News & Politics » Feature

Nancy From the Block

Nancy Serrano figured that what the kids at her old school needed was teachers who understood them--teachers like her.

by

comment

"You love making us write, don't you?" says an eighth grader after being assigned to write two pages on Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street.

"Yes, I do," says his teacher, Nancy Serrano.

"You hated it when you were in eighth grade, and now you're making us do it."

"That's right, my friend."

"But why?" he asks, though he continues copying down the assignment.

"Because you need to be pushed."

"But we don't like to be pushed."

"Most people don't like to be pushed," she says. "That doesn't mean it's not good for you."

It's March 2001 at Seward Communication Arts Academy, and Serrano, who recently graduated from college, has been on the job only two months, having taken over for a teacher who went on leave.

She and I had met in this very building, at 4600 S. Hermitage, in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, ten years earlier. She was an eighth grader dreaming of becoming the first in her family to go to college, the sixth of nine children raised by a single Mexican-immigrant mother. I was a 28-year-old middle-class transplant from North Carolina stumbling through my second year as a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, an outsider to my students in almost every way.

Serrano and I probably never would have crossed paths had it not been for The House on Mango Street, a collection of short stories that centers on the experiences of a Mexican-American girl growing up in a Chicago neighborhood not unlike Back of the Yards. It seemed perfect for the sixth graders I was teaching, most of whom came from Mexican families. But when we tried to read it together the students, who'd all been tracked into the "lowest" class, found it tough going. They connected with the book's characters and were drawn in by the depiction of a place they recognized, but their limited vocabularies and lack of fluency in English made reading it painfully slow.

I thought they might grasp more of the book's charms if they could hear it read aloud, so I approached the eighth-grade language-arts teacher and asked if he thought any of the girls in his class would be interested in making a book on tape. The next morning five girls appeared in the doorway to my classroom. One of them was Nancy Serrano.

Over the rest of that year Serrano and the other "Mango girls" would meet one or two mornings a week before school. Reading the stories together, we developed a closeness and trust that's hard to achieve in a class of 30 students. When the girls went off to high school at the end of the year we all promised to keep in touch.

In high school Serrano took a part-time job waiting tables at a restaurant a block from Seward. I would occasionally stop by, and we'd catch up. In the spring of her senior year she told me she'd been given a scholarship and would be heading to DePaul University to study education. "One day I plan to teach at Seward," she said the next fall when I visited her on campus. "I think the kids will look at me different. They can say, 'My teacher lives in my neighborhood. She's lived here all her life. She's just like me.'"

Five years later she was standing in front of her own classroom in the school where she'd spent nine years as a student. Given that less than 13 percent of Chicago Public Schools teachers are Latino, even though Latino children make up more than 36 percent of the system's student population, the power of Serrano's presence is difficult to overestimate. But more important than her coming back to Seward was what she'd come back to do. "I want to be honest with these kids," she says. "I want them to see a bigger picture, because when I was growing up my sense of the world was isolated and narrow. I want them to question, to understand themselves in this world, to understand why things are the way they are, and to be able to use that to overcome whatever they need to overcome. I want them to understand the system so they can look at it and say, 'You know what? That's not right.' I want to let them know that a better future is possible."

Later she adds, "A lot of times kids see their teachers as being far away--they don't share anything about who they are. But I feel like I can relate really well to my students. And it's not just because I'm Latina. It's also because I grew up poor, because I grew up in a large family, because I had a single parent, because my mom was an immigrant, because I speak Spanish, because I listen to the same music a lot of them listen to, because I lived in the neighborhood. I'm not going to say I completely, 100 percent understand what they're going through, because I don't. But I guess because I sat in their seats and experienced some of their experiences, I feel comfortable with them. I treat them as if they were family."

Serrano had eight siblings--two older sisters, three younger ones, and three older brothers--and her mother raised all nine of them on her own. "My ma's the strongest person I've ever seen in my life," Serrano says. "She found ways to feed us, to keep us in an apartment, to keep us warm. In all the buildings we lived in the landlords never gave a damn, and the apartments always sucked. In the winter it was always cold--pipes would freeze all the time--so she'd carry buckets of water over from the next-door neighbor's. She was the one who put linoleum on the floor, who painted, who fixed the heater. We'd have rats--I'm not talking about mice, I mean rats--and she would always be the one figuring out how to get rid of them." She says that when she was younger she didn't truly appreciate her mother. "But now I'm like, 'Wow, she did it with nine kids on her own.' She's such a strong person, such a survivor."

Serrano's sisters and brothers always told her she was the one most like their mother. She didn't mind the comparison, but she knew it was double-edged. She says years of adversity hardened her mother, making her seem emotionally detached, and Serrano occasionally sees something similar in herself. "I'm a hard-ass," she says. "Even with my students, I'm hard with them. They know I care about them, but I tell them, 'Look, I'm not going to sugarcoat everything. I'm not going to tell you I love you. I'm not going to hug you all the time and say "You did an excellent job." You need to understand that what I want for you is something great, even if I don't always show it the same way as others.'"

