Mozart, The Met and Code Switching

Right before Spring Break my third graders took a trip to the Metropolitan Opera to attend a dress rehearsal of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Going to the opera isn’t a normal part of third grade for a lot of New York City students. But thanks to my school’s dedicated music teacher, our third, fourth and fifth grade students got the chance.

Even though the opera was entirely in German, my students followed the story closely. Thanks to preparation at school they excitedly recognized the characters and laughed at appropriate moments. Still, there were a few moments at the opera that reminded me that my students are the Met’s typical audience.

The first occurred during intermission when all the students took their lunch break. While my students ate their lunch next to large glass windows facing out to a balcony, some of the Met’s more “typical” patrons looked in. The whole time my students ate their lunches this one older, white couple seemed transfixed by my students. It felt as if something about my students — their brown skin and kinky hair perhaps — was captivating to them. Even as I locked eyes on them, they couldn’t seem to take their eyes of my students.

I wondered what was going through their minds.

Later, as we left the opera we took a moment to enjoy the warm weather in the courtyard of Lincoln Center. After a little while, I got the kids involved in some footraces. As they ran back and forth across the space, laughing and screaming, I noticed another older, white couple staring at my students. This time they weren’t just looking however. The woman was taking pictures as well.

I was livid. “You can’t just take pictures of them,” I said sternly. I got a blank stare in response. “They’re kids. You need to have consent to take pictures.”

Maybe the woman didn’t speak English or maybe she was flummoxed, but she and her male companion said nothing as they awkwardly walked away.

The experience left me with an uneasy feeling that stayed with me the whole subway ride home and until I got home from school.

Looking back, the field trip seems to encapsulate a couple of the different obligations facing educators of students of color. One the one hand, it is important for us to give them exposure to “culture”. That is to say, we should expose them to examples of the arts elevated and preferred in a Eurocentric, white dominant society.

Hence, a trip to the opera for a little Mozart. Mozart being atop the pantheon of European composers, is an important historical and artistic figure for my students to know.

But at the same time, we as educators of Black and brown children can’t stop there. We must also prepare our students for a world that is too often hostile toward them. Watching my students move through the wealthy white world of the Met, oblivious to the white gaze fixed upon them, was a reminder of this responsibility.

The two white women watching my students seemed mostly curious rather than angry or scared, but their curiosity served the same purpose: to communicate that my students were out of place in their world. Their afros and brown skin did not fit, and therefore were objects of fascination.

How do I prepare my students to operate in worlds outside their own that may sometimes be perilous? One approach is the “no excuses” philosophy of certain charter schools in New York City. This culture seems to demand that Black and Latino students sublimate their natural identities for the sake of making white people comfortable.

This technique may boost achievement by certain measures. It may help students get into colleges and get jobs down the line. But I worry about the costs. I also wonder if these charter schools are avoiding a conversation about why these behaviors are necessary.

My school prefers to let our children act like children. I am grateful for this. At the same time I know that teaching my students the truth about the world is not optional. At a young age we teach children not to talk to strangers. It is equally appropriate to teach children about racism. As a friend said to me recently, “It is my goal to prepare my students for the world that is, not the world that should be.” To the credit of “no excuses” schools, I believe this what they are aiming to do as well.

Ultimately, I want my students to know that if someone stares, glares or otherwise questions their presence in a space, it is by no fault of their own. I also want my students to understand the nature of these looks and how to successfully navigate them. Finally, I want my students to be able to imagine and work towards the world that should be.

We can construct a more just society, but only once we understand the rules of power that govern our current unjust one. Doing all this requires complex skills. They may not be a part of what we consider “college and career readiness”, but they are essential to my students’ survival.

My job as an educator is to help my students walk through any door in life that they choose. Part of this means teaching students about different cultures. But as our trip to the opera reminded me, I must also teach students about dangers that may lurk behind certain doors.


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