Reenactments and demonstrations can be helpful teaching tools, but did a Rockland County teacher take that approach too far? She’s under fire for binding the hands of black students and having them sit under a desk during a lesson on slavery.
Christine Shand says it was a terrible experience for her daughter, Gaby, descended, like most Jamaicans, from slaves.
“She burst into tears, she was crying and she was horrified,” Shand told CBS 2 HD.
In a social studies class at Haverstraw Middle School, teacher Eileen Bernstein chose Gaby and another girl for a demonstration of conditions on ships that carried slaves out of Africa.
One African-American student raised her hand to volunteer for the demonstration. Gaby did not volunteer, but was chosen anyway.
“She taped their hands together, taped their feet together, and she had them crawl under the desk as if they were on a slave ship,” her mother told CBS 2.
Mrs. Shand said Gaby was traumatized. She questions the teacher’s judgment.
“There are other ways to demonstrate slavery. There’s movies, you don’t actually have to grab two kids and like put shackles on them,” she said.
Wilbur Aldridge, the regional NAACP director, went with the Shands Thursday to meet Bernstein.
“She said she apologized for causing any problems for the child, but she was not apologizing for using that simulation during the class,” Aldridge said.
But Principal Avis Shelby apologized, calling the slave ship demonstration a “bad decision.”
“And we have things in place to make sure it doesn’t occur again,” Shelby added.
Mrs. Shand said she’s still not satisfied and is mulling her options, worrying about how Gaby will perform the rest of the school year.
In the meantime, Mrs. Bernstein has remained in the classroom. Because it’s a personnel issue, school officials won’t say if she’s been disciplined or reprimanded.
Even though I found out about the story on Carm’s site, I also spent a little time scoping out the web to check other reactions. Much to my amazement, there was very little media attention on this story. But I can always rely on the folks in the blogosphere. They fail to disappoint. There, not only did I find attention being given to the story, but – perhaps not necessarily suprising, most reactions were in the negative.
Before I attempt to mount a defense, I first offer several concessions. After all, I’m not in complete disagreement with most other people’s sentiments. First, simulating atrocious events like slavery is never a good idea, with young children in particular. Anything done to model gratuitious violence and inhumane brutality should be out of the question for youngsters; even when they are becoming increasingly exposured to these things on TV, video games, etc. Secondly, as I stated on Carm’s site, using black students exclusively in the demonstration (even when the class roster was fairly mixed) gives the appearance that blacks were specifically targeted. From experience, I can imagine that everybody’s eyes zeroing in on you during a moment of humiliation (albet simulated) can be damaging for a child. These issues considered, I don’t deny the inappropriatenss of the teacher’s delivery. But I would argue that the dynamic message delivered to the students about slavey’s atrocity outweighs the ephermeral nature of the teacher’s act of impropriety.
Earlier this year, when Tiger Woods’ friend Kelly Tilghman made the crude joke about Woods being lynched, people were outraged. That outraged intensified when the Dave Senaor, then-editor of Golfweek published the now-infamous magazine cover with a noose. People wanted heads to roll because of that cover. I didn’t. While the rest of the world vilified Senaor, I expressly applauded him for the efforts he took to raise awareness of Tilghman’s joke. In the same vein, I similarly commend Bernstein for her attempt – though not done in the best way – to be creative and effective in teaching about slavery, even while she is being condemned by everybody else.
Stories like these represent the ongoing frustration I have with the state of race relations in America today. Regarding the role whites often play in this perplexing and highly racialized conundrum, admittedly much of the frustration I have is for them not necessarily with them. Of course, there are the obvious bigots and hatemongers. They deserve/receive zero sympathy from me (if anything, I pity them. But that’s as far as I go). Then there are otherwise “average” people (or at least tame by comparison) who still possess some level of prejudice. But then there are the whites genuinely interested in a “post-racial”, progressive society (I’m hesitant to say “colorblind” because of the sheer absurdity of the term, even when I understand the ultimate idea behind it). When those whites committed to social justice and equality attempt to express that – often in controversial ways – they are often excoriated in the process. Nevermind the fact that many of those same whites punched their ticket for the first President of color in this nation’s history. Nevermind the fact that many of those whites marched alongside Dr. King. Nevermind the fact that many of those whites are teaching in inner city public schools when the environment, pay, lack of resources, and sense of hopelessness would convince most of us to do otherwise. Nevermind the fact that there are whites in the world like my homeboy The Hippie Conservative who – despite being on the receiving end of aggression perpetuated by blacks in a racially divided 1960’s Flint – has never himself harbored ill feelings towards blacks.
Almost more than black folks themselves, I sympathize with many of our white brothers and sisters. The potential for black people to get easily angry, offended, or dismissive often obfuscates the spirit of many white people’s intentions. For them consequently, being “damned if you, damned if you don’t” becomes the unfortunate reality.
But as for me and my house, I’m not so quick to penalize. Oppositely, I’m issuing my “pass” to white Americans like Eileen Bernstein. As long as they are circumspective in how they use their platform and intelligible in their delivery, I welcome them to the fight against racism, bigotry, and ignorance. We can use all the help we can get.