Jennifer Macon, 11th Grade English Teacher
Grover Cleveland High School Humanities Magnet, Reseda, CA
What you notice first about Jennifer Macon is her smile. Jennifer has one of those terrific, radiant, genuine smiles that—okay, I’m not going to say her smile actually lights up the office/supply closet/photocopy room where we meet, but it definitely feels that way. A bubbly, enthusiastic woman in her mid-thirties with glasses and shoulder-length curly hair, Jennifer appears to be in the middle of talking to a student, planning a lesson and conducting several simultaneous impromptu meetings, all crammed into this tiny space. And despite the fact that we’re all maneuvering around supplies, file cabinets and each other, everyone seems to be in a good mood.
My friend Susan, whose daughter went to the Cleveland Humanities Magnet, told me I absolutely had to talk to Jennifer because she is amazing. (What the hell is a magnet? you may be asking. I will answer this question tomorrow in a highly academic monograph called What the Hell is a Magnet? so stay calm.) Within minutes, I can see why Susan wanted me to meet her.
Jennifer’s love of the school is palpable. Over a cup of coffee in the tiny teachers’ lunch room, she tells me she’s been here since she graduated from UCLA fifteen years ago. “I can’t imagine myself anywhere else,” she says. For Jennifer, her passion for education began long ago, rooted in her own inner struggle.
“At the core of my identity is that my dad is African-American and my mom is white,” she says. “My mom was disowned by her parents because she married my father. That struggle has been central to who I am.”
She went to a Catholic elementary school where most of the other students were white or Filipino. She had trouble making friends and couldn’t understand why, blaming the fact that she was a chubby kid. Then in third grade, one day at lunch, two white girls called her a “black bum” and told her she “bathed in coal.”
“That’s when everything hit for me,” she says. “That’s when I understood what was going on.” A fight broke out, during which she hit one of the girls with her lunch pail. But when the teacher broke it up, Jennifer was blamed. “You must have done something,” the teacher told her. “It takes two to tango.”
For Jennifer, it was a defining moment. “I had to decide, was I gonna be a fighter or was I just gonna be a survivor? These kids were telling me being African-American was a negative. I decided to embrace it with a passion.”
Throughout school, she continued to feel isolated, though she found a small group of friends, first at a small private school, then at UCLA. “I struggled with self-esteem issues, especially with being biracial. I was too white to be black and too black to be white. Because I was a student of history, I was interested very early on in understanding that struggle.”
Directly out of college, she found herself interviewing for a job at Cleveland, talking to teachers who were considered legendary. She said no at first, intimidated by the depth of the teachers’ experience. But they refused to take no for an answer.
“I’d been on my own until then, and I’d developed a strong sense of who I was,” she says, looking back at her years of wrestling with identity and social justice, always feeling as if she was on the outside. The teachers’ passion for creating a new kind of education based on collaboration, discussion and interdisciplinary curriculum, and a life of continual learning and exploration made her realize she did not have to struggle alone any more. She relented and took the job.
“And then,” she says simply, “I found my home.”
That was fifteen years ago. Today, she’s the coordinator of Cleveland’s magnet program, though she still insists on teaching two English classes. Many of the teachers who were there when she started are still teaching alongside her. And that’s only the beginning: of the 20 teachers in the Cleveland Humanities program, nine are former students. Yes, you read that right: almost half of the teachers used to be students there.
Jennifer loves Cleveland’s “happy mix” of students, a racially and economically diverse group in which the majority are students of color. “I think our diversity is part of our success,” she says. “I think it intensifies our discussions.” In her 11th grade English class, as they talk about what it means to be American, students talk openly of their own experiences with race and privilege, and she shares her own story. In addition to learning the curriculum, the kids need to learn how to listen to each other. “It gets more sensitive as the year goes on,” she says.
By the time we’re done talking, I know I want to follow Jennifer’s class. She says yes without hesitation and before I know it, I’m heading to sit in on her first class of the day, a class of 50. Fifty. Students. Fifty hormonal teenagers in one classroom. The largest class I’ve ever taught was 32 and that felt huge.
I’ll tell you all about it later this week in my post Tell Me You Don’t Love Me and I’ll Leave.