SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2005        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Linda Olson

Being Invisible

    I have worked at my local grade school for the last 13 years and  I love my little job. My students come from families with low incomes who don’t always enjoy lots of the enriching experiences that enhance basic formal education.    I also am a white woman  who managed to get several years of college education even though I came from an extremely poor family.  I know I have benefitted from the unearned privilege of being a member of the group with power.

    When I started working at Espinoza Elementary, our student population was almost entirely Anglo, with a small percentage of black children and a scattering of kids from other cultures.  The staff, as well, was almost entirely Anglo.  This has gradually changed until our student population is approximately 86% Hispanic.  The staff has reflected this change only in the locally recruited support staff.  At one time there were a large number of instructional aides--my job--and this group had become almost exclusively Hispanic. While I had some cohorts who were not adequately educated and didn’t work very hard, there was a core of four, two Hispanics and two Anglos, with a reputation for being strong additions to the educational staff.  My friend Olga  dubbed us “the strong four” and we were proud of ourselves.

    Several years ago, after one disastrous experience with a Hispanic administrator, we got a new #2 or assistant principal, a middle-aged Hispanic man about whom everyone was very enthusiastic.

     Taking this job as the assistant principal of Espinoza was a step down for me but one that afforded an opportunity to reinvent myself as an administrator.  I carefully did not advertize that I have a doctorate in education or that I came from the principalship of a smaller elementary school in  Glendale.  The reasons I am no longer there are complex and  better left to a longer discussion.  

    I was truly delighted to begin my career in the Catalina Elementary School District at a school that had a student population primarily Hispanic and Spanish speaking.  I felt I knew the challenges facing these students and their families and was met with great enthusiasm and friendliness by both the staff and community.

             Describing the difference between his treatment of me versus my two Hispanic cohorts is difficult because the slights and dismissals were so small and quiet.  Number 2  looked through me when we were passing in our narrow, shabby back office hallway.  I found that if I greeted him with a  “good morning,” he did not reply, and when he spoke to us as a group, if I said something, he looked surprised, hesitated and looked out into space before responding.  He did not call me by name, I think because he did not know it although he and all the Hispanic staff appeared to be on a friendly, first name basis. 

         My first priority was to make Espinoza more accessible to the families of our students.  Being Hispanic  I know that Mexican people are very much a family orientated culture so the more we involve the parents, the more our children will excel in a school setting.  The student population at Espinoza was more than 80% Hispanic but our teaching staff was almost exclusively white.  The support staff was more ethnically reflective of our community but we still had white aides in key positions that discouraged parents from feeling they had easy access to their children’s school and instructors.  Even our attendance aide spoke only English for heaven’s sake!  How could she communicate with parents who primarily speak only Spanish?

     When I walked through the teachers lounge during the time I was invisible to our #2, he was often at the back table there with a group of people talking and laughing.   He was even extremely friendly with staff generally considered to be under productive and rumored to be on the ominous “improvement plan”which never led to anything anyway.

    At first I thought perhaps he was deep in thought.  Then I wondered if he was the kind of male educator who does not like to be spoken to by lowly subordinates.  It also occurred to me that he was under stress, a new job in a  new school district, with lots on his mind.   I had to also consider the possibility that he might have taken a fresh look at me, not been influenced by my reputation, and decided I was inadequate for the job.

    Fortunately the other Anglo teaching assistant and I exchanged pained confidences and I learned she was being shunned by him also.  We decided that it was probably because we were not Hispanic.    My evaluation at the end of the year remained at the “meets standards” level but the personal comments were very dull and lackluster; “come to work regularly and on time, dresses appropriately.”   My two Hispanic co-workers said they had received raves. 

     I personally had nothing against our Anglo support staff but they had little idea of the difficulties of the mono and bilingual students.   I did not single Mrs. Olson out individually for cold shouldering and  I’m sorry she felt I was discriminating against her.  Actually if being looked through is her idea of discrimination then she is very fortunate.  

      I also subscribe to the theory that children need to see people like themselves in charge and having power.  This helps them envision themselves as the future empowered.  However, there is the question of which is most important; seeing people like you in power or being supported by quality service from someone who resembles persons who have abused and subjugated you?  I believe the latter should  take temporary precedent.   

    People of color with the qualifications to do my job usually want a job that pays more, is not a dead end, and will provide them with benefits.  For example I work with a young woman who plans to leave at the end of this year in order to study full time for her teaching degree.  The former assistant principal was mistaken to believe that he could befriend people from his own culture and pull them up to the level that they needed to be in order to qualify for their own jobs.  A better approach would have been to make the job more appealing to highly qualified Hispanic persons by advocating a living wage, full time status and benefits.

     This man is now gone on to bigger and better things.  Most of my co-workers are gone since they could not meet the new educational standards for teaching assistants required by the federal government and I am once again getting raves from my totally Anglo administrators-----until the next time.
     At the end of my year at Espinoza I was offered the principalship at another school within the same district so I could not implement my plan to make the staff at Espinoza more reflective of the ethnicity of the community’s general population but I am succeeding in my present school.

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