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America to Me, Episode 3 Recap: Let’s Talk About Mr. Podolner

A teacher gets hip with the kids, the administration twiddles their thumbs, and we meet OPRF’s football team.

OPRF physics teacher Aaron Podolner   Photo: Risé Sanders-Weir

There are several things we can discuss about last night’s episode of America to Me — and we will. But first, we DEFINITELY need to talk about OPRF teacher Aaron Podolner.

It’s usually easy for me to distance myself from reality television and view the people in it as characters. There’s Snooki, and then there’s Snooki.

But one thing that’s so strange about recapping America to Me is knowing I could hop in my car, drive to Oak Park, get lunch with my mom, and run into any of the people in the series at Winberie’s restaurant. These are real people out there trying to teach science to high school students who’d rather be singing the Family Guy theme at the top of their lungs.

The teachers at OPRF are real humans. But this guy Aaron. Let’s dig into this weirdo.

Aaron Podolner is a physics instructor, and he’s hip with the kids. Mr. Podolner represents a certain type of white person that I see a lot. His family has been involved in Civil Rights activism going back two generations, and Aaron has done a lot of work to question his own racial identity.

But the result is a white person who’s too comfortable. Mr. Podolner is doing some of the right things, sure. He’s one of the few teachers, for instance, who seems to care about his colleague Jessica Stovall’s new initiative for racial equity at OPRF.

But then on the other hand: the dude is TOO familiar. Every other word out of his mouth is a rap reference or a joke at a student’s expense. He’s clearly sitting at home watching Love & Hip-Hop, taking notes.

Things get especially uncomfortable during a moment with one of his female students, Jada, a senior who clearly has an issue with how he talks to her. In one scene, Mr. Podolner makes a comment about her natural hair, saying, “Oh, someone didn’t feel like doing their hair today.”

DO YOU KNOW HOW LONG IT TAKES TO DO NATURAL HAIR? AND HOW MANY PRODUCTS?

At another point, Podolner picks up a Starbucks cup off Jada’s desk and smells it. When she says she can’t drink it because he touched it, he replies, “Oh, are you one of these germaphobes?”

Later, in an attempt to make an analogy during a lesson, Podolner says, “Then we go to Charles’s house and the police show up because there’s too many black people there.” As if joking about the police showing up to harass black people, as a white teacher, is hilarious and appropriate in a classroom setting.

TOO. COMFORTABLE.

The interactions illustrate yet another way that adults at OPRF are failing their students. As a teacher, you don’t have to be your students’ best friends. You don’t have to make jokes at their expense. You don’t have to constantly acknowledge that they’re black. You just have to meet their damn needs.

Elsewhere in Episode 3, OPRF’s administration fails to deal with race in any meaningful way. In one scene, we see a meeting between administrators and an organization within the school that deals with systemic inequality. Dan Cohen, a teacher and member of the organization, points out that the mostly white administration stays silent during their presentations. When they have them. Once every 11 months.

Meanwhile, black parents are BEGGING for OPRF to address the issue. They point out the school’s low expectations for their children, especially if they’re enrolled in OPRF’s standard college prep classes. Those courses, parents argue, should be just as challenging as the school’s honors courses.

The administration’s response? Something along the lines of “Why do you want everything involving your children and their livelihood to happen right away and not on our ill-defined, vague schedule?”

Later, another teacher, Mr. Noble, notes that white parents don’t tolerate their children taking OPRF’s regular (“college prep") courses because they view them as full of unruly, unchallenged African-American kids. (And maybe they are!) So why, when Terrence’s mom pushes to keep her son out of remedial classes, does she take more flak than white parents fighting to keep their kids out of college prep?

Episode 3 wraps with some screen time for OPRF’s football team. Watching the episode reframed the team for me. As the hour wraps, players and their coach discuss the repeated racial slurs they hear thrown around by opposing teams — and parents. They also point out a double standard when it comes to penalties on the field. OPRF’s players, officials say, are aggressive.

All of this, of course, is happening at the same time Serena Williams is getting fined $17,000 for calling out an unfair double standard at the US Open.

That, my friends, is what we call a parallel story.

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