Toxic Tolerance

My friend Ivy could have told me. She was raised in the black community during segregation. Her teachers assumed that she was competent and expected her to demonstrate that competence. She has been striving (against odds in the school systems) to give that gift to her students for all of her teaching career. I on the other hand, like most idealistic do-gooders had to learn for myself about the devastating consequences of our low expectations of our youth and other members of our communities.

Low expectations usually are hidden behind a mask of tolerance. In California, where I was raised, tolerance is automatically viewed as “a good thing,” but really, does that mean it’s OK for anyone to do anything they want to do? Of course not; that would be dumb, and so the ethical person will avoid the easy knee-jerk idea of tolerance and face up to the obligation of us ALL to think about what sorts of things we do and do not want to tolerate in our children, our families, our schools and our communities. Sometimes intolerance, as intolerance of bad behaviors, is a good thing; sometimes tolerance is a bad thing when it is used to deprive our children of the resources they need to succeed.

I learned the hard way what Ivy could have told me. I accepted a teaching position that took me from “tolerant” California to “intolerant” South Carolina shortly after enforced integration. I expected my college freshman students to EARN their grades. I believed (and I still believe) that every one of them could do so, given the necessary resources. I tried to make the resources available. It was a hard time for us all.

Meantime, while I and my college students were struggling with our expectations, this segregated town had bit the bullet and built a fine new integrated showplace school for the early grades, to which they had transferred the best teachers in the community. Black and white children learning to read and write together, equally. And the next year the star student from my own class, an education major I’ll call Sue, went to do her student teaching with the star third-grade teacher in the showplace elementary school.

The third grade was learning to write sentences. Verbs and nouns. Subjects and objects. The star teacher explained the lesson to all the students, and then she gave the homework assignment:

“Write five sentences using the word flow.” And bring them back to class tomorrow.

Remember, the South Carolina accents. Most of the little black students returned the next day with sentences that used the word “floor,” while most of the little white students came back with sentences that used the word “flow.” No surprise here. Life is full of misunderstandings, and that is a GOOD thing to learn. So Sue went home that night and wrote up a lesson plan to explain the difference between flow and floor. Sue viewed this misunderstanding a golden opportunity to teach the students to enjoy the differences among human kind AND the difference between a noun and a verb.

The response of the star teacher was:

“Don’t bother, they can’t understand it anyhow.”

Is this tolerance or toxic low expectations or is it intentional racist discrimination? Does it matter? The damage was done to the students no matter the good or bad intentions of the teacher.

And it wasn’t until about three weeks later that I realized the same damage had been done to me in the same way. My tolerant white California culture had been doing the same thing to me — all of my life — because I started out as a pretty little girl instead of a rugged little man. Very few people recognized any need to give me resources beyond shorthand and typing, because there woulod be no place for me in the culture to do anything more than maybe secretarial work, nursing, teaching other people’s children to have low expectations of their own competence and depriving them of the resources they need to compete in our American cultural milieux.

It took me 20 extra years to understand that my culture’s low expectations of me were simply a lazy lie and to go for a PhD in science. Which took me to the South Carolina college where one of my freshman students could not write any words at all. For all of his 18 years he had been guessing true-false questions and passed through as a “kindness” without ever being required to write a sentence in a test. He believed himself to be stupid and incompetent – which he was NOT. I hate that more than anything else, when I hear people who clearly believe the lie and there is nothing we can say now to change their own perpetuation of the lie they have been taught about themselves..

And where I learned HOW I too had been handicapped by low expectations.

We have obligations to our neighbors, students, children and friends, and even if we don’t care about them, we have an obligation to the community that we require for our own survival. One of these is to know the difference between nurturing competence and toxic tolerance.