When she was growing up, Serrano wouldn't have said she was poor. "It's just the way it was," she says. "Sometimes you don't realize you're poor until you have something to compare it to." Almost everything was shared. For several years she and her three younger sisters slept in the same queen-size bed with their mother. "The babies would be close to my mom, somebody would get the wall, and somebody would sleep at the feet," she says matter-of-factly. "Now that I think about it, I actually didn't mind being at the feet. Sometimes you had more space there."

Just as vivid are memories of an apartment echoing with laughter, of nortenas playing on a kitchen radio. "I feel like I'm lucky I grew up the way I did," she says. "I'm realizing now that in a lot of ways I had a beautiful childhood. Yeah, I was poor. I didn't have a dad. I didn't have a lot of things. But had I not grown up like that I wouldn't be who I am today."

She also has fond memories of her time as a student at Seward, and of the teachers who worked hard on her behalf, though she knows there were problems. "I could count the number of Mexican teachers I had on one hand," she says. "And even then they didn't come from a background like mine. We'd have an assembly once a year where we wore skirts and did folkloric dances, but that was as close as we ever got to embracing or celebrating our culture. I don't remember seeing myself in literature until I read The House on Mango Street in eighth grade, and I don't remember ever reading anything about poor people. We'd read stories about kids who had their own houses and their own rooms--and I never had that. So sometimes I'd feel like I was different, like I wasn't normal."

Serrano was accepted at Kennedy High School, a nonmagnet school that had a good reputation, but she quickly realized that its reputation was based on its advanced courses. Her grades and test scores at Seward had been solid but not spectacular, so she was placed in regular classes, with the exception of math. One of her teachers routinely spent entire class periods with his head buried in a newspaper. "As long as we didn't get too loud," she says, "he wouldn't even look up." She remembers only a few teachers who made any effort to connect with her. "One was my gym teacher, and one was my division teacher, who I never even had for a class. I just saw him for ten minutes every day--we'd go in, and he'd take attendance. But in those ten minutes he still took the time to really develop relationships with us."

She was bored and felt disconnected, and she spent much of her freshman and sophomore years ditching class and hanging out with friends. "I wasn't doing well, and the teachers made it easy for me not to do well," she says. "I'd cut class, and not much would happen." Her grades plummeted, and some teachers wrote her off as a troubled kid.

At the end of her sophomore year she attended a Latino leadership conference. "They had all these workshops on empowering yourself, and being proud of who you are, and moving on to your next step in life, and it just really motivated me," she says. "I saw that there really were other options after high school. I got all these brochures from different colleges and took them home to show my ma. She was like, 'What are you talking about? We can't afford college.'"

All but one of Serrano's older brothers and sisters had left high school before graduating to get jobs and help their mother pay the bills, but she went to her school counselor's office to ask about scholarships and loans. "He wasn't rude--not in a blatant, openly racist way," she says. "He was just like, 'Well, what's your GPA? Oh, well, it's not too high. I don't think you qualify for this.' He was all nonchalant, like he didn't care. He got out a box and gave it to me, and he's like, 'Well, look through these and see if you find anything.' Talk about a mess--it was just a bunch of papers about colleges and scholarships, not even organized or anything. And that experience made me think, 'You don't give a shit about us. If I wouldn't have come down to the office on my own you wouldn't have done anything for me!' I was really upset."

Serrano started pushing herself in class, and her grade-point average inched upward. As a senior she applied for and was awarded a scholarship by the Golden Apple Foundation intended for students who planned to become teachers in "schools of high need."

She'd thought about teaching for years. As a young girl she'd collected extra worksheets at school and taken them home to "play teacher" with her younger sisters. Later her interest waned, but the indifference of her teachers at Kennedy revived it. "I realized that they weren't doing their job," she says. "The kids in the advanced classes were getting a lot of support, but the rest of us weren't. And when you realize that, you become angry, you want to change it. When I graduated, less than a third of the seniors went on to college. Most went to community colleges. A lot of the teachers and counselors didn't really care."

Seward is a four-story, redbrick, factory-style building that dwarfs the wooden two-flats and three-flats around it. Built in the 1890s, it has served generations of immigrant children living in the Back of the Yards: Irish and Germans in the late 1800s, Lithuanians, Slavs, and Poles after the turn of the century, and Mexicans following World War II.

Inside Serrano's classroom six tables form a big rectangle. A poster on the wall depicts an Aztec man and woman looking at a computer screen that reads El futuro es nuestro ("The future is ours"). Another shows two older Latina women, one dark skinned, the other light and blond, with the caption Y de que color es tu mama? ("And what color is your mother?"). On the door a photo of a young black girl is next to an excerpt from Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a woman?" speech. There's also a Diego Rivera print, a map showing "The Muslim World," Mohandas Gandhi's "seven deadly social sins," and dozens of vocabulary words on index cards: "internalize," "perception," "womanizing," "acquiescence."

