I’m Calling Bullshit on Your Elitism

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This has been a difficult blog post to start and write. I’ve hesitated. Stopped. Started. Spent afternoons thinking about it. Debated whether it should be done at all and then realized I no longer had a choice. Because this post is about the most important lesson I learned at Stanford. And that is the lesson I hope you get from me. But it is a lesson born from pain.

I didn’t talk to people in my freshman dorm. In fact, at Stanford I was pretty anti-social. So much so, that the party-throwing class president, earned a reputation for being a recluse. This is what happens when you are uncomfortable in an environment. I remember the conversation that happened when I was deciding to apply to Stanford, my English teacher told me about how people at Stanford were different. They cleaned up after themselves. They were kind and compassionate. They were smart and well-educated. They cared about others. I heard this my whole life, this message that the people at the top were better, and that if I wanted to be “good” I would have to join them. I was told that their success was because they were better, smarter, more moral. I was told that I could be one of them too.

It is easy to believe this if you are the kid that got out. Doesn’t that validate it? But I was troubled by the bodies left behind. I was troubled by the fact that I knew that I had been one bad decision away from being stuck in North Highlands. I wasn’t an angel. I was a punk kid with an attitude who went home to a party house. I didn’t do what I was told. I wasn’t sexually naïve, I had not gotten pregnant because I had a lenient mom who believed in birth control. I knew, always that I was one step away. I could feel it. The stakes were so high. We’d talk about our friends as they, one by one, got pregnant, got on hard drugs, dropped out; we’d talk about them as if they’d been given a death sentence, and that’s because a lot of them had.

I couldn’t stop seeing their faces at Stanford. The kids I’d known as I went through my stages of “getting out.” At my best and worst, they had my back. They were beautiful. They were brilliant. They were talented. I’d see them in the faces of my classmates, some of whom were profoundly and uniquely brilliant, none of whom were any more brilliant than I was, and very few of whom were more brilliant than several of the kids I left behind. I am a researcher; I cannot lie in the face of evidence. I’d cry at night, seeing those faces.

My classmates treated me like a walking poster child. They wanted to know what “it was like.” They wanted me to confirm their vision of a meritocracy. They wanted me to tell them that I got there because our system was fair and that they deserved to be there too. They accused my friends and family of being stupid and immoral. They said we were poor because of drug use, alcohol, teen sex, willful ignorance; basically all the individually bad choices. They told me my men were sexist. They told me my family and community was ignorant and didn’t value education. They wanted me to nod my head, and eventually I decided that spending my Saturday night fighting was a good way to be very tired on Monday morning. So I stopped going out. I started drinking heavily in college. I did it because it was the only way to socially cope. I did it because it was the only way for me to get battle scars that I didn’t feel. Little by little, I was broken down, and I am only now regaining my strength.

I watched as they had abortions, snorted coke, went to class high, sexually, physically and mentally abused each other. I watched as my girlfriends’ boyfriends told them to lose weight, stop talking, and stop working. I listened and challenged and then gave up as I tried to have discussions about philosophy and history and my classmates couldn’t keep up. I came to understand the thing that changed my life.

I learned that my suspicions were true. That the system was stacked and that there was no reason why they had earned their position besides the fact that the game was rigged. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t us. It was a system so unjust that even after beating them at their own game, for the first time in my life I can afford proper health care, healthy food, and a safe neighborhood, while many of my Stanford friends complained about that same food, neighborhood and healthcare. They complained about how they couldn’t afford the lifestyle their parent’s could when I was the first person to get a lifestyle most of my community could only dream of. Their worst was my best, even though by every standard I had matched or bested them.

The lesson that I learned at Stanford was that they were no better. If they are no better then they have no justification for why the system is what it is. And if they have no justification, then they have no legitimacy. And as any historian will tell you, if they have no legitimacy-no right to power- they will fall. Maybe not tomorrow, but they will fall. The war has already been won. I hope they are ready to finally join the human spirit and contribute to a human history that is not about war but is about giving EVERYONE their unique humanity. And if they aren’t? Too bad, they don’t have a choice anymore. Even if you got rid of me, I promise I will send more your way. Teaching is an intentional act. That’s why I never feel bad when they tell me teaching is beneath me, because it takes an incredibly small mind to fail to see their own downfall. I hope they keep worshiping at the altar of shiny things, the more distracted they are the easier my job is.

