November 21, 2008


I had my first experience ever at an inner-city school today. I have done outreach programs at impoverished rural schools, but the inner-city was something I'd never experienced. I'd led a sheltered upbringing in Toronto, pretty much only leaving my upper-middle-class neighbourhood to go to the upper-class neighbourhood where I attended high school until I was about 18. I don't think that's necessarily the way my parents should have raised me, but it's the way they did raise me, and I can't change that now.

I work for an organization called Debate Mate, where I teach debating skills to high school students in under-privileged urban areas. The kids I met today were great. They were really enthusiastic and smart. They knew about history and world politics and all of them aspired to go to go to unti and become barristers, engineers, fashion designers, performers, and even the Prime Minister of Great Britain! They were lovely kids, but the whole experience still disturbed me because they were lovely kids who had such a different environment from the clean spaces and leafy green grounds that formed the backdrop of my high school experience.

The school was fllthy. Worse than any public school I have ever gone to or volunteered at in Canada. The school clearly had no money for fresh coats of paint or care-takers. It was also cold. I hadn't even realized how out of place I would feel until I got there. I knew the school was very multi-cultural, and that I would be one of the only white people there, which didn't really bother me, but it hadn't occurred to me that there would be a disproportionate number of white authority figures. Their teacher was a young white woman, and I ran into several other white teachers there. There were only two white students in my class of about twenty, but most of their role-models were middle-class white women. I wondered, am I the right person to be inspiring them? I was born with white privilege and never really had to work harder to prove myself because of my race. Does this matter? Many of these kids were trying to be the first in their families to attend university. They were struggling to overcome an institutionalized system of racism in The UK that left their inner-city school desperately under-funded,while I had grown up in an area with access to one of the best public high schools in Toronto, if my parents had decided I should attend them.

I was also keanly aware of my class privilege while there. We were playing the game one truths and a lie. A fabulous game. One kid said he had a dog and that his father was a law professor. Immediately, all the kids screamed that the lie was his father was a law professor. They didn't all know him, but they knew if that were true he wouldn't have been at their school.

I stuck out as the Canadian girl wearing diamond earrings and a tennis bracelette I recieved when I graduate from high school. I usually don't think of this jewelry as especially ostentatious. I wear it everywhere. I don't own any other valuable jewelry and many of my friends own comparable pieces they were given by their parents for events like their 18th birthdays. But, in this school, my jewelry suddenly stood out. I felt ridiculous. Look at how much wasted money was on my hand! I could have bought these kids text books, school dinners and uniforms with that money. Instead, that money had gone to me, and I was wearing stupid diamond earrings I had previously never considered weren't normal. Even when working with under-privileged kids in Canada, for some reason I'd never felt so other. There had always been one or two wealthy kids in the bunch who happened to live in the school district and made me feel less strange. There didn't seem to be this same incredibly stark class-divide where a high school could be forgotten and left to rot while they kids in it were forced to learn each day in absolute squalor.

It appears the class system in Britain is alive and well, and heavily racialized. I'm not sure if teaching these twenty kids how to debate can really change much in that regard, but I hope it does something. I hope at least these twenty kids learn the communication and persausion skills necessary to change the system and at least assert their own rights. What makes me think this might be possible is that one of the kids wrote down on his get-to-know-you questionaire that the reason he wanted to debate was because of "Barack Obama." I thought that was one of the most touching things I'd ever heard. He wanted to learn to inspire people to make change with words. He wanted to lead a movement based on telling people he knew there was a different way. When I read this answer, after the kids had already left the session, I cried a little bit. I just didn't know if I personally was capable of doing much to help these kids speak as eloquently as Barack Obama. I didn't know if any of them would ever get lucky enough to achieve the same kind of audience as Barack Obama, but I wanted to so very much. I wanted to do that, because that's really what they deserve.

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