"If somebody walked in here and looked at how the room is set up and listened to some of the things we talk about, they could easily confuse it for a college classroom," Serrano says. "And that's the kind of atmosphere I want to create. Why is it that it isn't until you get to college that you're pushed to think and pushed to be critical and pushed to discuss issues and speak your mind and be challenged? I want my seventh and eighth graders to do those things."

Not every seventh grader is anxious to be confused with a college student. One day in that first semester a kid named Fernando (all student names have been changed) interrupts an intense discussion on sexual abuse to say, "Hey, Ms. Serrano, you got something white on your butt." His friend Eddie says, "Why you lookin' at her butt, dude?" Another day Fernando spontaneously launches into a schoolyard version of the Barney theme song: "I love you, you love me / I chased Barney down the street / With a nine-millimeter. I shot him in the head. / Aren't you glad that Barney's dead?"

"It does get frustrating sometimes," Serrano says. "You're having a discussion and just because the word 'sex' comes out, they're giggling and guys are looking at each other and making faces. Sometimes I have to stop and ask them, 'Are you going to be able to handle this?' Most of the time they can shake it off. But you also have to accept their immaturity and realize that they don't have experience talking about certain things in a mature way. Part of my job is to help get them to that point."

Serrano tends to dive into a subject even when she isn't sure where it will take the students. She usually gives them a short story, newspaper article, poem, or essay, then asks them to write about and discuss their reaction to it. She says, "I tell them, 'This is how college is. They assign you something, you read it, you argue, you write. That's what it's all about. If you can do this, you can do college.'"

As much as possible, Serrano says, she lets her students' concerns and opinions drive the curriculum. The theme in three of her classes--gender roles and relationships--grew out of a series of informal conversations she had with groups of kids after school. "A lot of things had been coming up," she says. "They had a lot of questions."

But Serrano is a language-arts teacher. What about parts of speech? What about sentence fragments? "I'm still doing that," she says. "It's just that I'm not doing it in a traditional way. I don't use the grammar book or the literature book every day, and I don't go from one page to the next. We read interesting articles, and we analyze them, and we write about them. They're always writing. And we still do sentence fragments too--and outlining, and paragraph structure, and synonyms, and antonyms, and all that--because it's important in their writing. But I don't want to just focus on that. I want to help them open their minds up to things they haven't learned about."

She knows these 13-year-olds have already learned plenty about sex and relationships, but, she says, "I want them to think about the ideas they grew up with. What did their families teach them? What did their culture teach them? What did their religion teach them? What did they learn from schools, society, TV? What kinds of things have they picked up on that they've never stopped to think about? I want them to start to question all that and realize that they have control over their lives, that they can create who they are going to be. Just because your mom is the biggest machista doesn't mean you have to be like that. Just because your dad is homophobic doesn't mean you have to think that way."

One morning she asks a class, "So could any of you relate to Sally?" referring to a teenage character from The House on Mango Street whose father keeps her on a tight rein.

"My mom doesn't let me go out," says Miriam. "She says she knows how I am, but she doesn't know how other people are."

"My dad tells me I'm gonna end up like my sister," says Alicia, looking hurt.

Serrano looks toward a cluster of boys. "Guys, could you relate to that? Do your parents tell you that?"

Several of the boys shake their heads.

"It's not the same for guys," says Karina. "When I come home late my parents start cursing me and asking where was I. But my brother comes home like an hour later, and they don't say nothing to him."

"OK, who could relate to that? Raise your hand," says Serrano. "I'll raise both my hands and my feet too, 'cause that's how my mom was. Guys, why are your parents not the same with you as they are with your sisters? Why is there a double standard?"

"'Cause they think they're out there doing something bad," Daniel suggests.

"And aren't they worried that you're doing something bad too?"

Daniel shrugs. "It's different."

"If a guy is out there having sex, people see it like he's a little Mack Daddy," says Monica. "But if the girl does the same thing she's a slut."

"What if that perception was flipped around?" Serrano asks. "What if we saw the girls who had sex as cool and the boys as sluts?"

Eddie smiles. "Nah. We're pimps."

"But I'm changing the story on you, my friend," says Serrano.

"Nah, we don't want you to change it."

"Well, why are you so stuck in that mind-set? Why do we think like that? Why is it seen differently for guys to be sexually promiscuous?"

"I think because in some religions--maybe in all religions--girls are supposed to get married first before they have sex," says Evelyn. "Like in the Catholic religion, we say that when you're a virgin, you're still--you know." She looks around for help, but no one says anything. "You know, without nobody in your body. And when you're not a virgin anymore, you're like--you know."

"Like what?" says Serrano.

Evelyn scribbles absentmindedly on her paper. "You're not clean. You're not pure."

Serrano scans the faces in the room. "So what do you think about that?" She pauses. "It it right? Is it good? Is it fair?"

"I think we just go with tradition, and we don't think about it," says Miriam. "Like in Mexico the church controls a lot of stuff. So that's how we get these thoughts, and then they're passed on from generation to generation, and we just accept it."

