I Taught Kindergarten Art Class at an Inner-City School


I taught a kindergarten art class in an inner-city school. The assignment was coloring. I was the substitute.

Watching the class, I stand back and wonder what life is like for these kids. Life seems simple when they are all coloring. But how will the circumstances they were born into affect the types of people they will become as adults?

I was substituting in the urban school district because of a belief that I can do some good in the world. But should it really be me, specifically, doing this? I’m physically different than the students. It’s apparent. I’m a white teacher in a class of non-white students. The teacher I’m subbing for is white. The overwhelming majority of teachers I’ve seen in this school are white as well. Is my presence alone contributing to the purported narrative that whites ought to occupy positions of power in society? That non-white students ought to be in a subjective position to their white counterparts?

By taking this assignment, have I taken an opportunity away from an equally-qualified minority teacher? There just as well could have been no minorities available—after all, I haven’t seen many in classroom education, even in this school district. Wouldn’t these young students—impressionable, still developing their ideas of societal norms—benefit from seeing someone who looks like them physically leading the classroom? To see a living example that indeed they too can achieve such a position in society? Are we failing to model equal opportunities for all students?

Upon entering the classroom, a handful of students comment on how I’m a male once they see me as their substitute. A male teacher in early childhood education stands out to them—it doesn’t fit their narrative of who constitutes pre-elementary teachers. So maybe, in fact, my presence can tell them something—it can make them understand that career roles should not be limited by gender. Yet I feel a bit out of place myself—there is the strain of gender roles in the workplace. ‘It’s not masculine to enjoy working with children’—or, that’s the notion that’s been entrenched deeply within me from growing up in a less-than-egalitarian society. Personal experience tells me otherwise; I’ve found it incredibly fulfilling to work with children, but I’ve always felt that that’s an emotion best left hidden. ‘Working with children is women’s work’, the familiar narrative goes. Though I fight to not believe it myself, taking a look at my coworkers seems to make the opposite argument. The glass ceiling that holds women back from advancing in the workplace also holds men from stepping aside. But for men, it’s not for want of opportunity or advantage. Rather, it’s the social pressure that rewards positions of power and demeans positions of service.

“You have a good heart to be doing this,” I mentally console myself from inside the classroom. But having a good heart alone doesn’t pay the bills. Here I am in class wondering how substituting is going to pay for my car insurance premium so that I can continue to be able to get to work. Ultimately I won’t have to make the decision between having transportation and having a job that feels meaningful. I still have enough savings to subsidize my living expenses until I can make ends meet. I wonder to myself how many children in this class come from families who have that luxury?

At lunch I eat a banana and a bag of crackers that I pulled out of a dumpster last night. On my walk back to my car this afternoon I’ll look for empty beer cans to return for the deposit. Any little extra bit of savings will help. Taking a brief economic pulse of my situation makes the outlook not so cheery; I’m feeling guilty now about spending $4 on a craft beer earlier in the week. Even such small amounts seem extravagant to me now.

In the past two years, my income failed to break the poverty line. I found ways to make the money stretch though—living out of a car saved rent payments; my workplace often provided meals and lodging; and I’ve gone for a time without a vehicle or insurance. Now, however, I’m trying to live a semblance of a ‘normal’ life for a while. I’m back to paying rent, owning a car, and buying insurance. The costs of life are burdensome. I know I’ll make it through this year, though. If I can’t do it on my own, I always have my family support network to fill in the gaps. I wonder how many of my kindergarten students come from families like that.

I think too about how I could be making more money working at a fast food restaurant—a job that doesn’t even require the level of education I’ve received. The prospect briefly tempts me. Working with children can be rewarding, but it can also be demanding. The idea of an easy-out in the fast-food industry seems like a godsend. But no, I’ve made up my mind already. I’ve decided to make a difference by working in education. But how many potential difference-makers are lost from the workforce because the jobs where they can do the most good don’t offer competitive pay?

I frequently hear lectures about global poverty and the wealth of the American people. I look online to see that I am approximately the 400,000,000th richest person in the world. The website lists facts about how impoverished other nations are and encourages me to donate money to redistribute the wealth I do possess. I am convicted that I should be more charitable, but I’m not sure how I can afford it right now. Another online tool tells me I’m in the bottom 13 percent of income earners in America. Can I be both wealthy and not at the same time?

I don’t feel as if I have the right to think of myself as poor. I’ve always had enough to get by. I grew up in an upper-middle class household and to this day I still strive to give off the appearance of having a middle-class lifestyle. Considering yourself to be poor was never presented as an option, only as a joke we could tell ourselves when we couldn’t afford the next big discretionary purchase. Though based on income I would qualify for Medicaid, I still refuse to take the social assistance. Pride has much to do with the decision. Stubbornness also. White, educated, middle class people like me aren’t supposed to rely on government assistance to get by. We’re supposed to provide everything for ourselves. ‘Medicaid is for the downtrodden.’ ‘People like me aren’t allowed to be poor.’ I feel dismayed, as if I’ve failed my upper-middle class upbringing. I have no illusions about aver achieving the wealth my parents have earned. Conservative voices say that those on welfare are a drain on the economic system, and I’d hate to think of myself a drain.

Societal pressure makes me question if I’m failing myself as a man as well. Those socially-engrained gender roles dictate men as the providers, the breadwinners in the household. I have enough to support myself, but not others. Though I reiterate to myself that I don’t believe in those norms, I can’t help but sense the social pressure of the ideas have been engrained in me from childhood. I feel less of a man for it. I wonder about the kindergarteners again. Are us adults subversively teaching our children these same outdated ideas of gender?

I have to go register my car at the Secretary of State. I don’t know which address to use. I haven’t had a permanent address for nearly two years, and even where I’m currently staying at I won’t be for long. My basic ID, my driver’s license, is from a state I haven’t set foot in for a year and a half. As of yet, I can’t even prove to the state of Michigan that I actually live here. These complications which I face are all from my chosen lifestyle of mobility. It’s a luxury I can afford—the cost of chosen transiency. But what about the people who live here permanently, yet don’t have stable housing? They face similar complications as do I, but theirs stems from a lack of opportunity for fair and stable housing. Having the proper ID is a fundamental necessity in our age, but it’s a complicated process as well. Do those that lack ID know what hoops to jump through in order to prove their very identity?

All these issues lay in wait at the back of my mind during class. They’ll emerge more strongly in times of lull after the workday. In class, I try to focus on the task at hand. Coloring is simple. It’s an escape from the pressures of the world. I try and believe that I can make some sort of difference in the lives of these children. Maybe somehow they can escape the opportunity traps that lie ahead of them as they get older.

If nothing else, these experiences in inner-city public education have been teaching me empathy. How can those in power deny sympathy to our disadvantaged sisters and brothers?


Posted on January 24, 2017, in Education and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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