Educational Policy at a California Continuation High School

“Love and Success”: A Field Research Report and Analysis of School Culture and Educational Policy at “School” Continuation High School In “Smalltown,” California.

By Ali Ebrahimzadeh, Fall 2001.

The School-Smalltown Community Area

The school is situated in the downtown “Smalltown” [actual names are changed to protect privacy] community, which seems to consist almost entirely of working class first and second generation Mexican-Americans. The main language on the streets and in the stores is Spanish; and with the exception of city street signs, one could easily believe that one were in Mexico. There are many small family-run stores on Main Street, along with a few basic, large chain stores. The houses in the general downtown area, from which most of the students come, are single-family, small and simple tract-style homes, some with pretty, simple and small flower and vegetable gardens. The cars are mainly older and cheaper models, and there are relatively few of them for a city of this size. Many of the students and the citizens in general rely on public transportation, car-sharing, or walking. In the immediate block of the school, there are many government-run organizations, such as a Family Resource Center and a WIC center, and there are two taquerias, a travel agency, and a clothing store for vaqueros. The tree-lined plaza outside the school is small and simple, yet provides an enriching family-friendly feel, with plenty of parents and young children playing together while waiting for their names to be called at the government offices. According to “Mr. Principal,” School’s founder and sole full-time teacher of eight years, there have been roughly five hundred students who have signed up at School in its history. Of them, less than one percent have reintegrated into regular school programs and/ or received their high school diplomas. Of course, bringing the students to this goal remains School’s lofty objective. Yet, Principal states that a more realistic goal for him has been to keep these students from going to prison.

The Students of School

At the beginning of my field research at the School, there were fifteen students. A week later, two had dropped the program. Not all the students attend everyday. The students who I met are the ones who regularly attend class.

Geromo, or Gero, as he is sometimes called, is the most outspoken. He has been in and out of the juvenile incarceration system for gang-related violence since he was fifteen. He is slowly but surely turning his life in a new direction. He is attending AA meetings, regularly attends the School, and he has enlisted in the Marines, to which he will head after graduating with his diploma from the School. Geromo was expelled from Smalltown High School for school violence and for drug abuse. He is comical, endearing, a leader, and proud. Also, he has a strong tendency to curse, for which he is often reprimanded. The main format of rebuke used by the teacher is verbal disapprobation or the assignment of apology essays, and the main format used by the program director is long, condescending and therapeutic conversations with, or rather semi-polite diatribes directed at, the student.

Hector, or “Hec” as he is called, is in the program mainly for spraying graffiti at school, though he also committed many minor behavioral infractions, such as carrying a wallet-chain at school and disrupting class with angst-ridden zeal. He is an artist who often wears black shirts and pants that contrast well with the various colors he dyes his hair. He rarely pays attention to anyone or anything except for his nervous habit of doodling constantly, which is often censured by the teachers. He also loves surfing the web, especially as I noted for homosexual-related soft porn: Of course, Hector does so via highly surreptitious methods. Mainly, I ignored this particular behavior of his since all the male students try to sneak peaks at web porn whenever possible. To bring attention to Hector would have risked “outing” him to his overtly homophobic classmates. Hector also has a tendency for speaking about sex and about the other students in a sexual way. According to the general gossip, he has had overt sexual and semi-violent relations with one of the former female students. Also, Hector pays much attention to Geromo – viewing him alternatively as a sort of hero, or as a sort of oppressor. Often when Geromo notices Hector staring at him or when Hector makes annoying comments to him, Geromo half-seriously and verbally threatens to physically beat Hector. Usually, Hector reacts to this by giving Geromo a hateful glare, which Geromo usually ignores as an empty-threat. Clearly, if might made right, Geromo would own the classroom. His only competitor for this distinction might be Beto.

Beto is Geromo’s best friend in the program. He is an endearing and tender figure, and older than the rest. He is also an ex-gang member, and he was expelled from school for similar reasons as Geromo: drugs and violence. Along with another student, Beto is the most academically-engaged person in the class. He is peaceful, kind, funny and respectful; and therefore well-liked and respected by all. He regularly attends the school and hopes that he will graduate soon; however, he has few if any plans after high school – which is common amongst his classmates.

Nancy is the second-oldest student and, along with Beto, also the best academically. She is quiet and often spends time alone in the schoolroom’s lounge watching television or eating. Sometimes she jokes sarcastically with the others, and other times she is bossy and vocal, especially during the weekly student government meetings. Mainly, she condescends to the other students because she is nearly ready to graduate from the program. So, mostly all of her jibes and rebukes are aimed at the most gregarious and disruptive boys in the class, respectively Geromo, Hector, Beto and Karlo.

Bella, Violeta, and Paolo are siblings from Mexico. They are the only students in the group who do not speak English. Additionally, being new immigrants from Mexico, these three are culturally different from their classmates. Their behavior is more reserved, more serious, and more terse, in general. Furthermore, their family unit is not troubled by overt dysfunction, such as by divorce or drug-related problems; and their mannerisms, as noted, reflect a more traditional, disciplined and conservative upbringing. They are isolated in these regards, even though the other students speak Spanish fluently and also share strong Mexican backgrounds.

Bella is very quiet and works somewhat regularly on her schoolwork; and like her sister, she is very engaged in watching telenovelas on Univision TV in the lounge. She does not seem to be sociable or happy; however, she is not particularly upset or sad.

Violeta is more sociable than her sister, and she has a sprightly sense of humor. She is dating Karlo, a classmate who will be discussed later. She works less than Bella, but is also relatively quiet and isolated from the other students.

Paolo is the most quiet and isolated student in the class. He virtually never talks, he does his work, and he enjoys watching the boy students have fun with each other. He is serious and poised in his demeanor, and therefore seems to possess the most self-regard of the students. He, especially, and his sisters are well-behaved, and they differ from the students in the program most notably in the fact that they are in the School not for having committed any behavioral infractions of any sort, but rather to learn English: According to the School’s part-time Summer School teacher, Mr. Teacher, and the three siblings, the regular local school programs do not have daytime ESL classes.

Karlo, as mentioned, is Violeta’s boyfriend. He is an ex-gang member as well, and he was expelled from school for gang-related offences – violence and graffiti. Though he does generally rebel from authoritative figures, he does the schoolwork; and he maintains a calm and respectful attitude, and a pleasant if somewhat wary disposition. He is not an aggressive boy. Rather, judging from his sometimes sad facial expressions, and by his often isolated and pensive demeanor, Karlo seems to harbor sadness in quantity. His relationship with Violeta is caring and sincere, though youthful. As they have told me, Karlo and Violeta have neither focused career nor relational plans for the future.

Karla is a kind and playful student with a wittiness that ranges from subtle to sarcastic. Being an observant girl, she is quiet and, like most of the other students, does her work only when authoritatively told to do so. Usually, she watches the students throughout the day or maintains a pensive visage for a long time while the others are engaged in some activity, be it academic or interpersonal. Altogether, Julia maintains a simple and pleasant disposition, which serves as an excellent base to mark her excellent sense of humor. Sometimes, when the class becomes rambunctious, she joins the fray with funny jibes and comments, though quickly and semi-inaudibly delivered, which elicit general laughter and good cheer.