"All those church writings were written a long time ago," says Monica. "But they're just ideas. We could change them."

"Yeah, but a lot of it hasn't changed," says Miriam. "How come in the Catholic church men get to be archbishops, cardinals, and popes, but women can only be nuns? They can't go any further. And in some cultures their religion says you could have six wives at the same time, but not six husbands."

"It's not right," says Evelyn. "Supposedly we were created equal, but it seems like women are seen as inferior, like we're less."

"I get the feeling that, for a girl, if you lose your virginity it's like you lose the only thing you have to give," says Miriam. "Like that's the only thing you have of value. It seems like that's how the church sees it."

"Wow, that's deep," says Serrano. "Did everybody hear that?"

The students nod, though it's not clear they fully grasp what Miriam said.

After class I tell Miriam I appreciated her contributions to the discussion.

"It's because of how Ms. Serrano lets us be open about things," she says. "This is the first class I've had where we can share our ideas and talk about issues and be comfortable. I've never experienced that in school before."

When Serrano got to college she wondered almost as soon as she arrived whether she'd made a mistake. DePaul's Lincoln Park campus was only a 25-minute drive from her family's apartment, but it seemed a world away. "My two brothers drove me there in this old Chevy Cavalier that I'd bought for $100," she says. "I remember carrying in my stuff in a milk crate. I didn't have a lot--clothes, sheets, a little black-and-white TV." She didn't think much about it until she saw other students arriving. "They were bringing in loads and loads--suitcases full of clothes and huge TVs and stereo systems and real storage bins. I had a milk crate! And at that moment I realized, 'Wow, they're rich. And I guess I'm poor.' That's when it hit me. Before that I didn't realize my experience had been so narrow. You think the world is the way it is where you grew up, and then you realize it's not."

Serrano's roommate and all of her suitemates that first year were white, and only one woman besides her had grown up in the city. "I was like, these are the white people from TV," she says. "I could just imagine the way their lives had been--the whole 'I go upstairs to my bedroom' thing." She couldn't help comparing herself to the girls on her hall, and she almost always came up short. "I felt so small, so ashamed. I felt like I stood out. And not just with material things, but with how I dressed, how I spoke. I started questioning all that. It was like I was hearing myself for the first time, and I didn't like what I heard. I was starting to hate myself, in a sense."

In her classes she was often the only Hispanic student. She found the assigned readings difficult, the workload demanding, the class discussions intimidating. "I would shake and get cold and start sweating thinking about speaking up," she says. When she got back her first paper, a two-page personal essay for a philosophy course that she'd spent days writing and revising, she got an F. "The TA who graded it wrote, 'You are in dire need of help,' and then said something about my writing capabilities. He was just really dogging me, and it wasn't in a constructive manner. I went back to my dorm that night and cried. I was like, 'Oh, my lord, what have I gotten myself into?' I just felt like I wasn't smart enough, like I wasn't supposed to be there."

Lonely and homesick, Serrano talked to her mother on the phone nearly every day. "We're not the kind of family that says, 'I love you. I miss you,'" she says. "Our conversations are like, 'What are you doing? What'd you eat? What's going on?' That's it." Her mother would leave seemingly curt messages on her answering machine."She would say, 'Gorda. Fea. Llamame. Bye.' And my roommates could never understand that. I'd be like, oh, that just means, 'Hey Nancy, how are you? What's new? I love you. Give me a call.'" She laughs. "I know my ma missed me--my sisters would tell me that she wouldn't sleep sometimes, that she'd be worrying because I was the first one to leave home like that. But she would never say it."

Serrano's older siblings were similarly tight-lipped, but, Serrano says, "without them, I don't know how I would've made it. Twenty bucks here and there, rides back and forth on the weekends, bringing me things I needed. Even though they hadn't been able to go to college themselves, it was like they were living out their dreams through me." Her boyfriend, Jaime, to whom she's now married, was also supportive. "He's the one who first taught me how to express my emotions, my frustrations, my fears," she says. "I was really going through a lot then, and he'd stay up till five o'clock in the morning listening to me."

One of her instructors, an African-American philosophy professor, offered to meet with her to talk through her papers. Before long her Fs turned into Cs, then Bs, and by the end of the term As. "He helped me see what an essay was supposed to look like," she says. "I really didn't know. A lot of the problem was that I'd only written one paper in high school--can you believe that? And that was a phony, straight-out-of-the-encyclopedia research paper."

Serrano also began seeing her world more clearly after she joined the DePaul Alliance for Latino Empowerment. "The leaders of DALE at that time were all women, all Latinas," she says. "They were a kick-ass group, very political, and they were the ones who opened my eyes. I started becoming aware of things I hadn't known about, even my own culture. I was Mexican, but I didn't really know about Mexico's history or about what being Mexican meant. I was ignorant like you wouldn't believe. But through them I started getting involved, going to marches, and becoming educated about issues I never even knew existed. They inspired me to stop being ashamed and to start being proud of who I was."

