As a student, I’ve had the privilege of having two highly skilled culturally responsive teachers. One was Mr. Ruane in 10th grade at George Washing High School in San Francisco. Mr. Ruane was a white teacher who coached football and taught African American Literature. What I remember most about him was how comfortable he was talking about issues of race, culture, and society in a room full of African American kids who took his elective class at the height of the Black Power movement.

He wasn’t scared by our teen-aged outrage at “the Man”. Our bold self-expression with giant Afros and raised fists didn’t faze him. It never seemed to make him nervous. Instead he was able to harness that energy in service of teaching us analytical literacy skills and the love of poetry. In retrospect, I can see how he actually used the poetry to cultivate our academic mindset.

He started with building trust and coaxing us from behind our teen-aged bravado. I can still remember the class discussion around Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, We Wear the Mask that he offered up as validation of the racialized society he knew we would be stepping into in a few years. Some of my greatest life lessons came from what I learned in his classroom. And it wasn’t just his instructional technique.

He made me feel seen, heard, and cared for as a learner. I believe Mr. Ruane was able to support us because he was comfortable in his own cultural skin. He didn’t try to be hip or “down” with us.   Whatever his implicit biases might have been, he managed them internally and didn’t allow them to direct how he responded to us.

Here’s to you, Mr. Ruane. — R.I.P.

We Wear the Mask   Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar (published 1896)

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise,

We wear the mask!