Monica, the most intense and notable girl in the class, is very artistic, which is pronounced by her physical presentation. Her manner of applying cosmetics is dramatic, her style of clothing is attention-getting, and her demeanor is extreme – a balance of no-nonsense strength and, conversely, softness and tenderness. She is in the program for drug offences: She was a dealer and user of drugs in her high school. Monica envisions a career in tattoo-artistry for herself after graduating.

Ebetuel, a student who happens to live in Monica’s neighborhood, is one of the most mellow and diplomatic students in the class. He is an ex-gang member; he was expelled for gang-related violence in school. Unlike the other boys, it seems that Ebetuel does not have a bad temper; rather, he appears to be an easy target. He is short, nice, quiet and non-confrontational; additionally, he is a member of the Surenos, a gang which is the minority both in number and in strength in his high school – locally, the superior gang is the Norteno gang. He has an easy laugh, and is the most responsible student in the class. He is always ready to work for the group or for his own studies. When confrontation of any sort occurs among his peers, he remains peaceful and amicable – a pacifier by virtue of his presence. Additionally, he has a strong preference for Lowrider Arte t-shirts, magazines, and artwork.

Maria and Doris are two students who dropped out of the program during my time of research. Both were aggressively sarcastic and sometimes rude, mainly towards the teachers; both expressed much resentment with their lives at home; and both felt neglected in general and unattended at the school. Doris, most notably, was the only Anglo-American in the school, and she spoke no Spanish. The class was conducted mainly in English before she left School; afterwards, Spanglish was the idiom of instruction. Also, since Doris was neither of Mexican descent nor did she speak Spanish, she was not equally involved in the social interactions among the other students, neither in nor outside of school. Additionally, both Doris and Maria were very focused on relationships with men. Doris was overtly sexually promiscuous; and Maria expressed strong interests in motherhood, regardless of marital status. Maria is wont to run away from her halfway house and from the school premises.

Gang Life and School Students

All the data about gangs in my study, including information about their language, signs, history and practices, I collected from speaking with the gang-members in School, and by watching them while they surfed the web for gang-related symbols, poems, art, postings, and manifestos.

Geromo, Beto, and Karlo are members of the Norteno gang, and Ebetuel and Monica are members of the Sureno gang. Most of the new students who will be joining School in the Fall, but who did not form any part of this study, are Surenos. As a signification of the importance of gangs to these students’ lives, as I observed it to be, it gives me pause to wonder whether and how this large incoming body of Surenos will affect the balance of gang power and stability of friendships among the School youth who formed the elements of my study. I would postulate, however, that the commonalities among the students will unite them more than their differences might separate them. The five gang members in my study are bound by a “recovery process” away from their problematic past lives, and they are united by their similar confrontations with mainstream social authority figures.

Although my observations showed that these were downplayed at School, there are indeed various differences between the two gangs. The Nortenos do not use female members anymore since they decided a few years ago that women are too weak to fight and should be protected; and they censure the Surenos’ usage of women members as “weak” and “stupid.” This factor ties into some problematically reproduced cultural stereotypes, which will be discussed later in this section. Firstly, it is important to note that the Nortenos, literally “the Northerners,” are from the northern part of Smalltown; their gang color is red; their gang’s number is fourteen, which is represented by either the number four or by the roman numeral X and the number four (i.e., X4); and their clothing style is relatively clean-cut albeit baggy. The Surenos, literally “the Southerners,” are from the southern part of Smalltown; their color is blue; their number is thirteen, represented either by the number three or by the sign “X3”; and their fashion style is marked by tighter, more revealing and rebellious clothes. The Nortenos call the Surenosscrapas,” which means “scraps”; and the Surenos call the Nortenos “chapetes,” which literally means “blushes” or as more connotatively translated, “the blushing ones.” A person is a member of the Nortenos if they are from the northern part of anywhere, and of the Surenos if they are from the southern part of anywhere. Clearly, the relative factor of cardinal directions lends easily to an absurd rendering of this singular distinction; nonetheless, it is a very real distinction to the gang members. More than anything, it signifies the importance of the immediate community in setting such proximal boundaries of North and South.

To me, it seems that these two gangs are subconsciously re-enacting the power struggle between Mexico and the USA, and thus between a stereotypical Mexican identity and a stereotypical “American” identity. If somehow true, this is interesting and sad because it demonstrates the subtle scars that war leaves. More so, it sheds some light on the possibility that these students sense that a racial war is still brewing in their Community, a war between rich and poor, White and Brown, USA and Mexico. In this regard, the Norteno’s red color can signify a warring and colonial force, whereas the Sureno’s blue can signify an innocent and placid one (via a color reference to la Virgen Maria de Guadelupe, a common figure used in Lowrider Arte). The Sureno’s number three can represent the Holy Trinity; and the Norteno’s number four can represent a deviation from this sacred notion. The clothing styles, as well as the pejorative names the gangs have for each other, similarly may reflect problematic stereotypes of the two contrasting cultures. Finally, the role of women in the groups can similarly reflect the problematic stereotypical images of women in the two societies, i.e., that USA women are fragile whereas Mexican women are capably aggressive. Both of these gangs have strong representation throughout the West Coast, but especially in Mexican neighborhoods.

Furthermore, the students told me that the sense of family, duty, and pride they derive from their gang affiliation is stronger than that which they derive from their homes or communities. Additionally, as School students, they feel connected by their common gang-affiliated lives, and by their new-formed friendships in this “recovery” program. Beto and Geromo described for me how they were actually admitted to their gangs. The fact that they took the time to describe such a process to me, an outsider, perhaps demonstrates how removed they are now from their gangs. To join the gang, an inductee must first slash an opposing gang member with a knife, thereby committing a felony and entrusting his/her comrades with secrecy. Then, the inductee will be “jumped in,” or in other words, severely beaten by the members of the gang which he/she desires to join. Interestingly, Mr. Principal, School’s director and founder, stated in his presentation to our Education graduate cohort here at UC recently that most of his students come from physically, if not also sexually, abusive homes. Therefore, this “jumping in” tradition of the gangs perhaps emphasizes the concept of group intimacy in familiar physical and aggressive terms, and also perhaps emphasizes the idea of hierarchy within the gang. Afterwards, the inductee becomes a full-fledged though low-ranking gang member. Various and general gang activities include fighting, graffiti-based vandalism, stealing, and partying. These actions may be based in the gangsters’ desire for power and their antipathy to “White people.” It is this facet of rebellion, among other aspects of compassion for each other, which unites the ex-gang members at School in a new gang: one bereft of Norteno or Sureno affiliation, yet still a new “gang,” perhaps best described by a word commonly used by them with pride to refer to an elusive aspect of their unified identities within their larger community: [word omitted for privacy reasons].


Caveat: In fair comparison to the homogenous nations of the world, to many of which I have traveled and in many of which I have worked and lived, I believe, as a content citizen of our nation, that the USA’s heterogeneous one is the most open-minded, multicultural, and egalitarian. This does not mean that we are at all problem-free in these regards in the USA. That sincerely stated, this section pertains to our problems as they are evidenced in one small corner of their ubiquitous outcropping.