In the spring of her freshman year she finally let the music of Carlos y Jose, her mother's favorite nortena group, blare through her dorm's hallway. She'd brought the cassette with her so she could play it whenever she missed home, but she'd always kept the volume down if other people were around. "For a long time I was embarrassed of my roommate or her friends hearing it," she says. "But by the end of that year I wouldn't lower it down or turn it off no matter who came in."

Serrano says she can understand how some Latinos go off to predominantly white universities and end up distancing themselves from their roots. "You feel like you have to leave your world behind and join a new one, and when you try to do that it's easy to kind of forget where you came from. That was starting to happen to me. But you have to figure out how to live and survive in both worlds, so you can go back and forth and not be forced to stay in one." She says leaving her neighborhood allowed her to see it more clearly. "Looking in was different from looking out. It made me ask why things were the way they were."

Ultimately, it also led her back, though she says she never thought of returning in terms of "giving back" to her community. "To me, that seems like more of a charity thing," she says. "When you give back it's like you're doing it for some kind of gain. But I wanted to come back because when I was growing up I don't remember anybody ever 'making it' and still living or working in the neighborhood. I want my students to see me and see themselves in the future. Not that I want them all to be like me, but sometimes you need to see something tangible that says, 'Hey, it could be done.'"

The day after Seward's talent show, Serrano isn't sure whether she's more upset with herself or six of her students. She had sat in the crowded gymnasium as students did a variety of acts onstage. There was a tumbling troupe, a pair of daredevil bicyclists, two fifth-grade girls doing a tae kwon do demonstration, pint-size folkloric dancers, lip-synchers. But the students who drew the most attention were six girls from Serrano's homeroom.

Dressed in hip-hugging jeans and tight red tops, they did a dance routine to the "Cha Cha Slide." It began innocently enough, but as the song progressed the moves became more and more suggestive. While the singer intoned, "How low can you go? / Can you go down low? / All the way to the flo'?" pairs of girls faced each other and thrust their hips together to the beat as each leaned back on one hand. It wasn't anything most people hadn't seen on music videos a hundred times, but this was school, these were kids, and lots of younger siblings and parents were watching. Some students cheered, but other people squirmed in their seats.

Rhonda Hoskins, the school's assistant principal, was one of the squirmers. The morning after the show she talks with Serrano and says the performance was inappropriate. Serrano agrees but says it never occurred to her that she had the authority to stop it.

"I knew they were going to do that dance," she tells me later that morning. "I watched them practice it. I kept asking them, 'What kind of a message do you think that is sending?' I told them, 'Those movements are not dance movements. It looks like you're having sex. It looks really bad.' I told them I wanted them to change their act, and I guess I hoped they would eventually change it on their own. But it didn't even cross my mind that I could just say, 'You know what? You can't do that.' Why didn't I realize that I had the power to just tell them, 'You're not allowed to do that'?"

Her youthful confidence is shaken. A few days earlier she was publicly berated by a veteran teacher for using the word "crap" within earshot of students. "As soon as I said it," Serrano says, "she said in a really loud voice, 'Excuse me! You are a teacher. You should be a better role model. You don't say those kinds of words in front of kids.' Like she was my mom. And my students were all right there listening. I was just so shocked I didn't know what to say. I think I must've said, 'I'm sorry,' because that whole 'Oh, my God, you're better than me' thing sometimes gets into me and I can't control it." She says it wasn't the first time she'd been talked down to by a colleague. She chalks some of it up to first-year hazing but thinks there's more to it. "Not only am I young, but I'm a woman, I'm Mexican, I went to this school. I think some teachers subconsciously think less of me or underestimate me because of that. I don't think they necessarily mean harm, but it's there."

The flap over her students' dance routine prompts her to reevaluate what she's teaching. During the gender unit, she spent a lot of time talking about the commodification of women's bodies and looking at examples of sexual exploitation in the media. "What did those girls take from all that?" she wonders aloud. "Nothing? They spoke up so strongly about it in class, and then they're up there onstage looking like--" She stops short. "I think what it is is that we get so sucked into the mind-set that as women we need to look attractive and hot and sexy that we can't totally break out of it. It's been instilled in us. My female students are becoming aware and conscious of it, but I guess their self-esteem is so low that they also feed off of it. They probably think that's the only way guys will pay attention to them." She says it makes her both sad and angry. "In the summer they wear those tiny shorts--I call 'em hoochie-mama shorts--just to get noticed. That's crazy!"

Later that week she talks to the girls, but they still don't seem to think they've done anything wrong. "It just reminds me how complex it is," she says. "One lesson or one unit is not going to completely change 12 years of being socialized a certain way."

I ask what she ultimately wants for her female students, and she doesn't hesitate. "I don't want these girls to feel they have to be housewives," she says. "Not because I think that's a bad thing--if a woman chooses it, then that's fine. But I think it's easy to lose yourself in that role. I want them to get to college, because I know they'll have their minds opened up more then. And once they get to that point they'll be fine. I want so much for them to free their minds and become empowered and become passionate and become aware of all this shit and do something about it." She pauses. "And not to dress in hoochie-mama shorts!"

