In CPS, Classrooms Are Cotton Fields And Students Are Exploited

As a student on the South Side, I can tell you that most of the schools that I have stepped in have metal detectors, including my own high school. Every single student that walks in the school has to walk through metal detectors, every single day.

Every single day, I set my phone and watch on the table, and I watch security look through my bookbag, with the same things in it every single day: my 8-pocket folder, my favorite personal journal with all of my thoughts and feelings in it, my colored pencils that I have hung onto since I was eight years old, and my airpods that allow sound waves to help get me through the chaotic day. 

Every single day, in the very same moment that I walk through those metal detectors, my brain is replaced with a set of wires that have specific coding and my feelings and emotions are replaced with the settling feeling of obedience and compliance. The moment I walk through those metal detectors, I am expected to change from a human into a robot, perhaps a slave. 

But the change is not just caused by the presence of metal detectors. It’s not just the rules and expectations. It’s not just the $11.1 million contract that Chicago Public Schools has with the Chicago Police Department. It’s not just the fact that students have to be in the presence of people who wear the same uniforms as those who murdered Adam. Laquan. Rekia. Anthony. 

That’s not all of it. Capitalism takes new forms in response to new circumstances. But one thing remains the same: the change from human to nonhuman slave, to robot, is foundational to the operations of Chicago Public Schools. 

Entering the 2021-2022 school year has already been a huge ongoing dysfunction, on a large scale. Everything that has to do with CPS is done on a large scale, because the school district operates in a large city. Because the district is expected to serve a wide range of people, cultures, races, neighborhoods, backgrounds, district leaders should be creating strategies to develop full comprehension and complete understanding of the vast differences among the communities, families and students CPS is tasked with supporting.

Except, the way this district has worked, it has replaced strategy with operations, the same way it has changed eyes, ears, brains, and perceptions into robots with wires, who have specific coding to complete the operations. That is how capitalism treats its workers and that is exactly how CPS treats teachers, parents, but most importantly, students.

When You Disobey the Overseer, You Don’t Get An A

Black folks, we aren’t in the fields anymore. Woohoo, right? But our Black children sit in classrooms with middle-aged white women who oversee their every move and give them a grade for it. “Stop talking.” “No eating.” “Phones away.” “No bathroom during instruction time.” “Why are you speaking out of turn?”

Slaves don’t go to the bathroom when they aren’t instructed to. Robots definitely don’t either, nor do they speak out of turn. My ancestors were possibly whipped when they spoke out of turn. Now, when a child speaks out of turn, that is reflected within their grades. You definitely don’t get an A for being disobedient with the overseer, or as they call it, teacher. 

As a Black tiny human who observes while in spaces and specifically in classrooms with other Black tiny humans, here’s a word I hear a lot: opp. Opp is African American Vernacular English for opposition. Which usually pertains to gang culture, gangs have opps. Opps are people whom the speaker is in opposition to; except, to the speaker, opps are not people. 

You cannot see your opposition as a human. That would require feelings of humanity, acknowledgment, empathy. Children, tiny humans, need empathy. And, specifically for Black children, Black bodies, Black minds, empathy is far overdue. Like 401 years overdue. Because, and here’s what is unique about us Black people, our consciences are born with 401+ years of very particular trauma, pain, torture, bruises, beatings; all unhealed. 

But more than empathy is required, too. When we talk about providing empathy for the tiny humans in these classrooms, that must take place with a restorative objective. When you treat a human with all of the things we have been deprived of in this lifetime– empathy, rest, acknowledgment of our struggle and our trauma, the simplicity of pure joy, add another 401 years, that inverse treatment, it is like being able to breathe. 

Except we aren’t breathing like others are because our neighborhoods are the most polluted. We have schools filled with our children operating near highways and toxic waste sites. So what the hell does empathy mean when the air I breathe is hurting my lungs?

Empathy Means Nothing Without Justice And Restorative Actions

What does empathy mean when the institution that is supposed to help me “succeed” is in partnership with the police department that murdered someone who looks like my little brother, my dad, my friend? What does empathy mean when my school lunch is provided by Aramark, the same company that makes money by feeding those incarcerated? How am I, how are we supposed to wake up every day and participate in these systems? But those in charge of the systems expect us to participate every day because we aren’t people to them. 

That is the process this district has used and continues using upon its students, its families, its teachers, its communities: dehumanization. You can’t ignore humans, but you surely can ignore robots. I ignore Siri and Alexa all the time. They have coding that requires them to listen to me and follow my commands. 

The district’s rules and guidelines, created by leadership, allow that leadership to keep on bullshitting us. Which makes me question the compound word ‘school district.’ Whenever I hear that word pertaining to Chicago Public Schools, I am surprised my phone doesn’t autocorrect ‘school district’ to ‘corporation.’ Because that’s what this is, or at least what it feels like. It’s all about business and money. Too many times, money that should be spent to help students learn does not get used in those efforts but rather gets paid to banks, corporations, CPD, etc., etc. All of which are capitalist-breeding institutions getting paid by the presence of students in these schools. No kids would mean no schools, and that equals no tax dollars in their pockets.

Classrooms are cotton and tobacco fields, exploited workplaces. Teachers and administrators are the overseers. The mayor, the CEO, and the Board of Education run this institution—not for the benefit of the students, but for the profits of corporations and the intent to please wealthy constituents.

Corporations like Aramark and these curriculum companies are the buyers at the slave auctions. They make their profits off of these school systems, and students. Our babies. Our tiny humans, our brains, our bodies, our education–treated like slaves. Robots. With wires instead of brains, and obedience instead of emotions and feelings. For anyone connected to CPS who wonders how this district keeps working, the answer is: the capitalist-embedded school district is running perfectly.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

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Catlyn Savado

Catlyn Savado is a CPS high school student and a youth abolitionist organizer.