As we set off on the sidewalk, something crunched under my foot. I looked down and saw that the concrete was littered with shards of a green glass beer bottle. I warned my students to keep an eye on where they stepped and to watch out for the glass.
For the rest of our walk, I kept a close eye on the ground, and found that the beer bottle was not an isolated incident. We walked around one block, and in that block, what I saw appalled me – more beer bottles, condoms, fast food wrappers, cigarette butts, trash that had spilled from garbage bags picked up by sanitation workers, and worse.
I regretted telling my students to watch the ground as we walked. This is their neighborhood – where they walk every day to and from school. My regret was twofold – On a basic teacher-student level, I don’t want them to learn that just throwing trash on the ground is acceptable, but the second part is more complex. I don’t want them to think their neighborhood is “trashy.” I have often heard people (who live in this neighborhood and those who don’t) call us “the ghetto.” True, the sidewalks are cracked and littered, the crime rate exists – we hear sirens multiple times a day. The funeral home down the street seems to always have a service. There is sadness and struggle in this place.
But there is also prosperity and potential here. My student contribute to that. I want them to know that because they live here or go to school here does not mean they are trash. I want them to learn that yes, place matters, but that place doesn’t have to define them – they should be the ones defining this place.