I am aware that private schools have a great number of traditions: sports games against rivals, spirit weeks, pranks, annual events. These traditions are often harmless and appear to help increase the school spirit or raise money. Since our school has been around for half a century, you can imagine it has its own traditions that students probably look forward to participating in. Since I arrived, I have heard teachers and students alike begin sentences with, “Every year we…” or “Once a month, we…” This morning was a rude awakening to the kind of tradition that maybe gets excused at private schools because of their exclusivity: As a fundraiser, the senior class here at our school is “selling” its seniors to the highest bidders. A teacher here tells me this used to be called the “Senior Slave Auction,” but I don’t know what it’s called now. Certainly not that.
After first period, I heard a student’s voice over the loudspeaker outside shouting, “Do I hear 30? 35? 40? 50! Do I hear a 55?” I didn’t pay much attention to it until I saw a large crowd of upper school students and some teachers around one of the senior boys, who was standing on a table. The student with the microphone was auctioning off this boy to other students who could bid the highest.
And this is how I know I am at a private school: the bids were up in the 50’s, 60’s, 80’s…the boy sold for the most money was sold for R$106. That is the equivalent of US$53. Where in the world do kids get this kind of money? If this were to happen where I used to teach, my god, I can’t imagine bids being more than five dollars.
But the thing is, this “auction” wouldn’t happen in the US, at least not in city schools, and certainly never at NHA. Kids here saw absolutely nothing wrong with buying another person. But I guarantee kids in the States would go beserk if they heard about something like that happening at a school.
I think about all of the reading and discussion our school did about slavery, about the importance of remembering African slave history, about how slave history created the US, about how the institution of slavery has shaped class consciousness in the US today. My kids in New Haven were so articulate, so passionate about studying their past. When the one student from Amity High asked his teacher why we need to study slavery if it happened so long ago, my students responded all along the spectrum of emotion–from anger and sadness to the earnest desire to teach others. Some students, although struggling with basic writing and reading skills, articulated through letters and poetry the many reasons why it was important to remember slave history. One of the spiels about one boy who was being sold today was that he was probably going to “get into Harvard,” as if to imply this boy was smart. While I have no doubt the boy is smart, it seems to me neither he–nor anyone else–has thought critically about participating in this auction. So I ask, what good is being “smart” if one cannot see the ramifications of one’s participation in an event such as this? Some students in New Haven, although probably far behind these students’ writing and reading skills, are miles and leagues beyond them in thinking. And yet? I wonder who will really get into Harvard? Money talks.
I think of my students who are now seniors. I think of them criticizing this event today here at this private school, where there are no students of African decent, and where, I fear, the study of slavery and the effect slavery has had on society is not nearly as intense as it was in New Haven. I wonder how many students here have thought critically about this school’s “tradition”? And I wonder, what is the point of keeping a tradition if it makes light of an evil history?
I also wonder what my role should be? Am I too new to mses with this “tradition”? to voice my opinion about it? In a country where I see, with fresh eyes, the stark difference between rich and poor, and the color of people’s skin that reinforces that difference, how can I remain silent? Am I just an over-sensitive American? Do I have a responsibility to say something?
The good thing about being a teacher is that I have the power to reach a few people at a time. I can tell my students here about my kids in New Haven; show them the letters they wrote, ask them to consider what it would be like to step into someone else’s shoes. I feel like I can’t let this go.