I just smiled at parties when they sang Kid Cudi’s Pursuit of Happiness. They can’t hear what they don’t understand and they can’t see what they refuse to see. I don’t do this for them. I don’t care what they think. I don’t care if they approve. I don’t care how they feel. What I know is that every day the kids prove me right. If you think I am radical, imagine what I would have been like with a teacher like me. We’ve already won. That was the most important lesson of all.

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I Hope Your History Teacher is Teaching You How to Remain Free

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We teach the wrong lessons about World War II. I don’t understand how this happens since in a lot of classrooms it is six weeks or more as a unit and in some classrooms is about half of the material. World War II is not significant because of the battles that were fought. It is significant because it sets the stage for the modern world. World War II gave America its dominance, began to tear down European supremacy, and showed us how dangerous racism and imperialism are. It fundamentally reshaped the world, and yet that isn’t what we teach. What we teach is a narrative in which technology and money saved everyone, and racism was targeted and isolated.

The Holocaust could have happened anywhere. Pogroms against the Jews had been going on for a long time, and because the other European colonial powers and European colonial children didn’t seem terribly concerned about it when it was actually happening. Genocide had been happening since the dawn of colonialism, so had forced labor, forced population movements, and forced sterilization. My family was sterilized in the United States not long before the Holocaust. What made it particularly brutal was that it happened in the hands of a highly efficient, scientifically advanced modern state, which allowed them to systematically kill a lot more people a lot more quickly. Technology enables the state to be more invasive and more deadly. At its best, it allows the efficient distribution of resources and support of the people, but at its worst it has the power to kill in a highly efficient way. Technology doesn’t make people kill, because technology and science have no morals and are not ends in themselves. Technology is a tool. It is a tool that can make lives better, but it is also a tool that can be highly destructive – It depends on the society that is using it – that should be the lesson learned from World War II.

Because we were the victors in that war we treat World War II as though it is simply confirmation of our superiority and as if the only lessons we can learn from it are lessons about why we are (were) so awesome. All we talk about is how we acquired the money and prestige that resulted, and we tried to bury the lessons of the millions who were murdered or tortured. When we “won” that war it didn’t and hasn’t prevented the state from murdering its people, or oppressing its people efficiently, and that was the point. When we bow at the alter of science and money we forget something fundamental about ourselves. We reduce ourselves to squirrels driven by shiny things and tools that help us get shiny things. If that is how you want to live your life that is fine, you can do that, but you don’t get to make that decision for anyone else. The reason you don’t get to make that decision for anyone else is because you don’t have the right to take away anyone’s humanity.

Technology in the wrong hands is the most dangerous and destructive force in the world. That is what we should have learned from World War II. Technology combined with a society that values technology over humanity, that values efficiency over humanity, and that is guided by the belief that some humans have less value than others is how you get genocides. Technology is only of value to the extent that it makes life better for people. This is because it is a tool, and tools are great and important, but only when they are useful. The humanities remind us of this simple truth, they give us a basic understanding of our innate humanity, and they keep us from taking the humanity of others.

Should be Obvious: But Here Are the Reasons the Poor are Struggling in Schools

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There has been a lot of confusion about this issue, so I am going to be using my personal experience to illustrate my point. The following is the list of reasons why school was difficult for me, my family and my friends.

1) When you don’t have enough to eat it is hard to learn.

a. This is difficult for people from privilege to understand. The idea that being hungry all the time might impact your learning as a child seems beyond most people. People also read this and don’t understand that I am saying that this is a constant, daily, all encompassing issue. When I got to Stanford, I didn’t know how to respond to the dining hall because I had never had consistent access to that much food. Even my friends who did always have access to food didn’t have access to healthy food. If you do any work with children, then you know that diet matters. I know this because I have sat in coffee shops in Palo Alto and listened to those moms make decisions about their child’s food, so I am not sure why you think the body chemistry of other children is somehow different from your children. If you are still confused about that you can read my post on racism.

b. Some people also read this and do not understand how that might impact one’s learning. Food is a basic human need. When a basic human need is not met, it slows everything down. Think about how grouchy you get on trips where you have to wait to eat. Well that is how I felt all day long as a kid. Your central focus is getting enough to eat. I still plan my days around food. It is hard to remember things, it is hard to perform executive functions, and it is hard to be in a cheery mood when you are hungry. Imagine doing that every day of your life, as a child.

