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Class Notes
Bridging the cultural divide
(Published January 27, 2003)


Washington is a city of symmetries. I often gaze at city maps to admire the orderly street grid: the numbered streets running north-south, the east-west streets arranged alphabetically and by syllables. The eye is immediately drawn to the Capitol at the zero point of the entire system, where, like rays from the sun, diagonal avenues spray out New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland. So precise is the street lattice that I have used it to teach my students geometry topics such as the coordinate plane and Pythagorean Theorem. Thanks to its 1791 design by Pierre L'Enfant, our national capital is a city of mirror images, elegantly arranged for the seat of a new federal government.

Ours is also a city of opposites polar extremes reflected against each other within narrow city limits. Mansions and trimmed hedges in Upper Northwest mirror housing projects in far Southeast. Tourists cram into the Smithsonian museums on the Mall, while drug dealers hustle on East Capitol Street. Metal detectors and X-ray belts screen lobbyists coming to the Hill, but a crew of teenagers in Columbia Heights discovers an empty unlocked apartment ideal for playing cards.

Living in Northwest but teaching in far Northeast, I daily traverse two contrasting worlds of our city. My home is an Adams Morgan rowhouse, where a handful of young professionals rent rooms from the Ethiopian owners. I didn't know my housemates before they moved in, but they all bear the familiar brand of the Washington Young Professional. All are recent college graduates, coming out of the Ivy League and honors programs across the country. They have career-advancing jobs in a variety of fields at a biotech, a congressional office, an environmental nonprofit, an international think-tank. With a bountiful singles market close at hand, there is little hurry to marry, so casual dating is the norm. Well-educated, confident and hard-working, their future is overwhelmingly bright a J.D., M.A. or Ph.D. just a few years away and employment virtually guaranteed for life.

At the school where I teach, on 55th Street NE, there is hardly a sign of the mostly white Young Professionals that are a dime a dozen in Northwest. This side of town is solidly African-American. The museums, monuments and businesses that characterize Washington are replaced on the east side of the river by struggling convenience stores, fast-food carryouts and variety thrift shops. Among boarded-up buildings, rough drug dealers and gunshots heard by night, obviously absent is the confidence and purposefulness that permeates the power structures downtown.

Teachers must know their subject material first, but second they must know their students. Understanding the priorities and backgrounds of students buys legitimacy it gives the teacher the authority to identify a subject as important for a student's life. As a young white teacher who grew up in the suburbs of the Midwest and attended college in New England, learning about the lifestyle of my students all African-American, all urban has been and continues to be a challenging journey.

The first real shocker came when I started a soccer team last year. Even after weeks of posters, PA announcements and word-of-mouth advertising, I still had barely enough players to fill the field. It was the first soccer team at the school in over 25 years, and the lack of interest shattered my world paradigm. Our athletic director had warned me: "Kids don't play soccer in the ghetto. Just football, basketball, track." But I didn't really believe him until I saw it myself. After all, soccer is the most popular sport on the planet if soccer could catch on in my small town in Ohio, I reasoned, then surely it would have taken hold in Washington as well. My glaringly off-mark assumption was symptomatic of my more general ignorance of inner-city life.

Overwhelmed by an onslaught of students each day, a teacher rarely can find the time to develop a deeper relationship with any one student. Instead of an intimate appreciation for a few students' needs, educators target the group's necessities, and individual characteristics are often lost in a cloud of statistics.

Reading about life in urban environments, whether biographies or newspaper profiles, has taught me some realities and points of view that I had not been aware of before. The universal needs for acceptance, security and love often manifest themselves differently in the inner-city than in the suburbs. So in the first quarter of this year, I assigned my students to write a short personal essay entitled "What Makes Me Tick," to describe the priorities that motivate them. Whether hoping to become a nurse someday, dreaming of playing professional basketball, or wanting to take care of parents and grandparents in their old age, my students wrote that they have goals for the future and are working toward achieving them.

During the recent Martin Luther King Day holiday, I took advantage of a brief warm spell to deliver homemade cookies to about a dozen of my students. I couldn't visit all of my students' houses, but seeing a few gave me a fuller appreciation for the places where they spend most of their time outside of school. There are little details you notice when you visit someone's home that one student lives next door with his aunt instead of at his father's address, that a football player's apartment reeks of smoke, that the nearest bus stop for an honor roll student is half a mile away, that the front door of one building is unlocked for anyone to enter. Seeing students completely removed from the classroom powerfully reminded me that my students have other interests besides school. In the few days afterward, I could tell that my visit had also sent a message to them that teaching is not just a 9-5 job to earn a paycheck, but a channel for changing lives.

The divisions in our cities may be deep, but they are not permanent. We need to build more and stronger bridges between segregated sectors of the population. Both sides should make more extended efforts to cross the ethnic, economic, religious and linguistic boundaries that divide and strengthen us. Better schools, bigger mentoring programs, more visionary businesses and wiser urban planning can raise awareness of how our close neighbors live. America may be a melting pot, but without concerted efforts, we will never mix.

system. I wonder whether if those same people had studied Rawls they would still accept the status quo of our school system today.


Wulsin is a second-year chemistry and physics teacher at the H.D. Woodson Academy of Finance and Business. Please send stories, comments, or questions to

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator