June 29, 2017
Dear white educators,
If you’ve ever taught at a low-income school with a lot of black or brown kids, I’d bet you’ve shown the movie “Stand and Deliver.”
Recently, educators in San Diego have had the movie on their minds, and have even used it as a shield to protect them from backlash.
First, San Diego Unified school board trustee John Lee Evans brought up the movie as a way to call into question VOSD’s reporting on the district’s graduation rate. Then, Southwest Middle School teacher Keith Ballard brought it up in a conversation about his experience creating a music program in a low-income school.
“In 2010, when Ballard was brought in by then-Superintendent Jesus Gandara to turn the program around, he said he felt like Edward James Olmos’ character in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver. The odds seemed like they were stacked against him,” the Union-Tribune reported.
We get it. You love that movie. But on behalf of all students of color everywhere, please stop. It’s old, cliché and downright offensive.
Since 1988, you’ve used the real-life story of a group of Latino students at an East Los Angeles high school who — under the tough but loving guidance of their math teacher, Jaime Escalante — beat the odds and passed an Advanced Placement calculus exam.
Although I think everyone, not just Latino students, should see the movie at least once, it’s clear that you depend on the movie to calm your own nerves about teaching kids who have been labeled violent, poor or even dumb their entire lives.
It’s a classic white-savior complex — the idea that you’ll swoop in and transform the lives of students of color. And by showing this movie, it confirms your students’ worst fears: that their teacher thinks less of them and defines them by the struggles they face.
I understand the well-meaning if misguided logic behind promoting the movie: If they did it, there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t.
I know, because I lived through it. For years, the west side of Chula Vista was seen as a tough place to live. More than 80 percent of the students at my school were Latino. Sixty-five percent qualified for free and reduced lunch. About 40 percent were still learning English.
I vividly remember the days police officers disrupted my classes at Castle Park Middle School to search for drugs. They’d line us up against the wall as a police dog came around sniffing for anything suspicious.
The first teacher who made us watch “Stand and Deliver” was a math instructor with a dry sense of humor. He was also very fond of district data and often showed us where we ranked compared with other schools. When it came to academic performance, we were always at the bottom.
I guess this, along with making us watch “Stand and Deliver,” was supposed to inspire us to surpass all the challenges we faced, but it just confirmed what we all knew: Everyone thinks we’re dumb.
From then on, the movie became a substitute teacher. Teachers would pop “Stand and Deliver” on the VCR and grade papers, while the rest of us tried to stay awake.
I eventually ended up transferring to a new school on the east side of Chula Vista, where I hoped to never watch “Stand and Deliver” again.
My wish came true. Sort of.
Nobody showed us “Stand and Deliver.” Instead, teachers showed “Freedom Writers,” which is essentially the same movie, only with a white woman playing the role of the hero-teacher instead of Edward James Olmos.
One day, after most of my classmates and I had failed our first geometry test of the year, our teacher made sure she voiced her anger loud and clear.
“You know what this is?!?! This is a ‘fuck you’ to me!” she screamed.
Clearly, this teacher had seen “Freedom Writers.”
Now, I understand that being a white educator working at a school where students of color are the majority may be a bit unsettling, but showing “Stand and Deliver” or “Freedom Writers” isn’t the right way to gain your students’ trust or motivate them to do better. Here’s how that translates to them:
Hey, I don’t know you or situation, but this movie tells me that kids like you have it rough. And, if you listen to me and just work hard, you can also have the same success.
Don’t do that. Students will see right through you. Not to mention, “Stand and Deliver” conveniently sidesteps some of the bigger reasons students struggle, like being labeled as English-learners.
English-learners are put in separate classrooms, forced to focus on learning English while their classmates take college-prep classes. Studies show English-learners learn better when they can take advantage of the skills they already have from their home language — some of which can be accomplished through bilingual education.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of your students probably didn’t have access to bilingual classes, thanks in part to the fact the teacher who inspired “Stand and Deliver” fought alongside those on the conservative right to keep bilingual education out of California schools.
That was Escalante, who continues to be depicted as hero. No thanks.
Challenges like these can’t be ignored or fixed by having students watch a movie that they probably don’t relate to as much as you assume.
And most importantly, don’t do what Evans, the San Diego Unified school board trustee, did after the district’s high graduation rates were called into question. Evans implied that reporting on the district’s graduation rate was tinged with assumptions that students of color couldn’t achieve high standards.
“How is it possible with an urban district with such a diverse population could produce this level of graduation? I’m reminded of the movie that some of you may have seen, ‘Stand and Deliver,’” he said at a recent school board meeting.
The achievement of students of color is not to be used as a feather in your cap. The students are not there to shield you from honest questions about how you’re educating them. They’re not yours to “save” and they’re certainly not there to stroke the egos of educators who’ve never lived where they’ve lived or seen what they’ve seen.
So next time you’re tempted to pop in that inspirational movie and catch up on grading, try talking to your students instead. Engage them. Learn something more about them than their names and test scores. I guarantee they’ll be more willing to learn from you.
A recent college graduate who survived many screenings of “Stand and Deliver” during her time in Chula Vista schools.
This article originally appeared in the Voice of San Diego.