Once Serrano worked through her initial insecurities at college, she began to question the disparities and bigotry she saw around her. She says she felt alternately bitter, hurt, and victimized, before settling into anger. "I was pissed off," she says. "I was just very, very, very angry."

That anger came to a head one morning when she and I drove together to watch one of her former Seward classmates graduate from junior college. She was well into her sophomore year at DePaul. "I think I'm starting to hate white people," she said on the way there. "The white kids in my classes--they're so closed minded. Fine, they came into college unaware. So did I. But even when they're confronted with the issues they choose to remain ignorant. That's what pisses me off! 'Well, my family didn't do this or that, so it's not my problem.' They don't want to shatter their perfect little world."

For the rest of the ride we went back and forth. I told stories of undergrads I'd taught who were just as insistent about keeping their blinders on as the ones she'd encountered, but I also challenged her painting the white students in broad strokes. She acknowledged that she knew some whites who were socially aware but insisted that most were in deep denial.

Thinking back on that drive, she says her anger was beginning to overwhelm her. "I was generalizing. I'd see somebody white, and I'd think, 'You're rich, you're preppy. You must be like this.' Or I'd be on the train and see a white woman with expensive shoes, and I'd get pissed. I'd think, 'Those shoes must've cost $200,' or, 'I wonder how much time she spent on her hair.' I was getting worried, because I didn't want to be like that. I didn't think I was racist. I knew I didn't really hate white people--I didn't hate you, I didn't hate friends I had who were white. I think it was just a phase of becoming aware and just letting out a lot of anger and frustration that had been building up for a long time."

As a teacher, she says, she still feels that anger at times, but she's gained some distance. "You can be destructive with your anger, or you can choose to be constructive with it," she says. "I try to help the kids understand that when you first become educated about some of the injustices there's a reaction--you're upset, you're angry. I tell them, 'So don't feel bad if you're feeling that way. But you need to move through it. You need to use it to do something good.'"

"This is Mexican people," says Christina, raising one of her hands to her shoulder. She then stretches her other hand as high as it will go. "This is white people. And Mexican people wanna go up with white people."

The class is discussing the psychological impact of racism on Mexicans and other people of color.

"But we don't have to try to be like them," says Ana. "We can go up another way."

"It's the media," says Teresa. "We watch TV and they show women with blue eyes, blond hair, skinny--it's brainwashing."

"That's right, sister!" says Serrano. "Just because I'm dark, thick, black hair, dark eyes--that doesn't mean I can't be beautiful!"

"So why did you dye your hair?" asks Beto.

The class explodes in laughter.

Serrano smiles, looking as if she knows she's been busted. "Can I respond?" she says. "I did not dye my hair. They're called highlights."

Serrano says she's glad her students feel comfortable enough with her to challenge her. She thinks it's evidence that one of her main messages is getting through. "One thing I'm always telling them is, learn to question. Don't accept things just because they're in a textbook," she says. "I think a lot of the kids have the same mind-set I did growing up--that whoever wrote the book is smart and educated, so whatever they tell me, it must be true. I tell them, 'It doesn't matter who wrote it. You have to learn to analyze it and critique it and not just to accept things.'"

She admits their remarks sometimes touch a nerve. Once they commented on how many pairs of shoes she owned. "I do have a lot of shoes--compared to the one pair I had when I was growing up," she says. "And I hate that. I feel guilty. But in college I'd see people who had a lot of shoes, a lot of outfits, and I never had much. So in some ways I think I'm overcompensating for what I didn't have as a kid. I can see how I've become more materialistic since college." But then she says a Latina friend in the business world keeps reminding her that people of color need to have an ample wardrobe for the same reason they need to know standard English. "I'm trying to balance it," she says. "But going to college changed me. For better and for worse, I'm not the same person."

She was much more shaken by her students' criticism of her teaching. At the middle of the semester she'd asked them to write evaluations. Most had been favorable, but she couldn't get one boy's response out of her mind. "He wrote, 'I think this class is a piece of good for nothing class,'" she says. "Then it said, 'I don't know why we have to do so much writing. People ain't going to look at how we write.' And then in capital letters he wrote, 'Don't think we like to be challenged!' And 'challenged' was misspelled." She laughs, though she hadn't thought it was funny at the time.

She spent the following weekend second-guessing herself. "I think my biggest concern was that they misunderstood where I was coming from," she says. "I didn't want them to think of me as a hard-ass who was just out to get them by giving them lots of work. I wanted them to see that the reason I was expecting a lot from them was that I thought highly of them, that I wanted great things for them, and that I believed they were capable of meeting that challenge."

She'd read about student resistance in her classes at DePaul, but she hadn't thought students would resist her. "It hurt a lot," she says. "But most of all it just made me sad. Somehow this kid has been going through his education and getting by without being challenged, and he's gotten to the point where he's fine with it. So when someone comes to break that apart he finally speaks up for himself. Why didn't he speak out before? It's just sad to see that some kids are conditioned to expect less of themselves, and they get mad when somebody asks them to expect more."