Racist and sexist attitudes are dampened yet still overtly measurable at the School. White people, in general and especially those who occupy wealthier communities that border Smalltown, are referred to as “gringos.” By the sour and somewhat disturbed expressions on their faces when they say this word, the students seem to be using it as a pejorative. Likewise, East Asians are referred to as “chinks,” homosexuals as “fags,” and women are seen as the submissive gender and as sex objects.

Of course, the teachers and administration discourage the use of any kind of profanity or prejudice in the classroom. Despite the mild rebukes they receive, the students’ behavioral eccentricities in the classroom are complex, ongoing and aggressive, both verbally and emotionally. At various times, for example, I observed the following demonstrations of sexism or racism among the School students.Geromo, Beto, Karlo and Ebetuel took every opportunity to speak sexually and crassly about women; and once I heard the phrase “women are only good for fucking” from one or two of them. Casual sex seemed to be a goal for these boys, as they were constantly “hitting on” women in and around their school and their community. Once with a disdainful look on her face, Monica described the majority of students at Aptos High School as “puro gringos.”Karla, Violeta, and Hector spent an entire afternoon in class talking sarcastically, crassly, and excitedly about the connection between anal sex, homosexuality, and men who do aerobics. Maria, on one of the days that she ran away from the school, told me by a public phone just outside the school that Mr. Principal could not understand her life’s problems because he is “White.” Doris, who often came to school with a “hicky” and wearing very tight and revealing clothing, spoke overtly about heterosexuality as equivalent to love, and constantly referred to Hector as “fucking faggot.” Geromo referred to one of my fellow UC female interns at School, who has very short hair and who regularly wears loose-fitting button-down shirts and slacks, as the “little he-she who comes here to watch us.”

Furthermore, generally in their ideas and language, the students associate the punitive actions taken against them by law-enforcement officials and by “White” racists with all of “White people”: for example, “White people” do this to us, “White people” do that against us, “White people” think this about us, and we don’t like it. The anti-“White” sentiment is especially strong. As they clearly have stated, the students resent the wealth and control possessed by the “White people,” and they feel oppressed by the prejudices that they feel “White people” have against them. As Beto told me one day in the courtyard outside of class, and to which many of his classmates who were present during that break-time unhesitatingly lent much support, “White people think we’re all gangsters . . . like we’re all stupid and violent or something and that we’re poor, and that’s the way it is. We’re gonna be in Small’ forever. We can’t go into their towns ‘cuz they don’t want us there.”

On the first day of my research at School, I engaged the students in a conversation related to this important subject. After introducing myself as a teaching intern from UC, Geromo stated that Central Town is mainly a “White town.” This elicited lots of looks from his classmates and from their teacher in my direction to determine my reaction. I was not offended, and I responded that, yes, there are a lot more light-skinned people in Central Town than in Smalltown, or so it appears, but that raised an important question: I asked the students what the difference was between their town and the “White people’s” town. Their two answers were “money” and “gangs.” After some group discussion, the students summarized their beliefs more coherently. They stated that gangs are present in a way in every society. The police, the military, and the politicians are the gangsters of the “White people,” they described. In the same way as do the Nortenos and Surenos, the “White gangs” promote laws which benefit their own families and communities and enforce these laws with threats of violent punishment. The only difference they noted is that the White “gangs” are more powerful. Yet, after further inquiry, they decided that nobody respects any power that is gained through violence, since any victor in such a battle will always be deeply resented and vitally targeted by the vanquished. Further, they felt that the best and most stable way for them to gain power is to work within the dominant paradigm and subvert it from within upon having gained acceptance and power according to its definitions. As a group, we concluded that not only would this change the rampant and damaging stereotypes held against Mexican people by mainstream USA Society, i.e., for being unsuccessful, blue-collar, illegal immigrants, but it would also heighten the level of power Mexican-Americans hold now and in the future.

Flowing from the students’ comments about “money” being one of the two main differences between their town and the “White towns,” we began to talk about “money.” The students stated that the lives of the rich are better than the lives of the poor. Yet, after some group discussion on the matter, the students expressed that everyone still has problems. By trying to imagine the problems of the wealthy and by talking about those of the poor, the students felt that the problems of the middle class seemed the least difficult. They concluded with the generalization that middle class people do the best job of balancing their work hours with their home lives. More crucially, this conversation keynoted the importance that the idea of the traditional family unit – two birth parents and the children – has for these students.

Beyond their conclusions, the students were very receptive to this constructivist method of discourse. In other words, by hearing these ideas in a group dialogue, i.e., student-propagated discourse, I think that we assuaged a small bit of the racist and sexist prejudice in the School; and further, that we addressed and allayed a small bit of the hurt psyches that create such anger. More importantly, this conversation seemed to further open the possibility for future discussions on the subject of race, as Mr. Teacher told me that they had rarely talked so frankly about such issues in the past. Through my sincere participation in such discussion, I became a trusted and well-liked member of the student community – a big brother of sorts – and I was gifted on two occasions with hearty group congratulations at day’s end. I do not mean to sound self-congratulatory, but rather to signify that these students are neither solidly mistrustful of outsiders nor incapable of dialogue which is self-reflective, intellectual, and theoretically critical. Rather, they truly appreciate the opportunity to share in profound and unique ways.

Still, the amount of work needed in this school is tremendous. These students feel like second-class citizens because they are treated as such. This not only affects them professionally, but also emotionally. Perhaps this anecdote will describe my meaning: One Friday afternoon, we went on a field trip to a local and beautiful beach. The entrance fee was $3.00, and this made the entire school van, including the part-time teacher, Mr. Teacher, wary of entering the property. Was it too expensive for the fourteen people in the van to muster, or was the entrance fee a marker of exclusivity? When we walked up to the cliff that looked down onto the beach, we saw hundreds of blondish, white/pink-skinned adolescents engaged in Junior Lifeguard and Surf Camp activities. The beach was beautiful and so was the lively scenery, to me. However, the School students were terribly diffident, to the point that all of them remained atop the cliff and stayed back behind the railings while the more courageous and rebellious gang members, Karlo, Beto, Ebetuel, and Geromo, accompanied me down to the beach. I knew from the stories of past field trips that the School students really appreciated jaunts on the beach and through other types of wild areas. This beach was different in one obvious way: It was filled with a hundred or so White youth taking part in a luxurious camp exercise. Once on the beach, Karlo, Beto, Ebetuel, and Geromo engaged in very aggressive and competitive physical engagements with each other, such as racing and wrestling. They also spent much of their time on the beach in a tight little group, warily eyeing the White youth around them. Given their strong physical withdrawal from the other people on the beach and given their aggressive behavior, in my opinion, these four School boys seemed to be trying to demonstrate their right to be on the beach with the White youth. As some concrete evidence of this territory-marking, while we prepared to leave, Karlo chalked a gang sign on a cement fire-pit wall, thus staking a claim for his gente on this beautiful strip of wilderness. On the way back to school, he also marked a seat in the school van with the same bit of graffiti: an act which he soon came to regret.

