“…And they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood, and never understand that all the while I was quite happy.” – Nikki Giovanni
As a kid, I attended a subsidized after school and summer program in my neighborhood called CAPACIDAD, meaning ‘capacity’ in Spanish. The program was housed in my own elementary school, and the kids that went there were primarily of color and from poor and working backgrounds. Many hung out there because their parents were still at work, or else could not afford any other form of daycare for their children. CAPACIDAD was staffed by community members and students from the local university, most of whom were also of color, and many of whom were low-income and first generation themselves. It was an incredibly radical environment in a number of ways that were difficult to appreciate as a kid, and was the first space in which I was involved in conscious discussions and explorations of my own identity as an oppressed person.
During snack time at CAPACIDAD, both in the after school and during the summer program, staff and kids would convene in the cafeteria and be doled out snack–usually popcorn, crackers or dry cereal in plastic cups or on pieces of napkin. All of CAPACIDAD’s food was donated from local food banks and shelters, and was frequently well past its expiration date. We would sit down at the lunch tables to eat, and find that the cereal was chewy, or the cookies were hard, or that the crackers tasted oddly different than the ones we’d eaten at home. When we complained about the food, we were reprimanded with particular sharpness by our counselors. We were told that there was nothing wrong with the snack, and to be grateful that we had anything to eat at all. This usually shut us up, and we ate the rest of our snack with mild suspicion and resentment.
It wasn’t until we reached the fourth or fifth grade that we understood what expiration dates were, where to find them on food containers, and how to read them. Around that age, when snack time came, we would clamber up to make sure we were the first in line, and would grab at the boxes of crackers and cereal before anyone could stop us. When we saw that the day’s snack was anywhere from four to six months expired, we would start shouting about the food having gone bad, thinking the staff had made a mistake. It was at exactly this moment that one of the counselors would pull the few of us who were making a scene into the next room to talk.
At precisely this moment it was explained to us where the food had come from, and why it was past its date of expiration. It was explained to us why this was all we had to eat, and why, in order to keep our community safe, we needed to encourage the other kids to eat their snack instead of drawing attention to the fact of its staleness. From then on, we were entrusted with the same responsibility as our counselors and staff, and when we heard younger kids complaining about snack, we recited for them the same speeches we had been given so many times, over so many years. This cycle repeated itself over and over again, as each new group of children came to understand the origins of our program’s food, and became a part of keeping the other kids on board with it.
I have been thinking a lot lately about this important coming-of-age moment from my own childhood–one which I still laugh fondly about when I get together with friends who grew up going to CAPACIDAD with me–particularly because as a teacher-in-training, I have been noticing the multiple coming-of-age moments which are built into traditional classrooms, and the social expectations and systems which support them. In the kindergarten class with which I currently tutor, the entire calendar is broken up based on Christian holidays and Americanist mythologies (or, better yet, lies), which carefully inculcate kids into a cultural narrative which erases the realities of their own oppression, both historically and immediately. What might a radical calendar for our classrooms look like? What stories can we tell kids, what moments of responsibility can we entrust them with, which honor both the sacredness of their own knowledge and the realities of their and our shared lives as oppressed people?
When I was pulled into that side room as a forth or fifth grader, I didn’t feel inferior for eating stale food donated from a shelter, nor did I feel foolish for believing my counselors all those years. Instead I felt big–old enough and wise enough to be faced with the reality of my own life as person of color in a low-come community, and trustworthy enough to help oversee the caring for of its younger members. What was revealed to me on that day was not a conspiracy being passed down into my own hands, but, rather, the importance of community bonds in the face of poverty, the many duties which are expected of the young when they are oppressed, and the simple virtue of being grateful for and resourceful with what you’ve been given. It was a moment in which I was simultaneously made aware of the restraints placed on me and my program, and deemed ready to support my program in handling them. These are the kinds of coming-of-age moments, I propose, which ought to be a part of every radical learning space.
What I have been thinking about, and am hoping to convey from this memory, is that the traditions of our learning communities–the structures we rely on, the stories we tell, the moments we acknowledge–need to be revised to reflect the realities of our lives and histories as oppressed people, in order for a radical form of education to be born. I am not trying to suggest that we should purposefully mislead children, or make them eat stale food to build their characters. In fact, it is the myths which our standard curriculum forces on kids, the spoiled remains which they are currently expected to stomach, which really concern me. Revising the traditions of our learning communities isn’t simply about correcting false information where we come across it, or celebrating a more ‘diverse’ set of myths and simplifications. It is about building a structure for learning which has the capacity to support the complexities of our communities in total, and allows children to see, speak to and engage honestly with the realities which they are already grappling with daily. It is about finding ways of investing in ourselves and our communities, when every system in which we have been forced to participate teaches us to fear and abandon them. This is a lesson my after school program taught me better than any classroom ever has.