If we’ve spoken in the last month, then you know that I have suddenly been jettisoned into the belly of every high school teacher’s supreme nightmare: Middle School.
Yes, that’s right, after 7 years teaching in a variety of High Schools across the city, I was brought back off the layoffs list with approximately 6 hours of lead time to teach 7th and 8th grade English.
Are the horror stories true? Are 7th grade girls really the most vicious creatures on Earth? Or is it just some sort of mythology to cover for the shortcomings of our science around what some call their adolescent Hormonal Toxic Shock Syndrome?
While I have countless stories of little girls and boys trying to show their affection through pulling hair and slapping each other. And while I could tell you hilarious nonsequitur interruptions that seem to come out of the left field of their little developing brains. Or about the oversized babies towering nearly 6 feet tall, but still falling into tantrums and tears when I so much as insinuate that they’re distracting the class… I actually want to share an amazing moment of spontaneous popular education that occurred today.
It was my post-lunch 8th grade English class. We were supposed to be reading Toni Cade Bambara, but before I could tell them a page number, one girl, with pure earnestness, raised her hand and said, “Ms. Wawa, Could you explain to us about the economy?”
I looked around. “You want to know about the shutdown?”
The whole class lit up, “Yes!” “We don’t get it.” “Could you break it down?”
So, in my happiest moment of pure teaching this year, I started to explain to them the process of developing a budget, how the US has been spending beyond our means – on things like the war and military and, locally, prisons. We talked about the standoff between the Senate and the House Republicans. We got into issues of racism and greed, of wrong priorities and what we want to see our tax dollars go to. We discussed our own families’ health care needs, our foodstamps, our Headstart. We shared stories of how much people already pay in taxes. We zeroed in on an essential question: How could the Republicans, with their fancy suits and six figures, be throwing a childish tantrum that affects all of us poor people in Philly?
Then, in a brilliant way to bring up the subject of wealth inequality, one boy asks, “But if all those rich people own Bugattis (a type of expensive car), and they pay, like a million dollars of taxes on it, then why doesn’t the US have enough money?” Classic 8th grade misconception, but he was trying to get at something very deep.
I asked if they’d ever heard of the 1% and the 99%. They hadn’t.
I took a breath, wondering if we were ready to go there. Their faces and you-could-hear-a-pin-drop attention showed me that we were.
I told 10 of them to grab their chairs and sit in the front of the classroom. I told them that they all represented equal wealth distribution. One person, one chair.
Then, I grabbed 2 of them, and made them squeeze down to sit on laps, and I gave their chairs to the person at the end, so that person could spread out.
They looked at me, thinking, “Wait. What is going on?” The person at the end said that she, “felt very comfortable,” and put her feet up.
Then, I grabbed 2 more of them, and made them go find a place to squeeze in. I gave their chairs to the original person. Now that person had half the chairs, and the rest of the 9 people had to find a place on the other half. I asked what was going on.
They said, “Hey. That’s not fair. The wealthy person doesn’t deserve all that.”
I asked what they were going to do about it. Some kids jumped up and tried to steal back the chair that they used to sit on. I hired another student to be the police, and had those kids locked up.
And then I took 2 more chairs. Now the wealthy person had 70% of the wealth. The bottom 9 people were squeezing onto 3 chairs, or 30% of the wealth. Well, minus the 2 people who were now incarcerated.
We concluded the exercise, and I had them all sit down. I asked them what thoughts or feelings came up.
Some said that they were angry, and wanted to act out. I asked them, when there isn’t much wealth or many jobs to go around to you, what do you do? A lot of them said that’s when they would start robbing or trapping (selling drugs.) I said, “Yeah. Have you noticed that a lot more people have been put in prison in the last 20 years than before? There’s a connection between not having jobs and money and doing things that get you locked up.”
Some were baffled, “What did the rich person do to get so rich?” “They had way more than they needed, and we didn’t have enough. Who would live like that?” “Is this why those Republicans are trying to shut down the government? To keep more of the money than they actually need?”
We discussed investing, corporate greed, and political kickbacks. They all speculated that Mayor Nutter gets free Comcast cable at his house, so that’s why there’s a tax abatement on their building downtown. This made me laugh. And then they wondered why the Mayor would prioritize building a new skating rink downtown when we don’t even have a counselor at our school. This made me tell them that they should set the priorities.
And then, the million dollar question: “Ms. Weinraub. How do we undo this? How can we spread the chairs back out so that we all get our share, not just the wealthy?”
I looked at him, and then at the whole class and said the only truth I could offer: “That’s what your generation is going to have to answer. That’s the world you’re going to have to make right.”
So even if tomorrow I have to untangle gum from a girl’s hair or put away the hand sanitizer so boys won’t pour it in each others’ eyes, today I was reminded of the possibilities of helping build critical thought in people just starting to put the pieces together.
And that’s why we as teachers can’t let the Testing Regime standardize our young people into bubbles to fill in. This is an unjust, broken, polluted world, and we absolutely need these young people to be developing the skills and strategies they’re going to need to solve the problems of the world they’re inheriting.
For more info on the chair activity, check out: http://www.faireconomy.org/files/GD_10_Chairs_and_Charts.pdf