Finally, it is crucial to note that the source of this prejudice might lie closer to home than may be expected. In the course of my research, I conducted an interview with one of the travel agents in the agency next to School. Bonita, the twenty-five year-old woman with whom I spoke, is a relatively new immigrant from Jalisco, Mexico, the region from which most of the School students’ families had immigrated to the USA as well. Bonita came to the USA with her family two years ago in search of better financial prospects than those found in her economically-suffering homeland. She, her siblings, and her parents, with whom she lives, do not speak English, nor she said do they respect the USA enough as a cultural entity to learn its language and its mannerisms. Further, her and her family do not feel that they need to learn English since their employers and fellow employees, as well as “ninety percent” (her words) of her community speaks Spanish. Being reared and educated to the point of an Associate degree in Mexico, Bonita provided me with precious insight about the education system there.

In light with what I learned from my conversations with Mr. Teacher, Paolo, Violeta, Bella, Geromo, Beto, Monica, and Nancy, as well as from my reading of Valenzuela’s book, Subtractive Schooling (pp. 22-24), Bonita told me that this tradition of educacíon signifies at its best a conservative culture, a sign of upper class and thus ‘good breeding’, and a respect for social norms, politeness, and docility towards authority. These aspects are integral to the education and cultural system of her vision of Mexico. Furthermore, the family, education, and legal institutions of Mexico enforce these aspects with rigor, she said. Few Mexican immigrants, she noted, bring these traditions with them to the USA; but all of them, she said, remember such traditions vividly.

When I asked her about her opinion of the students at School, Bonita had negative feedback. She complained that they gather about the local plaza, which is filled with offices and families, and talk in a way that is disturbing and crass, using lots of curse words in their chit-chat. She labeled the students as mal educados and rebeldes, or “poorly educated” and “rebels.” They do not respect authority nor propriety in any way, she said; and they need to be castigated and brought in line for such behavior. When I referred to them as buena gente, “good people”, and ninos, “children,” Bonita rolled her eyes sarcastically and said she hardly agreed on either account.

The importance of this interview reveals that these students may not be rebelling so much against USA society as against Mexican cultural authorities, i.e., those with educacíon, such as Bonita and the rigorously conservative system of Mexico which she describes. Still, as Bonita paints it, Mexican Society is a racist one, where lighter-skinned people have advantages over darker-skinned people. When I asked her of her ethnicity, Bonita told me she was Mestiza. Though she could tell me some about her family’s Iberian origins, she knew nothing to relate about her Mexican indigenous roots. Oddly, she described herself as morena, “dark-skinned,” like her mother (who was a housewife in Mexico), rather than blanca, “light-skinned,” like her father (who was a motorcycle cavalry sergeant in the Mexican military – a distinguished position she noted). Now, Bonita’s parents work on the production line in a vitamin factory in Scott’s Valley.

These intercultural and intracultural tensions which Bonita describes may very well be the basis for the strong behavioral rebellion of the School youth. In many ways, these students resemble the conscientious immigrants who founded our nation, in that the School youth demand sexual, religious, and ideological freedom from conservative, Catholic, Mexican authorities. The students’ overt sexuality, stated agnosticism, and capitalist desires conflict strongly with the covert sexuality, strong religiosity, and socialist aspects of the conservative elements of Mexico, which according to Bonita, formulate the power elite of Mexico. Thus, the School youth’s rebellion against USA legal and moral authorities, exemplified by their very turbulent behavioral and academic past histories, may rather be a carry-over from their rebellion against Mexican conservativism, which they find mirrored in USA financial, cultural, and racial elitism.

Oddly, at times I would note the students to exhibit dualistic behavior patterns that seemed to exemplify these two contrasting cultures within them. For instance, whenever they were outside the school overtly chatting about their gangs and about sex, and when Mexican families or elderly people would pass near to them, the students would quiet themselves, relax their aggressive manner of standing, loosen the binds of their circle, and in most polite terms greet the passersby with, for example, a buenas tardes, Senoras, “good afternoon, ladies.” Likewise, sometimes in class, they would rebuke each other for careless behavior towards a guest speaker or towards the teacher. Other times, however, their disrespect and even antipathy towards authority seemed intense. Their behavior transitions sometimes seemed erratic and controlled more by their energy level, and other times by the situation-at-hand. If they were feeling prompt, well-fed and alert, or if they had just been sincerely chided themselves by Mr. Teacher, or if they noted that the teacher or guest was sincerely trying their best to help them in some way, they would respond with kindness and politeness and quickly rebuke anyone who was not responding in such a way. Other times, however, it was quite the opposite. If they were tired, hungry, bored, or feeling unfairly or carelessly handled by authority figures, they would “act out.”

The students’ refusal to listen or learn, as H. Kohl states in his article, “I won’t learn from you,” is an effective technique in maintaining the integrity of one’s identity in a threatening situation, and it falls somewhere between passive and active noble resistance against cultural, economic, and ideological domination. Unfortunately, as Kohl states, this “cultural problem” is interpreted by our education system’s authority figures to actually be “a personal psychological problem,” and that “willed refusal” is turned “into failure to learn” (pp. 1,2). This is the specific problem at School and in the Smalltown community, where the School students are viewed primarily and generally as behavioral problems, to the point where the nurturing of their academic and thus, their cultural, understanding of identity and Community is much ignored. Principally, it seems that a possible reason for this last problem is that influential and prejudiced elements of our Society wish to ostracize these students from some elitist, “mainstream” notion of “culture.” The ideas and manners of the students are considered by mainstream society to be problematic. This, in fact, is the problem.

Seen as people of low status by various stereotypes, the School students are swept under the civic carpet. The more they refuse such ill treatment, the more they are condescendingly “treated” by those within the educational system through such programs as School, and of course additionally by the legal, psychological, and social welfare systems. It seems that escape from this treacherous cycle of punishment and prejudice only has one route: acquiescence, and later at best, some mitigated sort of Systemic reform from their own, perhaps naively hoped-for, vantage point within the System. Judging from the relative complacence of the School youth to legal authority structures, from their quasi-commitment to their overall “recovery” processes, and still more so, from their half-hesitance to conform, commit, and thereby to “sell out to the Man” (as this mantra of our Nation’s oppressed rings out loud from “ghetto” to “ghetto”), I believe that the following notion occurs to the School students everyday: Whether such escape routes actually exist, even through acquiescence, or more dubious still, whether they lead to such noble ends, such ills as I have described all remain exclusively in the hands of those with Systemic power to determine, legitimize, confront, activate and in some way heal.


The School students form a relatively close-knit surrogate family unit. They arrive at 8 am; breakfast together; do a little bit of work together in the morning hours; snack, watch telenovelas and cartoons in their lounge room; constantly chat with each other; have lunch together; go on weekly fun and exploratory field trips together; hold weekly, self-governing, family-style, chore-assignment meetings (which they take very seriously and by which they feel empowered and mature); attend behaviorally-focused lectures together; eat a late afternoon snack together; and after school officially closes at 4 pm, some of them socialize together as well. They open the morning with a group meditation; and they end the day with a nomination ceremony, in which they choose and congratulate the outstanding class member of the day and all shake hands with each other.

