[I was telling this story to an SLA parent this week as we talked about teenage drug use and how to deal with it. She said, "That would make an amazing post for your blog." So here it is.]
In my high school and college years, I had a "live and let live" attitude toward pot. I knew kids who smoked with their parents. I knew students at Penn who got busted over summer break, and aside from some community service hours, it didn’t seem like a big deal. And I knew a kid at the "stoner" frat who was a 3.8 Pre-Med major – a GPA much higher than my goody-two-shoes English major could muster. I also knew the most talented writer in my high school had dropped out of college because he had apparently spent much of the first year of college high, and I knew that some of my friends were not as coherent as they used to be, but mostly, the kids I knew who were using drugs kept it together. It seemed to me to be a personal choice that people made, and I didn’t think much of it one way or another.
In my own life, I was raised with my father’s voice always in my head with the phrase, "If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime," and that was a powerful deterrent for me. Also, I had (and have) a healthy fear about drugs in general, mostly because I always thought I would have been "that guy" – the Len Bias story petrified me, for example. I was convinced (and still sort of am) that I’d be the kid who would have wrecked his brain the first time he ever did anything dangerous with drugs… and I kind of like my brain. But those were personal choices… I didn’t really think about it much beyond that.
Then I student-taught at A. P. Randolph in Harlem.
I student-taught an 11th grade English class that was over 95% black and Hispanic, and today, the school is 75% free or reduced lunch, and I’d imagine it was roughly similar then. I loved teaching that class… and it was one of those student-teaching experiences where the cooperating teacher was more than happy to have an extra prep period, so I had the chance to really teach the kids.
Juan was a student in that class who lived in Spanish Harlem. He didn’t get along with the cooperating teacher at all, but he and I got along. He was a really good writer, and I really liked working with him. Then one Monday morning, he wasn’t in school and his classmates told me that he got caught with marijuana on him by the police. He was out for a couple of days, and when he came back, he and I had a long talk. He was distraught that his chances for college were over. I told him that he would be o.k.. I was thinking about all the kids I knew in high school and college who were generally unaffected when they got caught with drugs, but later, when I talked to a teacher at the school who I really respected, she confirmed for Juan – first generation college, minority, poor – she was afraid it would really affect his college process. I was naive enough back then to be surprised by that.
That weekend, I was at a party that one of my grad school classmates hosted, and some of my pre-service teaching classmates at the party decided to pass around a joint. In that moment, I was truly horrified by what I saw. These were soon-to-be-teachers. Most of them spoke about wanting to teach in New York City. All of them in the room were white. I don’t think I’m wrong in my guess that several of them came from affluence and several others probably had similar middle-class backgrounds as me. And none of them seemed to see a problem with what they were doing.
I was struck powerfully by the inequity of the moment. I realized that the friends I had who had issues with drug use had a safety net that protected them when things went wrong – a safety net that my students in that classroom didn’t have. It was a safety net that Juan didn’t have. And I was revolted by the realization. I left the party, because I couldn’t even be in the room feeling what I felt. In time, I learned that what I was feeling was an understanding of white privilege and of class privilege – at the time, I didn’t have that language, but I knew what I saw was wrong.
Since that moment, I’ve been pretty powerfully anti-drug, not just for the reasons most teachers are – although after fifteen years in teaching, I’ve seen too many kids ruined by drugs but because of the inequity I see in the way society deals with teenage drug use – especially marijuana use. I’d love to run a visualization test on people and show a picture of a white student and then a black student, both with a joint in their hand, and ask them to react to the photos. I’m guessing we’d see very different responses from a lot of people.
I couldn’t – and can’t – live with seeing people take advantage of that unexamined privilege.
There are dozens of reasons for teachers to speak out against drug use. Too many of us have lost kids to drugs. And I hate what I’ve seen drugs do to kids, no matter what their demographics, but the biggest reason I have come to hate drug use is that it becomes one more racial and economic imbalance. Too many of my kids would not be able to overcome the obstacle of getting picked up for possession. And too many kids in wealthy, white suburbs would find it to be nothing more than an inconvenience. If that is not unpacked and explored by students, we will do harm to our students on two fronts. First, if we nod and wink about drug use, we may be setting a student up for consequences they are not prepared to deal with. And two, when we do not examine how certain behaviors highlight the race dynamics and social class structure, we will create barriers to honest and open communication and growth.
We shouldn’t be o.k. with that.