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Gangstas, Wankstas, and Ridas

February 10, 2012

Photo by Laura Slotkoff

By Tiffany Montano, Corps Member Proudly Serving at Sarah T. Reed High School

Last weekend my friend, Maggie, visited me from Denver.  She shadowed me on a Friday to see what City Year (my whole life) is all about.   I am privileged that Maggie decided to share with me a beautiful narrative that addresses the drop-out crisis – something that so deeply affected her life and something that I have dedicated a year of my life to addressing.  I would like to share my thoughts on her paper with all of you.

Duncan-Andrade author, and education expert, argues that educators in urban schools fall into three categories: Gangstas, Wankstas, and Ridas.  Maggie wrote:

Gangstas…advocate extremely harsh zero-tolerance, one-strike punishment policies.  They also tend to sidetrack any productive conversation about structural changes to address racial and socio-economic inequality.  Wankstas, who make up the majority of teachers in low-income schools are non-game changers, operate almost exclusively from a desire for self-protection.  They might have originally started off wanting to change the system, but instead were beaten down by it and so disinvest while saying that they want equal opportunity for all their students.  The third group, another minority, are the Ridas.   Ridas risk intense emotional involvement in order to better the lives of their students. Ridas willingly and often face extreme backlash because of their involvement…

Maggie goes on to describe her experience in a South Carolina public school.   There were the Gangstas and Wankstas of course, but there were also some Ridas.  And then there are the Ridas.  Maggie’s Rida was Ms. Grinkley.

Ms. Grinkley listened to the rumors around school in an attempt to find out which students were dealing with heavy issues and then she met with every single one of them.  And then she followed up with each student, every day.  Lots of students showed up in her classroom daily and said nothing, but they showed up. Both Ms. Grinkley and Duncan-Andrade believed strongly in the validity of students showing up as an act of moving forward.  They believe that by showing up every day, even if you act out, you acknowledge that you have problems and need help.

A Rida fails or succeeds, as one entity, with her students. A Rida believes that she will not be the one to change the world, but that her students could.”

We have Ridas at Reed too.  And after reading Maggie’s description of her Rida, I realized that we as City Year are Ridas too.  Despite our poverty stipends, corps members buy candy and other little rewards or incentives for their students.

We as corps members are distinctly aware of the social goings-on around Reed.  We know who is dating who and which cliques are engrossed in the latest rivalry.  Every day there are 100 kids in total crisis, walking around the halls of a vast school.  We have all been privileged to develop meaningful relationships with some of these kids.  Our experiences have been similar to Ms. Grinkley’s.  During many attempts to mentor our students, we often find that they are practically checked out.  They say nothing and they avert their eyes but they also listen more than they’re letting on.  We take solace in the fact that the students stopped to listen, or even sit in silence with us at all.

We have confirmed in our hearts and minds that, yes, it is true that we may not change the world, but our students could.  And that is why we are here.  Sure we as young Ridas still have our lives ahead of us to do a lot of great things.  But these students have lived and breathed the things in the world we want to change so who better to change it?  As Maggie described, we as Ridas and our students are one entity; we fail and succeed as one.  If our students do not change the world, then we have not changed the world.

Ms. Grinkley was later fired for getting “too involved” with her students.  I find solidarity in my fellow corps members and in Ms. Grinkley, wherever she is.  Maggie’s professor decided to hunt down Ms. Grinkley to share this beautiful paper with her.  As it turns out, Ms. Grinkley was ready to quit her job when she got the phone call.  This phone call gave Ms. Grinkley strength during her time of crisis and she decided not to quit.

Who knows how many more kids Ms. Grinkley will save now?  Who knows how many kids we will have saved or how many we have lost?  Ms. Grinkley is part of the reason Maggie is at the University of Denver with a double major and honors.  She is part of the reason Maggie wants to go into social work and perhaps teaching.

This being said, what will our students go on to do?  Will we ever be so lucky to hear from them almost a decade later?  I hope so.  But if not, I hope that City Year corps members will look back on Maggie’s words as the testament that we may never get directly from our own students.

We are Ridas – we ride with our students and we die with our students.  This is our commitment.

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