The School students each have “housekeeping” chores for which they are responsible, and for which they earn academic credit hours. Also, they have rules by which they try to conscientiously abide. On one wall, there are written the school’s “7 Traditions: No stupid comments; clean after yourself; respect each other; Mr. Teacher (the part-time teacher) at School by 7:45 am; no stealing; no put downs; and no discrimination.” With the exception of the wording of the first “Tradition,” the rules seem relatively normal and practical. On another wall, there is a poster that reads “Rules of Integrity Poster: No cheating, no lying, no stealing.” When I pointed out that this poster is especially similar to the only three laws of the Mayan culture, i.e., “do not cheat, do not lie, do not be lazy,” the students seemed genuinely interested, as they were in all things which I mentioned about the Mexican culture.

One morning, we spent an hour naming all the things we could relate to the Mexican and Mexican-American culture. This list included the following words: Cesar Chavez, Carlos Santana, Tito Puente, Octavio Paz, mariachi, Mission style architecture, Lowrider Arte, Barrio Arte, Graffiti, Como Agua Para Chocolate, West Side Story, ballet, opera, musicals, Aztec, Maya, Olmec, Acapulco, Yucatan, Tijuana, Mexican Food, Calmex, Texmex, organic food and agriculture, manual labor force, agricultural labor force, politics, government, PRI, business and white-collar jobs, university professors, military, Catholicism, Virgen Maria de Guadelupe, el Día de los Muertos, Chicano, Mexicano, pocho, Mestiza, familia, raza, gente, Nortenos, Surenos, poverty, unemployment, welfare, and addiction. Mainly, this was a very positive list which gave the students joy and pride in themselves. Although I believe that investigating the negative aspects of the list is important because they sometimes tend to undermine the list’s positive aspects, I felt that the school’s general aura focused on such negativism.

At least for ten minutes, once every week on Tuesdays, every student has an academic and behavioral counseling meeting with Mr. Principal. Additionally, when the students are deemed to have misbehaved or fallen behind in their work (what little there is of it), they have a discussion with Mr. Principal and/ or Mr. Teacher in the private office. Once, I was privy to such a conversation, which occurred simultaneously between two boys, Mr. Principal, Mr. Teacher, and myself. I noted that Mr. Principal was condescending, strategic and authoritative in his manner of handling the two students who were suspected of having sprayed a small graffiti gang symbol on a seat in the school’s highly dilapidated group transport van.Mr. Teacher , throughout the process, was quietly angry and impatient to have the culprit confess. Mr. Teacher and Mr. Principal pressed for a confession out of the boy with the worse criminal record. Throughout this entire situation in Mr. Principal’s office, I openly, though not naively, supported the innocence of the two boys, choosing to believe their firm denials since I was sitting very near to them in the van on the ride back to school and had seen nothing to make me believe that they had vandalized the seat. Finally, responding to Mr. Teacher’s and Mr. Principal’s insistent accusations of them, I asked the two boys if one of them had in fact done it. One of them promptly confessed to the infraction.

After talking about the situation, the boy who had marked the van realized that it was not fair to make the other boy suffer the unnecessary accusations, nor to make us all feel so tense; and that any action which was covert was not a proud action. As he revealed when I asked him about his reasons for joining his gang, this student’s desires were to be always strong, upright, and proud in his behavior. He realized that he had much to contemplate about his goals before committing wanton actions. Yet, the choice, he knew, was ultimately his own.

In a way, that whole event was an unfortunate one for all of us, but I feel that we all achieved a greater level of closeness and peacefulness through it. Moreover, it should be noted that had I not assumed the best from these boys throughout this incident, and had I not already built a base of trust and empathy with the boys — particularly in this case, by participating in some of their camaraderie and in their foot races on the “White” beach immediately before this situation occurred — this boy may not have been so forthcoming nor the office encounter so successful. Again, I do not mean to sound self-congratulatory, but rather to propose that Mr. Teacher’s and Mr. Principal’s reluctance to sincerely appreciate, understand and involve themselves with their students may prevent them from ameliorating the students’ behavioral and academic problems.

Not all situations worked out so well among the group members. For example, when Maria ran away and when Doris quit the School, their classmates frowned upon them for acquiescing to unrealistic and impractical thoughts and influences, for they stated that such things would only destroy them, given the realistic demands of their society. More empathy and support from their classmates would quite possibly have made a remarkable difference to both of these young women’s lives. For example, Doris never felt accepted by her classmates, presumably, because of her linguistic and cultural differences with them. Additionally, she was prone to “mouthing-off,” as the students called her verbal assaults on Mr. Teacher, Mr. Principal, and Hector; and they also called her a “whore” for her explicit display of her sexuality. Also, the students generally referred to Maria as “loca” (i.e., “crazy”) because “she never makes sense” in her words or actions. Maria’s emotional problems, as they related to her somehow problematic foster care, her strong and verbally expressed desires to have a child out of wedlock, and her expressed mistrust of and withdrawal from the administration at School, all certainly combined to distance her from the less anxious attitudes of her classmates. “They don’t understand me in that house or in that school,” she told me during our brief conversation by the public phone outside the school on the day she ran away from School. As we were talking, the school van, filled with her classmates, pulled up to carry me along with them to a field trip. I asked Mr. Teacher and the students if they wished to console and assist Maria, but they said that she was beyond help and that she had to exercise self-reliance, for they now all felt alienated by her recklessness.

Understandably, expressing compassion at such times is difficult for students who are so destabilized and young themselves. When one’s identity is at odds with the power of mainstream authority, determining the difference between right and wrong is a messy process, and one which people should not be pressed to undergo. Society should make room for difference, and treat it in a humanitarian way instead of shunning or demonizing it. This latter method is how Society treats students like those at School, who are mostly left to fend for themselves against such a barrage.

For the most part, the major healing factors in School were the students, themselves, and not Mr. Teacher or Mr. Principal. The students understand each other’s struggles implicitly; and they innately care enough to verbally, emotionally, and physically comfort and nurture each other through such difficulties as much as they are able. The sincerely involved assistance of the School teachers would only enhance this process. Yet, this is their shortcoming.

Could Mr. Teacher or Mr. Principal understand these students? Neither were gang members; they did not grow up surrounded with drugs and gangs as constant temptations; and they are not from Smalltown. The only way that they could at least partly alleviate such differences might be through experiencing a pedagogy program like the one here at UC, i.e., one that focuses on working with such youth as students, not behavioral problems, via a multicultural methodology (as will be explained in the Summary of this essay). Still, much more than this, they would need to have suffered through and conquered serious challenges in their lives; they would need to be among the downtrodden to understand and help them in the way that they want to be helped. In short, School’s faculty needs to approach these students with a state-of-mind that holds a profundity of respect for their individual struggles and their goals.