2) Sleep is important and we never get enough

a. I love sleep. I love sleep like a fiend. I will bail on outings to sleep. I will ignore phone calls to sleep. I will spend all of my weekends napping and not feel the slightest bit bad. This is because when I was a kid I never got enough sleep. There were several reasons for this. One is that my entire childhood home was smaller than some of my friend’s dorms at Stanford, and I was one of four kids in the house. Also factor in the drug and alcohol use, the dangerousness of the neighborhood, the PTSD and the untreated physical pain and it makes it difficult to sleep. I had a friend in high school whose mom would pick me up to take me to her house to get sleep. I’ve slept at the playground near my mom’s house. Having a quiet, safe place to sleep is something that my privileged friends take for granted.

b. It was never quiet in my neighborhood or home, and we had no space, I’d have to wait until everyone was asleep to do my homework. This meant that, in high school, I was staying up until three in the morning every night to get my work done, only to go to school and be yelled at by teachers who could not understand why we were all in such terrible moods and/or sleeping through class, not to mention that it slows down processing time (I just want to take a moment to point out that my processing time, in light of these obstacles, is actually slower than it would naturally be, so for those of you who know me personally, you know that I was robbed and I am sure you can imagine how frustrating that was for me).

c. When you do not get enough sleep, nothing works properly. You cannot think clearly. You are in a bad mood. You can’t perform in the way that you are supposed to. I would think this would be obvious to a group of people that brags about their all-nighters. Imagine doing that every day.

3) In order to succeed you have to have a stable, comfortable, safe home

a. We moved all the time when I was a kid. We also lived out of a car for at least two years. There was a point in my childhood where we were living in the projects of Suisun, which had a murder per capita rate that was the highest in the nation. The house I spent the most time in didn’t have air conditioning or heat, Sacramento hits 110 several days of the summer. It was freezing in the winter. My siblings and I would sleep in the living room next to the wood burning stove to keep warm. Our house has been broken into so many times that we have bars on the windows. I have so many examples of how bad our housing situation was that I could literally write a book. These issues made it hard for me to focus on school.

4) It is hard to learn when you are in physical pain

a. I have a chronic condition that would make my life more difficult no matter my class background, but my class background has made it difficult on a scale that is hard to imagine. Between what stress does to your body and the fact that I did not have access to healthcare, my health is a mess. Have you ever tried to go to school with a migraine? I do not mean a headache, I mean a migraine. I did it every day of my school career. Rarely was there an off day. Have you ever gone to school with pneumonia? Asthma? Bronchitis? Have you ever had whopping cough? Untreated autoimmune problems? Have you ever gone to work or school with nearly every muscle in your body strained or pulled? This was every day for me. Have you done it without food or sleep? In addition to not getting enough sleep, I also only get half the healing REM sleep I am supposed to get because of my PTSD (I will get into that below) and the pain I am in, which means my body cannot heal as quickly. Still want to call me lazy when I am tired in class? Still want to call me lazy when I sleep all day on the weekends? Still want to tell me I was poor because I was not working hard enough? If your answer is yes, then go call a doctor, because I am pretty sure that you are a sociopath.

5) It is hard to go to school when you are in emotional pain

a. The amount of trauma I have been through is on the extreme end of the spectrum by any standard in any country. But let’s talk about it for a minute. Most people at Stanford had at most one traumatic event that had a big impact, for better or worse, on their lives. I heard people explain other people’s alcoholism with their parent’s divorce. I have heard people say they went into medicine because they had a sick relative. These are serious and I am not trying to demean them. In fact, quite the converse. I just want to point out that when it is privileged people, we will empathize with this, but when it is the poor their trauma seems beyond comprehension. You have one traumatic day or experience. There is not a single day of my childhood that did not involve some form of trauma. Ever tried to study while having flashbacks? It’s nearly impossible.

