Empathy in Theory and not Practice (Part 1): For the Love of God, Stop Calling Me, E!

Hey all! Welcome back to my pink room. Happy to have you here. Grab seat, get comfortable… we might be here for a little while.

Today, we are continuing our schooling investigation with another installment in our “Schooling and Our Roots” series. We are going to be taking a slightly different approach than usual, and like I promised before, we will spend the bulk if not all of our time together in a story that I believe shines light upon the often devastating effect of a gulf between empathetic schooling in theory and in practice. I also hope that for the sake our purposes this story will at least give us a bit more insight on why Pink Valley’s first pandemic schooling plan was implemented in March 2020 and thrown out entirely by September 2020.

But before we jump in let’s get some logistics out of the way:

  1. As usual I encourage folks because it’s been couple months since the last installment to check out the last post in this series, “Pit Stop: Where are We and Where are We Going?“, just to refresh your memory on what we are actually talking about.
  2. For all my first time visitors. Welcome. So glad you are here. If you enjoy our time together today, feel free to click follow on any of the main pages to find my pink room right in your inbox. Also to newcomers but really anyone, if you think what I am sharing is relevant or important feel free to share it to your socials or just encourage your friends to come check it out. I hope that this series will help spark conversation in this unique and important moment in our history, where we all have an opportunity to be change makers.
  3. Finally, we will end with a few disclaimers before getting into the beans* of our time together.
    • First important disclaimer, I continue to not be an expert on but rather an observer of Pink Valley’s schooling praxis and decision making. However, I do think we are all experts of our own stories and experiences. With that said if this story feels wrong to you, off or causes other perhaps uncomfortable emotions or feelings, please first take a minute to notice what you feel and reflect why your body may be responding that way and then and please only then feel free to message me your thoughts, ideas or critiques, etc.
    • I have decided for the sake of safety of all parties involved to provide an entirely fictionalized account that is meant be representative and grounded in a real life story in the Pink Valley high schools this past spring. Yet with that said none of the people or events in this story are true and should be understood as such.
    • Lastly, what I might argue is the most important disclaimer and also lens that I ask you all to wear as we enter into this story. That is I choose, and ask you all to do the same, to reject all forms of respectability politics both in this story but also in any theory or observation as it relates to schooling in Pink Valley. What this means really is that I reject the notion that students must prove they are worthy of dignified and just treatment and subsequently can be disqualified from schooling that treats them with respect and value. I affirm the notion that the onus falls on the institution to make schooling accessible and relevant to all students and thus behavior that appears deviant from the “desired standard” should be understood as an institutional failure and not an individual one.

Well I guess we better get started.

Last time we spoke, we left off on a kind of dramatic note, an at the edge of your seat kind of way (well at least it felt like that me). Before we actually get into our story, let’s just remember the claim I left with you. I made the claim that Pink Valley’s first pandemic schooling plan, i.e the Fixed Common Expectations Approach (FCEA) was agreed upon at some level (explicit or otherwise) by all the different cross-sections (or at least the loudest) of the schooling community to not really be what school is or ought to be. Why was that important or even jaw dropping? Well because we spent the better part of this year determining that the FCEA was at its core orientated towards the most marginalized within the Pink Valley schooling community. Although we did not make the claim it was a perfect plan by any means, we did come to terms with the truth that empathy (the thing required to actually have inclusive schooling) appeared to be institutionalize at its foundation.

So now here we are. Ethan is a junior in high school. Ethan is also a Black American boy, who is a descendent from enslaved peoples in US. His traditions, culture and selfhood are rooted in the American slave tradition but that is only nominally important to our story today. However, it is important that we note he is in a country where he is made to think that his body and his culture and social expressions are foreign or more precisely illegitimate. Also we will add that Ethan has been a part of the special education program at his school since like kindergarten when they told his parents that his cognitive ability and IQ was much higher than his academic performance or output.

Quick note here, we will not dig too deeply into the implications of the statement that his parents were told but we will note that it suggests that there is an IQ or “cognitive ability” that makes failing in school justifiable or acceptable. Nevermind, that the concept of IQ is deeply rooted in a tradition of eugenics which main function in the US was to prove that Black folks were closer to apes and therefore deserved to be treated as such. But regardless, it reifies that inequitable outcomes or experiences in school can be justified if a person well really is dumb or more often than not a delinquent.

Alright back to the story. So Ethan received an IEP, i.e. an Individualized Educational Plan required for folks classified under special education by US law under IDEA (individuals with disabilities education act) so that they might have access to free and appropriate public education. He received an IEP that indicated that he had an unspecified cognitive disability.

And so the yearly testing began. To make sure that he still qualified for special education services. To make sure he still deserved to get “special” treatment. To make sure he still really was a genius locked behind an unspecified cognitive disability and not just dumb or a delinquent. And shortly after tests come the teachers. I mean the series of special education teachers. The teachers that were supposed to support his specialized needs. The teachers who would advocate for his needs when the general education teacher would overlook them for sake of the “whole class”.

And so in second grade, he was moved to a new school in the district that his parents fought tooth and nail for of course because they were told this school had a more comprehensive special education program. And his parents who wanted the best for him were excited that he might get specialized support and services.

But with the teachers came the betrayals. Small at first. Just well, yes Ms. Moody was assigned to support your child specified needs indicated by his IEP. And well, yes, her job is to specifically support and advocate for the special education kids in our class. But really we see her as a teacher for all students. I mean all the students could be served by an extra hand in the classroom, so why should we limit her to just a few kids and Ethan seems to be doing well enough.

And sometimes it was subtle. Well, I think Ethan is doing great in my class. He doesn’t even appear to need the extra time. Did you see his last test, he got a B and finished the test on time. And well, not a single one of Ethan’s middle school teachers had ever asked him if he wanted to get an A. Not a single one.

Oh and sometimes it was big. Oh yes, we are certain that this study preparation class will be perfect for him. I think he would really excel in high school in a course like that one. Oh yes, we don’t know why more people don’t sign their kids up for that class. Yes, really he will love it. This was third time this week, Ms. Michaels talked him like he was a dog. Great job E, you’re doing great E. No, you can’t go quite yet. Did you finish your assignment? Are you sure? Ethan was sure he was a sophomore in high school and not a Labrador Retriever. He was also certain, he never asked to be called E.

And then out of nowhere his school shuts down. I mean not really but kind of. He stops having class. Well sort of just he has assignments but no class. His teachers send videos but they don’t actually meet in her person. And finally for the love of God, he stops hearing the irritating nickname E, in fact he stops hearing Ms. Michaels voice all together. Is this heaven. No, its a global pandemic. But we just need to wait out these next two weeks. Two weeks to flatten the curve. The Governor closed school buildings. We just need to hold off, well wait maybe not two weeks. 4 weeks. 8 weeks. Okay I don’t know. That’s when they release the new plan. The plan until we can get back into schools. The FCEA plan.

Let’s stop there for now friends. And next time, we will find out what happens to Ethan when he finally decides to speak up for something he wants. Something supposedly he deserved, well at least what Pink Valley’s FCEA schooling plan said he was supposed to get. We will see if an empathetic plan in theory is the same as the plan in practice and perhaps just what are the consequences that Ethan must suffer if they are not.

Okay folks… thanks again for joining me in the pink room and hope to see you all back here real soon.

Till then!

*this is not actually an expression but somehow feels better than saying “getting into the meat” … I am a vegan can’t help it.

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