School Pedagogy

At School, there is one full-time teacher, Mr. Principal, who is also the program director and school founder. Mr. Teacher was a part-time teacher last Spring, and a full-time teacher during the Summer. He will not be returning to School in the Fall because he will be finishing his MA program at State University. In the eight years of School’s existence, Mr. Principal has been the only full-time teacher. He has had six different aides over the last six years, who have helped with random tasks in the office and in the classroom. With the exception of Kimberly Ford, Mitch, and Mr. Teacher, the six fleeting School staff members in the past years had been hired by outside agencies, such as by Smalltown Youth Services, Small Valley Prevention and Student Assistance, Small Counseling Agency, and the Small Valley Board of Education’s Personnel Department. Kimberly, who according to Mr. Principal is the “office manager,” though her title on the School’s brochure is “Guidance Assistant,” has been working at School for two years; she does not work during the Summers. She is a recovering alcoholic who sometimes helps the students with personal issues, but mainly focuses on her clerical duties in the office. For the first time in its history, School has hired a second full-time teacher: Mitch. His Spanish is moderately fluent, and he, like all the past and present faculty at School, is a behaviorally-focused teacher with a credential in Special Education. Mr. Principal explained that the outside agencies who did the hiring in the past did not consider the needs of School. The teachers they hired were, in Mr. Principal’s opinion, not “tolerant” or “understanding” of the “severe” behavioral and emotional problems of the students. Rather, Mr. Principal states that they were hired because of Union affiliation or “seniority in line” while waiting for a new position to open in the Smalltown area. A successful teacher at School, in Mr. Principal’s opinion, needs to be focused and understanding of “the basis for why the students feel so worthless about themselves.”

Mr. Principal, when he spoke in a panel discussion recently here at UC, noted that “active listening,” “diversity,” and “anti-discrimination” efforts were the three main goals he presently pursues at School. He also stated that he hopes to acquire County medical health professional help for the students at School, services which he hopes will include psychological counseling to help them treat the sexual and/or physical abuse many of them have experienced in their past years. Further, Mr. Principal stated that he admires and hopes to employ what he described as the love- and liberty-focused educational philosophies of William Glasser and Marvin Marshall. Specifically, he hopes to base School on a discipline-free, and reward- and punishment-free structure of learning.

Unfortunately, as briefly described in the above sections, Mr. Principal is generally condescending, authoritative, and not well-liked at School. He is Caucasian; and given the moderately anti-White attitudes of the students, this may certainly account for a certain level of distance between them and himself. More than this, however, his authoritative and lofty attitude seems to be the main reason why the students generally keep away from Mr. Principal and shun his glance, and also why Mr. Principal seems to keep away from the students.

During the few weeks of my observation, Mr. Teacher is almost always the only adult at School with which the students interact. He is a nice individual as evidenced by his affable demeanor, oft-smiling visage, and generally flexible attitude. Mr. Teacher tries his best to provide the students with various outlets to vent their energy. For example, he will take them on spontaneous, short field trips in the middle of the day if they are acting particularly rowdy; he nurtures their student government activity; he assigns numerous free-writing periods; he gives them an hour or more of free time every day; and he arranges for guest speakers whose lectures pertain to the students’ personal problems and which elicit group discussion.Mr. Teacher’s teaching credential is in Special Education from State University. As stated, Mr. Teacher is the teacher, and he leads the class often in Spanish. However, his focus and efforts lie mainly in helping the students deal with their emotional and behavioral problems – usually through a soft-handed punishment-focused meritocratic system, which the students resent.

Unfortunately, the program is very weak in an academic focus, to the point where academic work takes up less than an hour of the day and is usually used by Mr. Teacher and seen by the students as a punishment. According to Mr. Principal, the Board of Education dictates that academic instruction at continuation schools is to occur for “four solid hours every day.” At School, Mr. Principal says, they only do three hours because their school day’s longer period, six hours instead of the normal four found at other continuation schools, makes up for this one hour shortage of academic work. In the Summer months, Mr. Principal clarified, they do 2.5 hours of academics because Summer School is supposed to be more “fun,” in his words.

As I observed, Mr. Teacher spends most of his time reading, though not correcting, the students’ daily journal entries in order to learn about their troubled lives and psyches, which they plentifully and repeatedly reveal in these journals. Unfortunately, each student’s entry rarely changes from day to day. It would much benefit some of the students to focus more on their extremely lagging reading, writing, mathematics, history, and science knowledge, for example. Science, in fact, is not even a part of the curriculum. Evidently, this is an excellent example of teaching, albeit teaching poorly, to “the test”: e.g., the various California high school exit exams. As a rule, all the students’ basic academic work is of a very low caliber and their Stanford Achievement Test scores and school work reflect this. Many of the students, however, state their desire to learn and succeed in the traditional disciplines. In short, this distance between teacher and student forms a significant problem at School.


I understand that the students do suffer from serious behavioral problems, but realistically-speaking, they need more individualized attention as regards their overall education process. They each have different and unique identities. Therefore, the help they receive from the School faculty should be individually tailored in terms of its goals, methods, and assessment procedures. The students have a family-type bond with each other which does much for their self-esteem and social skills. This is the strength of the program. However, the program has one outstanding shortcoming: The students’ individual academic and behavioral goals are not being met in a broad and deep way because these youth have been group-labeled as ‘behavioral problems’ by the educational system and by the School faculty. Moreover, there are simply too few adults in the classroom to offer such an individualized education to these youth.

Seemingly, School has plenty of room where it could feasibly fill the individual needs of the youth. For example, outside of the lunch hour, more than three hours each day are spent in which the students do one or more of the following non-academic activities: watch TV, snack; wander around the premises; smoke cigarettes; talk on the telephone; and chat either with each other or on one of the class’s eight internet-ready high-quality computers about neighborhood gossip, telenovelas, gangster music and gangster web sites, or sex and fleeting relationships.Mr. Teacher was their only teacher during the Summer session, and their principal teacher during the Spring of last-year. His direct, one-on-one contact with the students is minimal, and constitutes less than five minutes per student per day, at best. Thus, how can Mr. Teacher understand the goals these students have for themselves, how they wish to achieve them, and how they should assess their progress?

More concretely, another problem is that when and if these students graduate with their diplomas, they will need to find financially and emotionally fulfilling careers. They have all stated that this is what they want to do, and I would take them at their word. Without basic curricular knowledge, they will lack the basic ability to write well, balance their checkbooks, or read simple government documents. Ultimately, basic curricular knowledge will still only track them towards blue-collar jobs with low pay, high stress, and long hours, which the students all recognize as an inevitable and depressing future. They say they want “money” and lots of “free time” to do whatever they want. Without a strong academic foundation in a college-bound educational program, these students will quite possibly never acquire lots of “money” and “free time.”

Mr. Teacher understands this, and from time to time, reminds the students of the “real world” reasons that they need to study hard and behave well, either directly in his weekly advising sessions with them, or indirectly through his guest lecturers (e.g., the social worker, the recovering alcoholic speaker from AA, the sex education specialist). In this way, Mr. Teacher practices one of the ideas that John D’Amato states in his essay, “Resistance and Compliance in Minority Classrooms”: Students “must possess some sort of credible group rationale for justifying to themselves their own acts of participating in the classroom and insulating themselves from the charge that they have merely capitulated to the will of the teacher” (190). Sometimes Mr. Teacher spontaneously implements this idea in class when the students are chatting, instead of working on their journals or on their math problems. For example, he will say something to the effect of, “Remember what we talked about in our meeting, about how much you want to graduate from here with your diploma, and get a good job to show them that you can do it . . .” When Mr. Teacher does so, he lends credit to D’Amato’s idea, for then I observed the students to show some renewed dedication to their schoolwork, instead of resentment towards Mr. Teacher for his rebuke. However, as mentioned throughout this report, there is much that School does not do to address the “real world’s” academic ability demands on its students, who say that they want the luxuries yet none of the work needed to attain them in the “real world.”

