I have taught in an inner-city high school in Phoenix for almost two decades, where children struggle differently than I did growing up in a middle-class suburb. Here’s a peek into my classroom from when I was a reading specialist.
“You can’t talk about God!” Rachel called from across the room. “You’re not allowed!” The 15-year-old smugly crossed her arms over her chest.
“Of course I can talk about the gods, Rachel.” My use of plural deities threw her off and for a moment she was speechless.
“There’s that church-and-state thing,” she shot back.
“What do you mean gods?” Berto, shy and quiet, got to his seat after arriving late. Again.
Earlier in my teaching career, I would have publicly chastised Berto for his tardiness, pointing out that he’d never, ever hold a job if he couldn’t be on time. But since discovering that the boy’s mother had recently died, that his 28-year-old father was in prison, and that he was pretty much homeless, I just didn’t have the heart.
I looked out over the faces in my freshmen reading class: a mixed group of mostly Hispanic and Black students, none of whom read at grade level. A few had such poor reading skills the tests couldn’t even register their abilities. At 15, some were considered pre-school readers. Others were close to the ninth-grade level, but the majority of my students’ reading abilities fell between third and sixth grade. A few of the children were Special Ed with behavioral issues and learning disabilities like dyslexia. One girl had been born a conjoined twin to a crack addict. Her eyes wandered and were set too far apart. Another girl was a cutter who contemplated suicide. A tall, muscular boy who had just been paroled from prison told me he had done “dirty things,” but did not elaborate. And then there were my African students: a thin, gangly Ethiopian boy with a constant smile who spoke four languages, but not a word of English. I’m not sure what language the tiny, frightened Nigerian girl spoke. I later learned the West African nation boasts 510 living languages, but I could find no one who understood a word the child said.
Still, my job at South Mountain High School, the most inner-city school in Phoenix, Arizona, was to teach them all to read at grade level.
“There is only one God! Jesus, our Lord and Savior,” Rachel shouted, quite pleased with herself.
“I thought we weren’t allowed to talk about that!” Carlos squinted at Rachel.
She turned to him slowly and glared.
“We can certainly speak of the gods or God, if you like,” I said, butting in to avoid a confrontation. Carlos and Rachel were always arguing.
I checked the clock. I’d give the stragglers five more minutes. I hated starting a lesson with half the class yet to arrive. So, we’d begun with a story from the newspaper, an effort to stall for the latecomers and to boost the little bit of knowledge my students had about the world beyond the blighted blocks in which they lived.
This day, the class discussed Ancient Rome. As I recall, some fabulous new artifacts had recently been discovered in the city. I don’t remember how Jesus came up, but in a school that’s almost 75% Hispanic – a group that’s overwhelmingly Catholic – and 24% Black with an abundance of Southern Baptists, the fact that Jesus enters into discussions is not necessarily surprising.
I mentioned that we don’t really know what Jesus looked like, pointing out that the blond, blue-eyed version favored by Europeans is completely unlikely.
“Ms. Montgomery, of course we know what Jesus looked like!” Little Sophia, with the angel’s face and waist-length, blue-black hair, stared up at me,
Several heads nodded in agreement.
“No, Sophia. We can only guess. We have no idea what Jesus looked like.”
“But there are pictures!”
I paused and took a breath. “Photographs?”
She nodded her head.
“There were no cameras two thousand years ago, Sophia.”
The girl stared from her seat in the middle of the room. “But, Ms. Montgomery,” she said as if speaking to a confused child. “If there were no photographs, how did that guy paint the picture of the supper?”
“You can’t talk about that!” Rachel shook her head.
“Think about history,” I said.
“I hate history!” Rachel crossed her arms again.
“It’s so boring,” two students said almost simultaneously.
“Still, do you think it’s possible to teach history without ever mentioning religion? And if we mention religion, mustn’t we also speak of God?”
Rachel bit her lower lip.
“Remember learning about why the Pilgrims first came to the New World?”
“Freedom of religion,” Berto called out from his seat by the row of computers near the wall.
“Raise your hand, Berto.”
“You have all learned about the Pilgrims and how they came to the Americas so they could worship freely, yes?” But a quick glance around the room told me that some of them had no idea what I was talking about. “The point is, we must study religion if we are to understand our world. Religion has shaped our past and will shape your future. After 9/11, many of you might have discussed what it means to be a Muslim in your classrooms.” There were a few nods. “The thing a teacher cannot do, however, and this is where the separation of church and state comes in, is to try to convince you to convert to a particular religion. That is what is not allowed.”
“Oh, I get it.” Rachel nodded.
A number of other students seemed to understand, as well. Though, from Big Travis, in the back corner of the room, there was no response. Exhausted from football practice and protecting his mother from an estranged, violent father, he snored quietly as his head sagged on his massive chest.
Blank Slate Press/Amphorae Publishing Group
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As a Vietnam veteran and former Special Forces sniper descends into the throes of mental illness, he latches onto a lonely pregnant teenager and a group of Pentecostal zealots – the Children of Light – who have been waiting over thirty years in the Arizona desert for Armageddon. When the Amtrak Sunset Limited, a passenger train en route to Los Angeles, is derailed in their midst in a deadly act of sabotage, their lives are thrown into turmoil. As the search for the saboteurs heats up, the authorities uncover more questions than answers. And then the girl vanishes. As the sniper struggles to maintain his sanity, a child is about to be born in the wilderness.