b. You might want to say: “Oh Heather, you are extreme, though.” Well yes, I am, but as I take account of every single friend I have from my childhood, they either directly or vicariously experienced some form of serious trauma. I am talking about seeing violence, abuse, oppression, tragedy. Not even the best resourced friend of mine from my childhood can say they did not experience some trauma. If it was not your funeral, it was a friend’s or family member’s funeral, or a friend of a friend, or a family member of a friend’s funeral. One of my friends called me senior year sobbing because one of her cousins had been murdered. It was not the first time it happened. She ended the phone call in a few minutes with the words, “Whatever, I just have to be a soldier.” This was one of three friends I had whose parents had some education, had never done drugs, had supported her through school, and who were still together.

c. Do you have any idea how hard it is to study when you are under that amount of stress? Also, is it even remotely understandable to a people who blamed stress for the suicides of their high school students to understand that all of this might make us depressed and make it difficult to function? Please tell me that I am not that naïve and that the ability to have empathy is not that big of a problem.

6) Even if you manage to overcome all of this by being a ridiculous human being, you will still have to interface with a world stacked against you and designed to keep you down.

a. Oh yes, folks, this is not just a resource question. Y’all didn’t think you were getting off that easy, did you? So at 18, I went to Stanford, and I brought all of this with me. Before the age of 18, the only interactions I had with educated and privileged people were the authorities: doctors, police officers, and teachers. Do you know how many teachers have called me or basically implied that I was trash and not worth educating? No? Neither do I, because I can’t keep track. I’ve had some good teachers and they helped me a lot, but they were not the norm. My doctors told my mom that I was making up my muscle pain when I was seven years old. They called my mom trash and talked down to me as a kid. I have to wear a Stanford shirt when I see a doctor to get better medical care. Our schools also made it clear to us that we weren’t worth educating; it isn’t like we couldn’t watch TV and see what the rich kid schools looked like. My high school didn’t have enough textbooks. We barely had a functioning arts program, and only because of one extraordinarily dedicated teacher. I didn’t have access to AP, college classes, science fairs, AcaDeca, Model UN, on and on.

b. Can you possibly imagine what the culture shock was for me at Stanford? Do you have any idea how painful it is for your peers, for the people you live and work with to tell you that you deserved your suffering as a child? That you don’t exist? Or that you exist because your suffering benefits them and they aren’t willing to give that up? It is painful. It will nearly break you. It will add to your post-traumatic stress disorder. It will make it more difficult to sleep. It will add to you trying to prove yourself, so you push a badly broken body to the brink. It will add to social avoidance. It will add to your anger and defiance. All of these things will make it harder for you to succeed at school. When you fail to succeed at school someone will tell you it is because you are not working hard enough. Then when you are done with that you can live with your survivor’s guilt and spend all day having to act as the poster child for poverty so as to avoid contributing to making things worse for people you left behind.

The problem with poverty is that ALL of the problems exist. Things just got real in here, and I am not sorry. I wish I didn’t have to lay it out this way. That I managed to somehow make it through Stanford twice with 3.5 GPAs both times is nothing short of miraculous and is something that a very small group of people can lay claim to, and if you can’t you don’t get to tell me what my experience was. I have a voice, thanks. I always assumed that the question was that people didn’t know how to distribute resources, but being in education the last few years has shown me that we have an elite so disconnected from the people they are purportedly serving that they didn’t even know that there were resource questions. If you managed to overcome this, I applaud you. You are a straight baller, but if you are inclined to jump on the bandwagon and sell your own people out, let me ask you this: Even if I was able to overcome this, why should I have had to suffer that much? And are you willing to take a time machine and tell 8-year old me that she deserves what she is suffering from every day? If you didn’t go through this, and if you have never known this kind of life, you really need to sit down, shut up, and start listening. Your view on how to get out is invalid because you have never done it, and if you were serious about helping people you would stop making this about you and start listening to other people. Your privilege does not make up for your lack of knowledge or experience. It frustrates me that I had to say all of this. This isn’t rocket science, folks. If you didn’t know this, now you know. There is no longer an excuse for ignorance.