There are several possible solutions to the basic problem that School is not helping the students to achieve their self-stated goals of mainstream success in USA Society. First, the curriculum books that are used are unstimulating and unfocused themselves: These are the GED textbooks. Alternatively, for example like the books used at Score-Kaplan Education Centers, a more detailed and defined, evenly-paced, mechanics-focused, and ladder-structured textbook set would much profit the academic dearth of the program, as would a reward-centered meritocracy and a stronger focus on career skills (e.g., typing, accounting, home economics, etc.). Second, instead of limiting the students’ futures by tracking them as behaviorally incapable of learning or of thinking at a complex and intellectual level, School should reassess the intellectual potential of its students by talking and listening with them in an authentically caring and dignifying way, and should respond by hiring more curriculum-focused and multiculturally-sensitive teachers. Third, more class-time should be dedicated every day to the academic disciplines which are very downplayed or more often totally ignored at School, such as World Literature, Cultural Studies, Mathematics, Algebra, Biology, Geography, History, Sociology, Psychology, Economics, Art, Music, Physical Education, Computer Science, Journalism, et cetera. Fourth, homework should be assigned and corrected daily to engender a sense of responsibility and a respect for “real-world” deadlines. Fifth, tests and other manners of assessment and feedback should be provided for the students more than once per marking period. Sixth, School should be more focused on a college-bound philosophy than on a working-class philosophy, and thus should stress the importance of higher education in the acquisition of “real world” luxuries, prepare the students to perform well on the SAT, educate the students about financial aid and other college-related forms and application processes, and assist the students in strengthening their extracurricular activities (e.g., sports, clubs, jobs, etc.). Seventh, more than providing the present routine of guest lecturers who focus on keeping the students from committing bodily damage (i.e., via drugs, STD’s, crime) to themselves or others, School should discuss in depth the various sociological and psychological philosophies that may help the students to understand and adjust happily to the “real world.” Still, most of these remedies answer only the basic and norm-centered goals that the School itself purports, yet drastically fails, to uphold.

When I focused a small random group of the students on standard academic work, they appreciated the opportunity to learn and to access mainstream “success culture” very much. More so, they wished to share their knowledge with the others in the class – their brothers and sisters. These kids are really different than the stereotypes that could be, and probably often are, associated with them. They are good-hearted, kind, respectful, smart, unique, community-focused and interesting. Their town and their school system has failed them by not nurturing their intrinsic humanity and talents. Instead of love and success, these boys and girls have been bred within an authoritative and belittling system.

One or two good teachers can make a difference in this program. Mr. Teacher is a good person; but rather than a teacher, he is more of a social worker and an “aesthetically caring” authority figure. Mr. Principal is strict and an outsider to the students. He seems to be an uncaring authority figure – although he mildly portrays an aura of superficial caring. Unfortunately, it comes off as if he picked it up from reading some manual on directing a program for expelled high school students.

Caring, as Angela Valenzuela points out in her book, Subtractive Schooling, is much more than this. It requires a policy shift which integrates the students’ everyday experiences with their education. Yet more than facilitating a bilingual and friendly classroom environment, School needs to consider the family and community support, or lack thereof, that these students are receiving. As Stacey Lee notes in her essay, “Behind the Model-Minority Stereotype,” unique family expectations and community stereotypes must be addressed in order to formulate effective inroads to the education process for individual students.

Such individual attention does not occur at School, which was formed as a continuation school. School attracts teachers and guest speakers who specialize in working with “behavioral problems.” Dealing with such heavy emotional issues increases the “burn-out” and “turnover” rates of School staff, and of course makes finding curriculum-focused teachers impossibly difficult. Mr. Principal appears to be burnt-out himself, and jaded, as he holds a condescending opinion of his students. From listening to him talk about “helping these kids fix their lives,” Mr. Principal started his work with School in the mind-set of a missionary. It seems that he supposed that he really knew these “kids,” respected their struggles, and knew what the “right” way was for them to lead their lives. Whether he had good intentions and whether he was right in his suppositions is meaningless when one considers the outrageous statistic that accompanies his eight years of service: Less than one percent of School’s students have adjusted their behavioral problems, returned to regular schools, and graduated with a high school diploma.

Still, Mr. Principal runs this ship. He wants Special Education teachers, not curriculum-focused ones, in his school. In this way, these students are boxed and pegged into the system as unworthy or incapable of an academic education. The students themselves say that they want real world success and acknowledge that acquiring it necessitates a strong academic career. Paradoxically, Mr. Principal and School in general simply wants to make sure these students do not re-enter the punitive system. If they earn their diplomas, that is just “gravy” for Mr. Principal. Such low expectations seem to foster little hope for the students, and rather seem to serve as self-fulfilling prophecies.

Unfortunately, dealing with such visceral and profoundly destabilizing issues is another failing of School. Topics such as racism, poverty and abuse are taboo, and neither the students nor the faculty communicate sincerely, directly or intellectually about them. Instead, most “talk” on such subjects presently takes on an air of mild or moderate condescension, harangue and/or blame when presented by School staff or guest lecturers, as exemplified for instance by the school’s posted “7 Traditions” and “Rules of Integrity.”

I found that the students respond very well to being given the opportunity to converse about important subjects, instead of being talked to about such things. In the first few hours of my field work at the School, I asked the students what the most important things were to them. After a few minutes, they consensually agreed on the answers: “love and success.” I know that love means more to the School’s students than bilingual education, and that success means more to them than the “bling, bling” appeal of a new motorcycle or gold chain. They defined “love” with ideas that involved their individual hopes for an ideal family structure, i.e., themselves, their spouse and their children living together in harmony. They explained “success” in terms of academic, behavioral, and financial normalization, a state which they hoped to achieve and even perhaps surpass without having to “sell out on” their familia, gente, raza, raíces, and identidad (i.e., their family, people, race, roots, and identity). Judging solely by their less-than-stellar dedication to academic work and behavioral modification, one might assume that these students undervalue the ideas of “love” and “success.” In my opinion, this would be a gross underestimation of these students’ humanity. A quote from one of Gladys Knight’s most popular songs seems appropriate here: “I don’t want to do wrong, but sometimes I just can’t help myself.” It is this very complex quandary that plagues these students and which I will investigate in the last pages of this essay.

From one angle, a “real-world” approach to “real-world” goals can be perceived as beneficial; and for some part of this essay, I have argued that such goals, especially the academic ones, should be nurtured much more at School. A more profound and complex question is raised regarding the very value and source of such goals. From Perry Gilmore’s article, “”Gimme Room”: School Resistance, Attitude, and Access to Literacy,” one could gather that perhaps these students’ very definitions of success have been acculturated via our mainstream social pressures to normalize: “As educators and researchers concerned with literacy,” Gilmore concludes, “our professional responsibility demands that we allow ourselves the room to see beyond the limiting and arbitrary boundaries of how we have traditionally defined the world of reading and writing” (127). For example, these students speak and write in ways that are considered grammatically and stylistically incorrect. Yet, in my opinion, the world’s diversity of language is strong, beautiful, and most of all, natural. To contest the inevitable and ongoing influence of diverse dialects in the idiom of Standard English seems brazen, inhumane, and historically ignorant, for Standard English is itself a language composed by the interaction of numerous linguistic traditions. Although it remains problematic in the strictly realistic sense, Mr. Teacher’s negligence in “correcting” the students’ grammar is positive when viewed only through this idealistic lens. For the time being, at School a balance needs to be achieved between a realistic approach and an idealistic one; and this needs to be done via policy-changing inquiry and active response in the entire pedagogic process at School.