The next week she had a long talk with the boy, then with his entire class. She defended the principle of demanding a lot of work from them but agreed to ease up on the amount of writing they had to do for homework--instead of three to four pages a night, she'd settle for two.

Serrano knows what the world will demand of her students when they're older. "Everything I do, I do it as if they were already in high school, and I was trying to prepare them for college," she says. "I want them to feel like college is a real option for them, and when they go I don't want them to be intimidated like I was or to be the kid in the back of the class who never says anything."

So she worries about cutting back on homework, worries that she isn't demanding enough. When Marlena, an eighth grader, turned in a paper titled "The American Dream: Is it a reality or is it a nightmare?" Serrano was so proud she nearly cried. "It talked about her dad immigrating, and about the rights of undocumented immigrants, and how Mexicans come here for a better life not realizing that they're going to be exploited--and she used that word, 'exploited,'" she says. "She talked about the history of discrimination against Mexican-Americans, about the bracero program, and it totally seemed like she was empowered, like she was aware. Sometimes you don't know if you're making an impact, but with that one I felt I did."

But the paper had grammatical mistakes, run-on sentences, missing commas, wrong tenses. Most of them weren't major errors, but Serrano knew that in, for instance, a college admissions essay they would be viewed harshly. "I kind of looked at her paper as an evaluation of my teaching so far," she says. "I've been able to get some things across to them, and that makes me feel good. But at the same time, maybe I haven't spent enough time on other things. I want to give them the tools they're going to need to succeed and to survive--which means that they need to learn standard English. But I don't want to spend all year working out of the grammar book. It's just so hard to balance it."

It's late spring, and the eighth graders in Serrano's reading class are looking over a form letter she's just handed them outlining all the fees they'll have to pay before graduating.

"A hundred dollars! Hijole!"

"Damn, my ma don't got money! She just bought ropa for my sister."

"I know it's expensive," says Serrano. "My mom wouldn't have been able to afford it either. Believe me, I know how you're feeling."

Max studies the list. Cap-and-gown photos $16. Graduation jersey $23. Eighth- grade luncheon $20. Nonrefundable graduation fee $50. He shakes his head. "My parents don't have money, man."

"I know," says Beto. "We need to grow some."

Serrano uses their conversation to return to the previous day's discussion. They'd read an essay about growing up poor in the rural south, then written a couple of pages comparing the author's recollections and their own. But the follow-up discussion had fallen flat. "Yesterday when we were talking about the essay there were a lot of you who were very quiet," she says. "I'm not sure if it's because you were bored, or shy, or embarrassed, or uncomfortable. Why is it that we don't want to share?"

"It's depressing," one girl says, her voice barely audible.

"It's embarrassing," says another student.

Other kids look down, avert their eyes. No one says anything for a few moments.

"I remember how it feels," Serrano says. "I remember not being able to pay my school fees, not having enough money for my pictures, having rats in our apartment. I woke up one time with a rat crawling on my neck."

Nervous laughter bubbles up around the room. The kids seem to relax a little.

"Maybe we're poor, but at least we work," says Salvador. "At least we're not on welfare. It's one thing if people are on welfare and they really need it, but it's another thing if they're just sitting there lazy and they don't wanna work."

"Yeah," says Rosa. "Some of the people in the projects, they're just lazy."

"You know what?" Serrano says. "My ma was on welfare for a while." She pauses. "It's nothing to be ashamed of. You may think people on welfare are just trying to get over, but why do you think that? Where do those ideas come from? How does the media portray the poor?"

"Dirty."

"They don't wanna work."

"That they're criminals or drug dealers."

"So don't you think that stuff gets in your head?" Serrano says. "It's easy to just say people in the projects are lazy, but you have to think about what caused the conditions they're living in."

"Yeah," says Arturo. "I mean, there's some things people can do to clean their neighborhoods and help, but there's some stuff the government should be doing."

"Yes," says Serrano. "Remember when it snowed so much last winter? Remember how long it took them to clean the streets around here? Why do you think that is?"

"Maybe they don't clean around here 'cause we're Mexican," says Yessica.

"It's not because you're Mexican," says Marjorie, the only white student in the class. "It's because you're poor."

"They think we're not important down here," says Teresa. "'Cause the visitors to the city, they don't come here. They go straight to downtown, to the lake, to Navy Pier, so they want it to look nice around there. But not here."

"Yeah, and the landlords around here are cheap," says Zury. "When something is broken in my building they take forever to fix it."

"Me and my mom pay $300 for a second-floor apartment, but it's in really bad condition," says Teresa. "The ceiling is falling--it fell in on my mom's head! We can't even walk through the basement it's so junky. So yeah, the rent is cheap, but it's not worth it."

"Most of the owners don't even live around here," says Marjorie.

Serrano nods her head. "That's a good point. It might be different if they had to live in their own buildings, right?"

