Randall Bustamante teaches 11th- and 12th-grade English at Mandela Law and Public Service Academy on the Fremont Federation Campus in East Oakland. The sixth-year teacher tells us about the power of listening to students, giving them hope, and not being afraid to “deal with the life that students face in and out of the classroom.” — Katy
What does it take to help an Oakland youth succeed?
My answer to the question is rooted in the lives and struggles of my East Oakland students. First, we need adults who are willing to listen.
I listened my first year when one of my students said she wanted to graduate high school even though she had gotten pregnant at 15 and no one in her family cared whether she finished school or not. She graduated anyway. I listened several years ago when a young man who was about to graduate said he thought joining the military (at a time when the U.S. was sending combat troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan) was a better option than trying to make it here in East Oakland. He is now in a prison cell for having sold drugs.
I listened last year in the back seat of a police car, to my undocumented student who sat hog-tied and sobbing about how the officer abused his power and falsely charged him with “resisting arrest” all while saying “you don’t know who you f-ed with.” In response, several adults in our school community confronted the administration and police. When several of us adults found he was going to Santa Rita correctional facility to face deportation because he defiantly rode his skateboard on campus, we joined him in court and got the judge to throw out the case. This is just a taste of what working, and for some educators, “living” amongst the students is like.
If adults truly listen, there is a possibility that these educators, community members and staff will actually do something to help the youth have a chance at success. There is a shortage of adults who are willing to go the extra mile. But this is exactly the kind of response that our students need if they are to have any chance at pursuing a higher education as well as a better quality of life. We need adults from the community who can share the burden and offer hope in a challenging environment. We need someone who can say to the youth: “there is hope for you, and here’s how you can make it.” We need adults who don’t work from 7:45 to 3:15 and go home. East Oakland demands a lot more help than a 56-minute lesson from its educators if we are to truly offer the opportunity to help our students rise above their personal oppression.
Unfortunately, I sometimes feel like I am surrounded by adults who do not even try to address the financial or social needs of the students. I don’t believe this sentiment comes from any disdainful attitude toward students, but rather out of fear. Honestly, I think a lot of adults come to Oakland because they want to help, but they become paralyzed when they see how much is stacked against the students. “How do we help students when their own parents don’t seem to care?” or “how am I supposed to teach English when these kids put their heads down?” some might ask. And if they do venture to ask the student why he isn’t “trying,” some educators might find it was because the child could not sleep through the arguing last night or perhaps because he has not eaten that day. We need educators who can lend an ear to his struggle and get that child fed. We need adults who can give the child a chance to make up the lesson after school or the next day. Even more simply, we need adults who are not afraid to deal with the life that students face in and out of the classroom.
So to answer my question again, it takes a lot to help our students succeed. If we are serious about helping students overcome the injustice that has followed them throughout their lives, then we must listen and respond appropriately. I don’t pretend for a moment that I can do any more than the next educator, but I do believe listening is the first step to making a difference in the lives of our East Oakland youth, and I cherish the experience.