Point Loma High School teacher Tchaiko Kwayana grew up in Georgia and has taught English classes in Nigeria, Guyana and on both coasts in the United States, earning the high qualification of National Board Certification in 1995. In San Diego, she has been a community activist and tried to get parents more engaged in school, helped bring the humanities to ordinary people and educated the African-American community about HIV/AIDS. She assigns her students to do an Identity Project in which they study their own background and beliefs, looking at their family and their culture.

How did the idea for the Identity Project come about?

I had just arrived in San Diego from Atlanta and I was teaching at Hoover High School. There was such a mix of youngsters there, but who had no idea who they were. They were doing all kinds of unbelievable things — girls fighting and fellas standing around looking at it instead of trying to stop it. That was so horrendous.

I wanted them to know who they were. And I wanted the chance for parents to write so they could begin to talk about their students. The youngsters are so estranged; in some houses they had their own television sets in their own rooms and nobody ever spoke to anybody. A lot of parents said, “I was so bad in English, I don’t want to write.” I said, “Assure them that you want their authentic voice.”

Once a youngster came to me when I was at Hoover and said, “OK, I’m going to do this, but it’s going to be for your eyes only.” But then when he had to present to the class, guess what he was talking about? All those things that earlier had been for my eyes only. Through the journey he had begun to validate himself.

You’ve been doing this project for about 20 years now, right?

Since ’87.

Has the way in which students talk about race and class changed at all over time?

For the most part, they are just so concerned about their personal lives and their interpersonal relationships with their families. With the question of race, it is usually in their own personal lives.

Were you surprised by the incidents that occurred at UCSD this last week?

No. I’m not surprised because it could happen here. Part of my struggle has been over these years, enlightening people about the real history and culture of all peoples. What they’re taught in school is sadly skewed. Teachers don’t have an inkling of the real world.

I went with a group of teachers to a conference in Beijing and I planned to present about how scientists say that China’s roots lie in Africa and that African culture had continued in China. One teacher said, “What? I didn’t know that Africans were ever on a boat until they were on the middle passage” (to slavery in the Americas). I just think that there’s not enough taught in our schools that would have youngsters realize that there’s anything more (to African-American history) than gold chains and gold teeth. Where would they get it from?

How should schools respond to something like this? One parent asked me to pass along this question: “It is true that by allowing our children to “move on” from the hate and horror of racism we doom them to repeat those errors? Or do we ignore the pathetic attempts of the UCSD noose hangers of the world to keep racism alive and thriving?”

My American literature class today is looking at Strive Towards Freedom by Martin Luther King Jr. He was saying that if we don’t work against oppression, we help the oppressor. You’re as evil as the oppressor because you empower that oppressor.

People are afraid to talk about it. I start them with a paper, “By Any Other Name,” by an author who talks about a British woman who told her on the spot, “Your names are far too difficult” — and on the spot she renamed her. That kind of thing. I force it on them. The story of Pinky Ngo (a Vietnamese child who was sought for adoption by a U.S. family.) They had spoiled this child rotten and the question was, which family should she go with? The only words the mother could say in English were, “She my child. I her mother.”

I just throw these things at them all the time to have them begin to look at life and see the contradictions in life and what choices people have — and they aren’t always easy choices.

Point Loma High is a really interesting place to be doing this work because it’s known for being very diverse despite being in a wealthy area, largely because of busing.

Diverse in population only.

How does that play out on campus? Are they learning from other students on campus? Is there still a lot of division?

There’s a lot of division. It hit home at a school meeting last Monday. A parent who sat next to me was trying to find a way to get an Advanced Placement class for ninth graders in the Seminar program.

Now Seminar is the crème de la crème of gifted education. And he said his daughter and all of her friends want to stay together coming into high school. And as the conversation went on, I realized that they’d always been together and they want to stay together in that little cocoon until they march four years hence.

And so I said, “This tracking is something that we need to be trying to work against. Do your daughter and her friends have a chance for interaction with people outside of that group?”

I think I have the longest record of attempts at administrative transfers of any teacher in the San Diego City Schools . I question things. Not rudely. But we’re not supposed to do that.

What do you think would need to change on campus to make Point Loma more genuinely diverse?

The curriculum, first of all. I wanted us to spend part of lunch where we’d look at things like the Great Debaters — the true story about a historically black college where these youngsters were able to go to Harvard and debate and win. I want youngsters to talk about them.

It requires imagination and commitment to a certain kind of educational philosophy. That’s what we don’t have any more. We have people who are desperate to get the schools’ test scores up. But if you have students reading and exposed to more things, that’s how youngsters pass tests.

— Interview conducted and edited by EMILY ALPERT

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