Book of the week

14th April 2000 at 01:00
WHITE TEACHER. By Vivian Gussin Paley. Harvard University Press pound;7.95

To what degree has the McPherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence affected teachers? How, if at all, has it sensitised educationists to the myriad factors associated with children of different races and cultures being educated together in schools largely run and staffed by white professionals? How willing are we to look critically at our own frames of cultural, national and racial reference and to question the analyses we make of others' frame of reference?

Tough questions, these, to which there are no easy answers - if there is one thing we've learnt from McPherson and its aftermath, it's that knowing there's a problem doesn't necessarily change the way institutions or individuals in them behave.

Which is why the timely new edition of Vivian Gussin Paley's White Teacher is like a breath of fresh air. Originally published in 1979, it's a book that has important things to say about how teachers perceive and deal with race. In its rather anecdotal, unanalytical way, it sheds light on how all teachers, including those in early-years education, negotiate their way through the complexities of living in a pluralistic society.

Not that Paley puts things in quite that way. The retired kindergarten teacher from Chicago, winner of several awards including the 1998 American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement and the author of many books including The Girl with the Brown Crayon (1997), is not one for waxing theoretical.

In fact, White Teacher is a homespun confessional diary; a first-person narrative offering a range of vignettes based on Paley's own classroom experiences. In them, this teacher shows herself to be fallible, naive and vulnerable as well as wise, quick and resourceful.

She shares with us herself-doubt, her indecision and her occasional likes and dislikes of individual children and their parents as well as her great humanity andintuition.

The world that Paley recalls is for the most part set in kindergarten classes at the University of Chicago laboratory schools, experimental schools with a large middle-class, white population. These schools are well-supported, adequately staffed and immune from the resource problems that dog so many schools in the United States and Britain - but they are not immune from social and economic problems, the realities of race inquality and the racial stereotypes that children assume so early in life and which Paley's mixed intake of pupils bring into school with them each day.

We are taken through her own journey of discovery.As a young teacher in the South, she was caught unawares when Paul, a little white boy, said to the little black girl sitting next to him: "Alma, you look like chocolate pudding. Just like chocolate pudding."

Alma appeared unfazed by this pronouncement, but Paley remembers being paralysed with shock. "Is it an insult or not? Do I react? To what? She does look the colour of chocolate pudding. But he shouldn't say that! You never say things like that to black people."

This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was gaining momentum and the liberal consciousness of those whites working in racially mixed communities was confused. To remark on the difference between white and black could be interpreted as perpetuating racism, or it could be seen as being honest and affirmative. Paley, a Jew in a gentile world, knew what it meant always to feel she was having to cover her tracks. Intuitively, she understood that to ignore racial difference was to ignore who Alma and all black children were.

That early incident was a watershed for Paley. Many times a day, she would have to think on her feet as black children excluded white children from their play, white children excluded black children, as both black and white children said hurtful things based on racial stereotypes, and when bruised and angry black parents accused her or the school of treating their children unfairly.

There are two ways of thinking about Paley's book. One is that there is something oddly innocent and unsophisticated about the way she recounts her experiences. The other is that her narratives of the relationships, confrontations and awkward questions that many teachers are familiar with is refreshingly unfettered by rhetoric and sociological theory. I'm inclined to take both positions.

The eerie thing about it all is that, although the world has changed in so many ways since the book was first written, the scenes Paley describes continue to be played out in nurseries, primary schools and playgrounds everywhere where there are racially mixed communities.

And wherever these scenes are being played out, there are still teachers who don't quite know how to deal with them.

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