In addition to being the day on which Richard M. Nixon was born in 1913, today is also my friend Renita Robinson’s birthday.
We first met in the fall of 1992, when we were both first year Social Studies and English teachers at Brown Middle School in Newton. At that point we were the only people in the department under 30, and, as I reflect on it, probably the only ones under 40, too.
Pregnant at the time with Jordan, her youngest son who was born on Halloween, Renita and I became friends during the course of that first year. That spring, shortly before the end of school, we hit on the idea of team-teaching a class about African-American and Jewish history.
Our concept had several related elements. First, there were a large number of Jewish and far smaller number of black children in the school. Creating an academic space for each group to learn about the other’s histories made sense to us. We also thought that our belonging to the groups and working through the issues of race, class and gender in our own relationship could provide a positive model for the students and could help stimulate discussion about these issues and the general climate in school among students, our colleagues and the administration.
We were extremely fortunate in that we worked at a school that, at the time, had an elective system in which teachers decided what they wanted to teach and students chose the courses they wanted to take. This meant that we were in an environment in which it was not a huge stretch to have our proposed course accepted.
We also had the good fortune to apply for, and receive, professional development dollars over the summer to prepare the course.
We spent weeks designing a syllabus in which each week had an “eye popper” of an opening activity and from which the rest of the week’s lessons would flow.
Our first “eye popper” consisted of a video in which Renita played a Hasidic Jewish student and I acted the part of a black young man from Roxbury. During the course of the video, we went from holding negative views of the other group to a more positive vision through interacting with each other and learning that we had more in common that we did that separated us (In the spirit of full disclosure, I will say that we did give a lot of credit to the course the students were just beginning as being the catalyst for the change!).
We also included bloopers that we showed students at the end of the video so that they would understand we all made mistakes.
The video was just one of the many fun and educational projects we did as part of the course. We also had a Hannukah/Kwanzaa festival in which we gave each student a potato and onion, handed them my grandmother’s recipe for potato latkes and instructed them to come to school with what they had made (If I remember correctly, Renita was quite leery about eating the students’ creations, especially the one that had been well-handled and that somehow had acquired purple die.).
I learned a lot from Renita during the planning period on personal and professional levels. Our conversations gave me a renewed and deeper appreciation of the many levels of privilege I had, and still have, as a consequence of being a white, heterosexual, able-bodied male from an upper-middle-class background.
This privilege extended to the attention we got for teaching the course, which elicited a respectable amount of media coverage. The late Jeff Kantrowitz, a dear friend and brother of my childhood buddy Steve, wrote a piece about it for the Globe. A pair of television stations had on us to talk about the work.
We also received invitations to present the work before faculty and administration members.
Despite the fact that we were a teaching team, I was always the one to receive the call from the outside person looking to book us for an appearance. From colleagues and administrators, we found that for Renita teaching this material was almost an unwritten job expectation, whereas I got plenty of kudos for doing exactly the same work as she was.
This experience reminded me of the importance of being and staying humble, of listening with respect and of accepting the enduring differences in experience that exist, even when one shares a commitment to working on similar goals.
We taught the course three times in all and have continued our friendship in the years since. More than a decade ago, Renita moved to Nebraska, where she continued to raise her boys, trained for, and almost made, the U.S. Olympic Trials in the triple jump in which she had been a NCAA champion and worked steadily toward her dissertation in sociology.
Renita and I don’t keep in touch as much as we used to when we were teaching. But I know the bond between us based on our shared experience and the lessons I learned from her are with me still.