My Memoir

It’s been years since the publication of books like Up the Down Staircase, Among Schoolchildren, and Teacher Man.  In Teacher Man, just two words, “I’ll try,” constitute the final chapter. It is Frank McCourt’s response to the call, “Hey, Mr. McCourt, you should write a book.” I, too, have tried to write a book that would be worthy of my students.  I offer Baffled by Black and White: Teaching in an Urban School and Unlearning Assumptions about Race.

My Princeton friends invariably asked me, “What is it like to teach at Trenton High?” My memoir about my experience at Trenton Central High School answers their question and explores my suspicions about why they asked. In my book I describe students who coped with pregnancy, apartment fires, and drugs; students who gave up; and student leaders who wished their school could be like suburban schools. They all deserved a decent education. Yet much of Baffled by Black and White is an exposé. At Trenton High, some teachers dismissed their students early or watched the soap operas in class, and some counselors discouraged students from applying to college because they didn’t want them to be rejected. Nine wasted school days followed final exams— perhaps so that grades could be altered. Nevertheless, student government battled administration and sometimes won. So did the Faculty Senate. Today, the struggle to change a system that values graduation above education and whose subliminal curriculum discourages academic achievement continues. Baffled by Black and White will be instructive for student teachers, administrators, and policy makers.

My memoir also exposes my own racism. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and ready to lead my own civil rights movement, I applied to Trenton High to help black people, with whom I’d had very little prior contact.  Careful always to be politically correct but bewildered that my colleagues were seldom like Dr. King, I spent ten (fruitless) years trying to define black people.  Mine is an honest, even comic, revelation of my assumptions and idealistic expectations and of my evolution from do-gooderism to what I should have known all along.

If you would like to discuss Baffled by Black and White with me, please leave your contact information below.

4 thoughts on “My Memoir

  1. Roberto Schiraldi

    Your writing is invigorating and courageous, so I applaud you for putting your caring heart and loving intentions out to the universe.

    One comment I want to make is about the use of the term “post-racial”. I find it irritating, and it hurts my heart and spirit and mind. To me it implies that we’ve moved beyond racism. While I certainly agree we’ve made much progress, I certainly don’t believe we are “post” racial by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t think that term will ever be relevant in our lifetime. It’s a nice hope, but nowhere close to being a reality. Yes Civil Rights, yes, Black President……so we’re post racial?……I don’t think so. So, yes of course, let’s keep up the good work……however, please let’s not delude ourselves by using a misguided term such as post-racial (unless, of course, we are keeping it in quotes and using to spark lively discussion.

    1. Chrystal Schivell Post author

      I never wish to hurt hearts, spirits, or minds; but given my topic, I probably will. And as you point out, the culprit is often a “misguided term.” The topic of race is loaded with code words, euphemisms, and no-no’s—designed to divide instead of unite?

      Like you, I know we are not in a post-racial world. The blog title asks why we continue to think and act in black and white and whether we can change. I’d hoped that “join me in discussing where race may fit in a post-racial society” implied that it hadn’t happened yet but would be, as you say, a “nice hope.” Language failed me. A single, loaded word obscured a sentence.

      Thank you for expressing your irritation instead of writing me off as deluded. It gives me the chance to clarify, and I believe that being clear about what we’re saying is crucial to healing. So what word truly describes the society we hope for? Post-racist? Post-race? No reference to race? I’ll think about revising my tagline.

  2. Roberto Schiraldi

    Thanks so much for your compassionate reply. I don’t think we’re “post” anything, not even close, and do think it’s important keep using “race” in our dialogue, as it is about race, and class, and gender,and privilege, Keep up the good work Chrystal!


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