Cold air pierced my skin everyday in Ms. Smith’s sophomore AP World History class. This problem stemmed from her idea to dilute the stuffy, sweaty smell that a room full of teenagers creates, by opening the window. This, unfortunately for the both of us, did not work out so well, as the fresh air never made it all the way into the room and only ended up freezing the row of students sitting closest. Ms. Smith and I were engaged in a silent ongoing battle through the months of October and November. I would shut the window whenever her back was turned, then she would casually walk by while lecturing to slide it open again; the result was the opening and closing of the rickety window five or six times a day. I feared it would collapse from the stress. The conflict with the window sparked a turbulent relationship that I shared with this teacher throughout the year. This may be why I was so quick to judge her dedication to teaching about women in history as being “overly feminist.”
I walked in to the usual pre-class commotion and made my way to my seat, where I could smell the cold, dry winter air and the scent of fresh bread wafting over from the Franz factory four blocks away. Good afternoon class was followed by a discord of good afternoon Ms. Smith and class began. That day’s PowerPoint was devoted to learning about women’s involvement in Atlantic revolutions. I immediately thought to myself that she was trying too hard, that women were included enough in the normal classwork, and I dismissed this lesson. At the end of that class period however, I had forgotten my preconceived notions completely, and as the year went on, I found that that class was one of my favorite classes I ever had.
“Women-in-history” day was not, as I expected it to be, lamenting sexism in the past. Though I did realize how very important discussing issues of sexism is, and I enjoyed doing so, I felt that the way it was done in school was a rant of blaming the system and crying about how unfair everything was (and always done so by male teachers). In this history class, we learned about women who overcame obstacles and made important contributions to society and history, women who were left out and never talked about but were just as important as Justinian I or Thomas Jefferson. We learned how systems of oppression came about in different places and how they were sometimes stopped. Most importantly, we connected this to the white male version of history normally taught, and together it showed a broader, more complete picture.
I didn’t realize why this was my favorite class until, at the end of 10th grade, I learned about the ethnic studies program in Arizona. These very popular Mexican American studies classes were offered at different high schools around Tucson until 2010, when a racially motivated law was passed banning the classes. A claim that the classes excluded students of certain races as well as promoting political activism that could lead to the overthrow of the American government was the excuse for this. Despite these dramatic and biased claims, students enrolled in ethnic studies not only enjoyed the class, their grades improved. A Stanford University study of an ethnic studies program in San Francisco showed that student attendance increased by 21 percent and GPA points increased by 1.4 grade points compared to students who did not take the class. Ms. Smith’s history class did for me what the Mexican American studies class did for Latino students in Tucson: I saw myself reflected in what we were learning which made the class more relevant for me and I was therefore more engaged and motivated to do the work.
I began to notice that it was not only history class where there was a lack of diversity. STEM classes are famous for being male dominated, and it was true that I had only one female science teacher in my years of formal education, but the problem I saw was in language arts. Every year since sixth grade I remember the same routine in English class; one Shakespeare play per year to be memorized and reenacted, and one literary classic to be read and analyzed in an essay. I became very familiar with Falstaff over the years and the classics couldn’t be counted on for variation either, ranging from the greek Medea, to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to To Kill a Mockingbird. Sophomore year brought a change to the dull cycle of books so old I could smell the must. The Personal Anthology was assigned, which meant reading books and poems, and seeing films from around the world; any country except those considered western were acceptable. This brought an interesting flavor to homework; the anthology was to be worked on outside of class, but in class our task was still to scrutinize Oedipus’ convoluted family tree. It was a halfhearted attempt at teaching more non-white-male literature since the students were expected to find the content themselves, but this may have been the best the school could do. The publishing industry, like all other aspects of society, is steeped in racism. Many more white authors are published and most of those who receive awards are white. Multicultural content represents only 13% of children’s literature.
This lack of diversity in all parts of the school curriculum is an obvious failure of the public school system to modernize and teach interesting content, but it is more than that. If I, as an upper class white female, feel bored with, and left out of a curriculum, then African Americans, Latinos, and LGBTQ people are being starved of an education that is relevant to them. I have a strong likelihood to graduate simply because of my demographics. African Americans are 11 percent less likely to graduate and this whitewashed, misogynist school curriculum is a major factor in this. It’s simple. If students do not see themselves reflected in what they are learning, they won’t want to learn. If they don’t feel supported by their educational environment, they won’t want to stay. At the end of the day, if people don’t see themselves, they become convinced they never will, and that will not, and must not, stand.