It has taken me a few days to try and put the words together to reach out to you. I have drafted and re-drafted what I’ve wanted to say because emotions can often cloud the intention of words. I’ve spent the last few days thinking about all of you. Thinking of the students I had in my very first year of teaching when I had no idea what I was doing, the students I grew with and learned with over the years, and the students I have now. I’ve thought about our conversations and debates. I’ve thought about the tears some of us cried together in sadness and mourning and of the times you made me laugh so hard that another type of tear touched my face. I’ve thought about what it means to be a teacher and how so much of what I want is for you to be safe. To be safe when you’re sitting in my classroom and to be safe when we are no longer together.
What I’ve known for a long time now, but has been only further highlighted by the events of these past few weeks is that there are many of you who are not. I’ve been thinking about the students who sat in the desks in my room carrying the baggage of living in a country where they fear the discrimination and prejudice inflicted on them, on their brothers and sisters, their mothers and fathers, and on their neighbors. I think about the students I’ve had who carry with them the uncertainty of what it will mean if they choose to have children of their own, and they question whether or not their children will be given the same dignities and rights as others or if they will face a lifetime of fear due to the color of their skin.
Similarly, I think about the students I have had who are privileged. Because privilege is intersectional, maybe this privilege comes from their skin color, their gender, their socio-economic status, their ethnicity, etc. And I hope that they have remembered what we talked about. I hope they are somewhere now and choosing to use that privilege for good. I hope they are out there being allies, being advocates, and making space for the voices and needs of others.
The books we read together were for a reason, my friends. If you ever thought to yourself, Why do we have to read this? Talk about this? Analyze and debate this? Now. Now is why.
My words only hold so much weight, but the words of authors and characters can speak to us and make us see the world for what it is. Make us see the world for what it should be.
When we read Richard Wright’s story Black Boy, we had to ask ourselves how and why racism has been and can continue to be embedded within our society. Wright wrote, “Our too-young and too-new America, lusty because it is lonely, aggressive because it is afraid, insists upon seeing the world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low, the white and the black; our America is frightened of fact, of history, of processes, of necessity. It hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self-draped cloak of righteousness” (Richard Wright). We had to examine what this meant and if this was a way of life that we were ok being part of. We sat in our desks and discussed and got uncomfortable and faced history. We were not ok with this. To exclude, to fear, to hurt, or to kill someone due to the color of their skin was not what we believed in or would stand for.
In the many profound lessons of To Kill a Mockingbird, we listened to Atticus explain to us that, “As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it-whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash” (Harper Lee). We wrote poems and did projects. We connected this story to news clippings and real events. We agreed that this was a behavior we would demand is not seen within our schools, our towns, our states, and our country.
Some of us read the story of Junior from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and we talked about what happens when oppression is an accepted way of life in this country. We talked about what it means when one group of people is targeted or killed and how entire communities are then forced to carry that fear and pain. Junior explained that when one member of his tribe dies, whether they know the person or not, the mourning is braided into every family. “Each funeral was a funeral for all of us. We lived and died together” ( Sherman Alexie). This is happening now. The pain of the individuals who have been taken is rippling throughout our country. We said that we wouldn’t stand for this kind of pain to be inflicted on ourselves or others.
We asked about how to create change. We combed through novels, poems, articles, and letters. We asked ourselves what it means to ignite change and how to do it. In reading The Other Wes Moore, we were taught that, “The common bond of humanity and decency that we share is stronger than any conflict, any adversity. Fighting for your convictions is important. But finding peace is paramount. Knowing when to fight and when to seek peace is wisdom. Ubuntu was right” (Wes Moore). We are here- now. How are we going to find peace and equality? How are we going to uphold our commitment to do better. How are we going to say that this is not the America we want to live in and do it in a real and productive way?
If there are a few things we can all remember from our readings, discussions, and promises, I hope we remember this.
- Check our privilege. No, it is not “ your fault” if you are born into particular demographics which award you privilege. But when you know better
- you do better. Once you are old enough or educated enough, it is your job to use that privilege to act. To be an ally, to change legislation, to disallow oppression and discrimintation in your homes and your communities.
- If you have been discriminatory or implicitly or explicitly biased yourself in the pastown it. Apologize, ask for forgiveness, and commit to do better.
- Similarly, try to find it within yourself to forgive others. Encourage their growth and learning.
- Don’t assume that you know what someone else needs. If you have never walked in someone’s shoes, you can’t fully know. Ask. Ask others how you can help. Ask what they need. It might be for you to walk in front of them to protect them, beside them to support them, or they may need you to walk behind them to make some room.
- It needs to start small. It begins at your kitchen table. When you’re tucking your kids into bed at night. When you’re waiting for the train. Talk about race. Correct people when they’re demonstrating hate. Tell people no.
- Get uncomfortable. These discussions are not easy. There will be painful discoveries of implicit bias and feelings of guilt. There will be disagreements. We do not grow if we do not push ourselves.
- Ask for help. When you do not understand a situation, you don’t know how to navigate it, you are not an expert
- ask for help. There are plenty of people in the world who have walked miles of hard road and who are willing to teach you.
- And remember that we talked about how activism or fighting for justice is hard work. It will not simply happen by an inspirational photo you post on instagram or a tweet you share about finding equality. It will need to be tangible. It will take connecting with your community, using your resources, coming up with solutions, and asking for more.
- Keep learning. Our days of reading and educating ourselves have only just begun.
ecause we do not sit in the same classroom together anymore, it does not mean we can’t continue to learn and grow from one another. If there is something I can do, please tell me. If there is something I need to know to better educate myself or my future students, please tell me. If you need me, please tell me. I love you- I miss you- I stand with you.