One morning, Jefferson High School English teacher Ruthann Hartley burst into my classroom waving a copy of Willamette Week, Portland’s entertainment and muckraking newspaper. “Have you seen this? I can’t believe it,” she announced to my co-teacher, Linda Christensen, and me. The damage was done. Our Literature and U.S. History class had been discussing Tess Slesinger’s short story, “The Mousetrap,” a tale of strikebreaking and sexual harassment, but the interruption broke the mood. Kids were dying to know the big deal about Willamette Week. “The Mousetrap” would have to wait.
In big gold letters the paper’s headline read, ARE WE LOSING JEFFERSON? Ruthann handed the paper to me, which I began reading to students. A line in the first page compared the halls of our school to the streets of “Miami Vice.” The writer had interviewed both Linda and me for the story, but he never set a foot in Jefferson High School. Nonetheless, in a manner worthy of The National Enquirer, the journalist painted a convincing portrait of fear and loathing; young gangsters stalking the halls, student dancers dodging bullets as they returned from field trips, teachers cowering in their classrooms. Pretty grim stuff. Indeed Jefferson had weathered a couple of hard years, with declining enrollments and increased gang violence in the neighborhood, though not in the school itself. But “Miami Vice”?
The article angered students. The writer had trimmed Linda’s and my quotes, using them in ways that seemed to support his dire conclusions—one more media slam, offered with mock sympathy. We were angry, but the kids were outraged. To them the article was a personal attack and mean-spirited, yet another unwarranted assault on the most multiracial high school in the state.
The students convened a meeting. They “cancelled” class for several days, instead turning our two-period class into organizing sessions of strategy and tactics. They invited students from other classes to join them and came and went as they needed. Not once did they ask our permission; nor did we try to stop them. Their action called for a series of school-wide demonstrations culminating in a march on Willamette Week and a rally on the riverfront that would, in the vitality of its racial diversity, offer a visible contradiction to the paper’s smears. They even forced, pressured, enticed, or coerced their principal to provide buses for carrying students to and from the march downtown.
Linda and I watched. From start to finish it was the students’ response. The kids made some mistakes and failed to think through some of their objectives. For instance, they weren’t clear on precisely what they demanded of Willamette Week, or even whether Willamette Week was their target. Although students acknowledged the worsening violence in the neighborhood, and called on the media to quit scapegoating Jefferson, who or what did they hold responsible, and what did they want done? Still, their efforts represented an extraordinary explosion of creativity, collective defiance, and courageous democratic action.
This sudden outburst of students’ activism was, in fact, not so sudden. Over the years, Linda’s and my class focused on issues of social injustice and resistance. Ours was a “talk back” curriculum. We wanted students to feel themselves part of an American, even international, tradition of struggle against oppression. From Taíno Indian resistance against Columbus and Spanish colonialism, to Shays Rebellion of poor farmers after the American Revolution, to our most recent unit on the U.S. Labor movement, we hoped students would draw inspiration and wisdom from the past. Linda and I thought students ought to know that if they act against injustice, they’re in good company. “History should be of use.” Through role plays, simulations, improvisations, imaginative writing, “essays with an attitude,” and class discussions, we sought ways to encourage critical thought and student initiative.
I’m proud of students’ creative organizing efforts that year. Their society is characterized by problems of joblessness, capital flight from urban centers, and a withered government commitment to civil rights and equity. All this and more contributed to deep alienation and increased violence in the neighborhood surrounding our school. We hope the seeds of justice they evidenced in their democratic response to denigrating journalism will continue to sprout confidence with activism for a fair and equitable world.
Published in Teaching for Change, Winter 1993-1994, pages 3 and 15. Publication produced by Network of Educators on the Americas.
Bill Bigelow began teaching high school social studies in Portland, Oregon. in 1978. He is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, www.rethininkingschools.org. Bigelow is the author or co-editor of numerous books, including A People’s History for the Classroom, The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration, Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World, Rethinking Columbus, and Rethinking Our Classrooms: Teaching for Equity and Justice, Vols. 1 and 2. All these are available from Rethinking Schools.