Angela Valenzuela’s challenge for School clarifies this point-of-balance: What aspects of these students’ Mestiza culture and of their identities are being subtracted from their lives? The pressure their community exerts upon them, mainly through the form of rebuke, lets these students know in gross detail that they are failing to achieve certain, normal standards of behavioral and academic success. For example, various administrators and leading policymakers of the Smalltown area, as evidenced by two panel presentations which some of them delivered to our Education cohort here at UC recently, are overly-focused on State pedagogical outlines and assessment procedures, and mainstream educational and professional goals. The very concepts of “standards” and assessment seem paradoxical to the tenets of multiculturalism, an idea to which our nation seems to pay such strong lip service. Ideally, to dignify every individual as worthy, intelligent, and special in our Society, we need to loosen elitist standards and assessment procedures from our social and institutional interactions. Logically, we simply cannot simultaneously hold standards and assess progress towards such standards while remaining truly open and supportive of difference. As Edie Brickell, a famous USA singer/ songwriter and spouse of Paul Simon, states in one of her songs: “This eye looks with love, this eye looks with judgment . . . free me, take the sight out of this eye.” As educators who propone multiculturalism, we need to be less critical and more supportive of our students’ individual social and personal needs, conflicts, and identities.

We should reflect this by confirming and nurturing the unique needs of each of our students to climb the mainstream “success ladder,” or achieve any other personal goals that they set for themselves. We should educate and assess each student as makes him or her comfortable. We should provide them with a safe space to express their ideas and to formulate a sense of self within the greater context of Society. Yes, in fact, we absolutely need to change our world wherever we can to make it more diversity-friendly. At the policy level, this could practically involve shifts towards a diverse curriculum, a diverse set of assessment techniques, and an Individual-focused pedagogy.

As it stands, the School students question themselves, doubt their own worth, and feel hopeless by their own prospects when faced with such a homogenized, exclusive, and unfriendly vision as that which the upper echelons have placed before them. For example, when asked about their career plans, the students at School do not really know what they will do with their lives after graduating; however, the expressions on their faces when answering certainly look grim. Comparing the overt emotional weight and tone of their sad words about being poor and poorly educated, with their relatively more mitigated resentment of “White” Society, I can conclude that the School students dread falling into poverty more than they dread putting their heads down, working, and accepting their roles as proletarians in a gringo-ruled oligarchy. More than anything, everyone deserves more choices than this.

The School students’ culture, their methods of self-expression, and worse still, their hopes for the future are generally marked as less-than-successful by mainstream society. Through the mainstream California, USA lens, these children are seen as poor, poorly-educated, abusively-raised, Mexican immigrant students with strong juvenile criminal offence records: at best, “damaged goods” (a phrase used by a graduate Education student in one of our class discussions here at UC in referring to children with similar backgrounds as those that I have noted as endemic to the School students’ lives); at worst, gangsters, criminals, juvenile delinquent immigrants, and “ne’er-do-well’s.” The weight of stereotypes and expectations, both behavioral and academic, against these students is preponderous. Worse still, perhaps, the students are quite familiar and vocal about such prejudice against them. Inevitably, they fail such a test every time they “act out” via their unique dialect, art, ideas, and in short, identities. It is no surprise that the graduation rate of School students is less than one percent. Also, it is no surprise that the turnover rate of faculty is so high, and that, according to Mr. Principal, himself, all the faculty that have ever worked at School, with the exception of Kim and Mr. Teacher, have been “incompetent.” The aura of “failure” breeds “failure.”

The entire social system itself operates a virtual “sting operation,” and this is an even deeper level of the problem at School. It seems unfair to singularly blame USA Society for the crimes and infractions committed, or for the poverty experienced, by these students and their families. Also, it seems unfair to singularly blame the students and their families for such things. All concerned parties are responsible to some degree. Society alienates these School students and their families via the present, elitist, national standards of English language skills, Eurocentric curriculum, and paper-based and formalistic assessment techniques, for example. Likewise, these students alienate Society by infringing its laws and attacking its mores. Similarly, School alienates curriculum-based teachers by its strong behaviorally-focused agenda; and curriculum-based teachers alienate School. This results in the disenfranchisement of the School students from “real world” success; and it results in the homogeneity of our nation’s “power elite.” Surely, if we Americans can learn one thing from our fantastic international standing as a “Superpower” nation, as the “best country in the world,” it should be that our strength lies in our diversity, and thus in our commitment to break the old rules, and make better ones. Our national education system needs to be changed with such a progressive attitude. Until then, our schools will continue to breed a feckless war between the “smart ones” and the “dumb ones” of our nation.

Given the USA’s power hierarchy, the ones losing this battle by far are people like these School students and their families. They can either adapt to USA Society or migrate back to Mexico, one might say. Remember though that given the world capitalist economy, Mexico is not prized with much relative economic value. Therefore, a life there is even more financially strenuous. As our 1990’s national political mantra states unabashedly, and strongly mirroring one of the main foci of these observant School students, I remind myself that “It’s the economy, stupid !” There is not much question about it: These students must adapt to the USA; and oftentimes, they must give in to playing the roles of the economically, and then culturally, downtrodden.

Without money, there comes the actuality of poverty and sometimes crime. But much worse and much more to the point than the basic dearth of cash, with poverty and crime, there comes the aura of evil – be it in the form of ignorance, insanity, and/ or ill-will – a life-limiting stigma which is placed on these students not only by the educational, social and legal institutions which these students must face every day, but also by certain residents in their neighborhoods. Shockingly, these youth do not suffer so much from the oft-quoted consequences of poverty as they do from being robbed of the gleaming hope to overcome the stigmas that accompany it.

The Smalltown community, its legal and social institutions, and the School faculty do not nurture the students’ personal identities, but rather at best half-succeed in trying to slowly squash and subsequently “normalize” them into more marketable ones (no wonder the punitive system or, at best, military service are natural next steps for Geromo, and others like him). Therefore, as great of a struggle as the School students face in forming successful professional careers and loving family lives, a struggle exacerbated by the virtual stripping of their “inalienable rights” to an academic school experience during their youth, the Smalltown community seems to face even deeper struggles in “unplugging” from deleterious mainstream and elitist expectations by failing to provide an egalitarian community that is hospitable to a new kind of educational, cultural, and professional success – i.e., one more conducive to an individually-defined identity within the national borders of the USA and within the economic mandates of a capitalist world market.


D’Amato, John. “Resistance and Compliance in Minority Classrooms.” In E. Jacob and C. Jordan (Eds.), Minority education: Anthropological perspectives (pp. 181-207). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Gilmore, Perry. “”Gimme Room”: School Resistance, Attitude, and Access to Literacy.” In Journal of Education, 167 (1). 1985: Boston University, MA. 111-128.

Kohl, H. “I won’t learn from you.” In I won’t learn from you and other thoughts on creative maladjustment (pp. 1-32). 1994: The New Press, New York.

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