal with them again. They were especially awful.
All year every year a similar group of Armenian boys glared at me. (My memory of them today is a blur of angry faces with heavy dark eyebrows.) They never respected me, especially as a woman in a position of authority over them. They terrorized me. One year, an Armenian boy in my English Lit class wrote a five-page paper semi-glorifying a back-alley rape, his piece for the fiction unit. Hopefully not fantasy. I had Armenian boys put my photo that they got from the school website on a craigslist ad offering sexual favors, giving the school’s phone number. For a week my principal fielded calls from perverted men seeking blow-jobs. In a reflection for his health class, an Armenian boy wrote that all gay people in this country should be killed. Some of them committed vandalism, putting a 4-foot key scratch all around the back of my (now ex-) husband’s new Mini Cooper. They glared at me, these boys, like they wanted to do terrible violence to me before they killed me. The nicer looks were just ones of disgust. That isn’t to say that much of the time, there weren’t some Armenian boys who acted nice. There were usually a small handful who knew how to act respectfully and personably, even if they didn’t always feel it. But the other large handful would glare.
I make a practice of examining the prejudices I harbor. Being so liberal my whole life naturally caused me to be the fighter for the underdog, the sub-group, the powerless. My prejudices were few. I don’t think I had even heard of Armenia before moving to Los Angeles. But after six years of dealing with adolescent Armenian males, I hate to say that I have prejudice now. Some day I will examine these more carefully and try to remove them from my heart. But for now, I’m relieved that I don’t have to face the glare-down every day. I still adore the Armenian girls, and wish them the very best. And I have tremendous respect for any Armenian child, boy or girl, who dares to break free of the mental and social confines that relatives force upon them.
Who’s to say which is better, assimilation or preservation of culture? What the Armenians were doing was using fear and threats of terror, and actual terror, to achieve their goals. One of their goals was removing me from the school that they were attempting to take over, literally. They weren’t just stating their needs as a minority group in peaceful demonstration. They were hostile. I couldn’t continue to work in such an unhealthy environment.
Essentially, this is about how we behave in each other’s company. How can we create positive interactions with every other living thing on this planet? How do we create positive climates for learning, in order to advance our society?
What the Armenians need is balance. They need to drop the trait of terror and embrace the essence of cooperating with people from a variety of backgrounds, while teaching others about their culture. Otherwise, they should go back to Armenia. Seriously. If their hearts are bound to Mt. Ararat, then why not go back to the place they love? Economics seems to tie them to their new home. And fortunately, they have neighborhoods and families with whom they can remain culturally intact.
But as an educator, it is my job to prepare them for the world. Their immediate world is Los Angeles, a city with I bet at least one person from about every culture on the planet. The Armenian bubble isn’t that big that they won’t encounter many different types of people in their normal city lives. It would be to their advantage to learn how to get along with everyone, instead of projecting their bully status with foghorns throughout the city. I tried, but I gave up. They made it clear to me that they would prefer to hold onto their homophobia, their bigotry, their sexism, their hatred of difference, and use violence to maintain their control over their own fears. It’s so sad.
I know I am so far from perfect, and I’m just working on myself right now. I’m tired of judging. I spent years of my life judging: evaluating exactly what was the best information to teach in the limited time I had, evaluating which work was the best my students produced, giving them grades in judgment of their work, these grades a communication between everyone about how well some kid did according to whichever weirdo was grading their papers. (Some schools just use computer programs now to grade papers, the subjective professional evaluator may be going the way of the Dodo.) I’m kind of tired of judging. I reacted to a judgmental group of people with more judgment. I am working every day to judge less and less. Discern? Yes. Make informed, intelligent decisions? As often as possible. But feel negatively about someone because of their perceived negativity, well, I’m working really hard on that one.
And maybe you harbor judgment in your heart as well. That’s why we can understand each other. Sometimes it’s necessary, because we’ve been shit on so many times that we have to have our guard up. Like the Armenians. At my school, the graduates all request a personal speaker at their ceremony. I had the opportunity to be a speaker a couple times. It’s a thrill, I can assure you. I remember one time, a slightly older girl spoke for her graduating cousin. This gal told the audience, her family advice, to “trust no one.”
I’m not perfect, faaaaaarrrrr faaaaaaaaarrrrr, from perfect. However, even though it has gotten me into trouble, I still believe that possessing a certain naïveté about the world, in some aspect, keeps it fresh, interesting, alive, and beautiful.
I always felt like it was much easier to talk to one Armenian boy at a time. If they ganged up, they started thumping their chests, showing off, sometimes surrounding me. Kind of frightening, but I was able to manage them okay, for the most part. When it was just one kid, he was usually respectful, more easy-going, generally easier to be with. Unfortunately, “Group Think” sets in quickly.
Maybe that’s the way to get their attention, one at a time. If each Armenian boy paired off with a kid from a different culture, a different (or the closeted same) sexual identity or gender preference, a different ability spectrum, then maybe they would see that the world is not quite as scary as they think. And they would stop using fear to intimidate in return. And it would be one more wall breaking down between us all.
So go find an Armenian boy, and become his friend, though it might be hard, it might hurt.
I hope, generations hence, (gladly sooner!) humans can discover the real pathways to each other, and stop with the violence, the nonsense, the interferences of prejudice. The Armenian males are but a small representation of the same flawed sentiment among humans around the world, to varying degrees, myself included. We hate what we fear, and we fear what we do not know. We can change ignorance. We can resolve to do better each and every next time.