InClass: Am I American?

En Español

Tuesday, April 20.

In recollections from my 7th grade American history class, this country emerges as a tapestry of humanity woven together from sea to shining sea.

Simplistic as it may be, that triumphant multiculturalism still parades around my head when considering what defines us as a country.

So while sitting in on Valerie Barth’s World Savvy class on immigration and identity at Horace Mann Middle School Tuesday, I am struck by the distance and discord expressed by her eighth graders, the majority Latino and nearly all students of color.

“Do you identify as being American?”

Three of the students raise their hands to say they were born elsewhere. No, they don’t.

Of the other 24 in class few feel much warmth from the melting pot.

More than half resist the label, or have trouble placing themselves within their conception of this country.

“I was born in America but I’m full-blooded Mexican,” one boy responds. “That’s where my parents were born.”

“No, because in the first place this was all Mexican,” says a girl referring to Alta California’s 25-year existence as a sleepy backwater in the First Mexican Empire after Spanish rule ended. She drops a notch in volume and shuffles her feet, “I feel Latin,” then returns to cleaning her brightly-painted blue fingernails.

Barth tries to illustrate the difference between ethnicity and nationality, drawing on her experience as an immigrant from Singapore moving to the United States at 35 and gaining citizenship in 2000. But ambivalence persists for most students.

“I don’t like burgers, and pizza tastes funny to me. So I don’t think I’m American,” another girl answers.

There are calls for a Pan-America and a “United States of the People.”

The handout asks, Do you identify as an American?.

“No, usually when they say that they mean a white person,” a girl has written.

“Somewhat because even though I have no white blood on me, I still live here,” a nearby boy scribbles down.

Six other students waver as well, as they reluctantly, grudgingly accept their identification as Americans by birth, while straddling a world between Lady Gaga, French fries, and baseball and “having to speak Spanish at home.”

“No, because there’s no distinct characteristic of being American. I’m black, Indian and I’m unique. But what is American?” a girl firmly asks.

The boys are slouched low by now, in postures of diffidence, but most are still attentive and involved in the discussion.

Almost all sport dark jeans, black hoodies and buzz cuts. The uniform has been removed at the school but a dress code remains in place to keep students from flaunting gang colors, Barth says after class ends.

One girl absent from class had been seen wearing red shoelaces earlier in the day. “Another girl made an issue of it,” the teacher explains. “I’m always disappointed when she’s not in class.”

“Last year she was a great student. Very engaged,” Barth continues. “But her brother was shot over the summer and she’s been very defiant this year. She’s not doing any work in her other classes, but she’s still engaged with the material here.”

As the bell rings and the students line out the door, one stops to ask, “Ms. Barth, are you tired?”

“Why? Are my eyes puffy from allergies?”

Nope. He had noticed the fine print at the bottom of the worksheet showing it had been printed at 1 a.m. last night.

“They’re funny. Very perceptive,” Barth says.

InClass is a column about what it’s like to be inside a class in the Mission District.

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