"Look, we gotta open our damn eyes," says Arturo. "Why don't we speak out against some of this stuff? One person can't change it. All of us have to get together. Let's go down to City Hall and tell them bastards something!"

Suddenly the room is abuzz and the kids are rising out of their chairs.

"This is the point of an education," says Serrano excitedly. "For you to become aware of what's going on."

"And do something about it," says Yessica.

"Right!" says Serrano. "And do something about it. That should be the whole point of school."

The bell rings, but the conversations continue as the students gather their things.

"We're gonna protest, Ms. Serrano," says Teresa.

"Arturo for president!" two of the guys begin chanting as they leave. Arturo doesn't even try to hide his smile.

The end of the year came and went, and the protest didn't happen. Serrano felt guilty that she hadn't seized the moment, but she reminded herself that it was only her first semester and that other opportunities would come along. "I know I have a lot to improve on," she said one day after the students were gone. "But I have my little pluses, and I'm constantly getting better. I'm not going to say I'm doing everything I want to do, because it's just so tough. But every month that I teach I feel like I can see the bigger picture more."

Still she was worried that the enthusiasm she had for her work might drain away, that she'd burn out like the teachers who once wrote her off. "Sometimes I wonder, am I doing all this just because I'm a new teacher?" she said. "Or is this how I'm going to be in five years? I think it is, but sometimes I'm scared that I may change, that I may get frustrated. You see teachers go in with such strength, and then the system and the school climate can really break them down. I don't think that's going to happen to me. As long as people keep letting me do what I do I think I'll be fine."

Two and a half years later Serrano is still at Seward. She's still assigning lots of reading and writing, and she's still pushing her students to question themselves and others.

But she's made changes. "One thing I'm doing differently now is incorporating art more and doing more hands-on projects," she says. "I'm trying really hard to provide ways for kids with different strengths to show their smarts. And I'm trying to give more positive reinforcement--I'm being more open with my feelings. The other day after school this kid who's always getting in trouble asked me, 'Why do you mess with me so much, Ms. Serrano?' And I said, 'Because I care about you.'" She laughs. "But I still said it in my lecturing kind of way."

Serrano says she's also realized that it's important to collaborate with other teachers. "For a while I was kind of isolating myself," she says. "I was just doing my thing. But then I started to get to know other teachers, and I found some who I had a lot in common with. Kimberly Bowsky, who teaches across the hall from me, we work really well together. She has such a respect for the kids, and she exposes them to lots of things. She's not Mexican, and she didn't grow up in this neighborhood. Yet the kids still connect with her, and they really like her. We plan together, we share ideas and projects. And I think that validates and reinforces what we're doing even more."

Her biggest struggle, she says, is finding the time to do all she wants to do. "I have so many ideas, but creating your own curriculum is time-consuming, and it's hard to fit it in with all the grading and paperwork and administrative stuff teachers have to do. Sometimes I get really overwhelmed, and I'll tell my ma, 'I need to take a day off. I'm tired.' And my ma will tell me, 'What do you mean you're tired? Imagine if you had five kids and no husband and you had to go to work and then come home and cook and clean for them. Then you'd be tired.' I know what I'm doing doesn't even compare to that, so that kind of energizes me."

She also feels more pressure to prepare her students to take standardized tests, especially since the No Child Left Behind Act passed. She says she isn't opposed to having standards for students, teachers, or schools. "But teachers should have more of a say in creating them and in creating curriculum that meets them. In college you take so many classes that talk about kids having different learning styles--and then you get out in the classroom and almost everything you do is assessed by a multiple-choice test. We say that kids should be able to think critically and use higher-order thinking skills, but the test is not about that. It's such hypocrisy. I don't think any test should be used by itself to assess how a kid is doing."

Yet she knows that her students' scores play a big part not only in how they're evaluated, but in how she's judged as a teacher. "I feel the pressure of all that," she says. "Believe me, I'm not this carefree rebel who doesn't worry about how my kids will do on the tests. But you have to be careful that it doesn't distort your expectations or replace what you believe in. I tell myself, 'I'm not going to let this test run my curriculum.' And I'm lucky that I have a principal at Seward who gives me the freedom to make decisions about what I teach and how I teach it. But there's always that what-if. What if my kids don't perform well? What if what I'm doing doesn't give them the skills they need to survive and succeed? My main fear really is, what if what they know doesn't show up on the test? Because I know they're learning."

Last May the teachers at Seward got the results of that year's Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The eighth graders in Serrano's homeroom, whom she'd taught for two years, had done even better than she'd hoped. Of the 30 students in her class, 71 percent were at or above grade level in reading comprehension; the CPS average for eighth graders is 50 percent. But, she says, "I don't want to put too much emphasis on that, because what if this year my kids don't do as well? Does that mean I'm a bad teacher? I think more than anything I just felt a huge sense of relief when I saw the scores. I'd been worrying about it all year, and it felt good just to be able to exhale, to relax a little bit. I was so happy for the kids, so proud of them--and I really want them to feel that too. I want them to hold their heads up high. I want them to prove people wrong."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

Add a comment