As a teacher, there are those moments that you just know are going to deeply impact the choices you make in the classroom. So, a couple of weeks ago when I was in Maine at the Boothbay Literacy Retreat, participating in what felt like a dream and what I knew would be one of those moments, I opened myself to whatever learning and new understandings might come my way. And there were plenty.
I learned that when three introverts share a cottage, nobody’s feelings get hurt when you go to your room and close your door because…well…people. I have garnered newfound respect for what it means to be a generous educator as our retreat facilitators, Kylene Beers, Bob Probst, Penny Kittle, Linda Rief, and Chris Crutcher, poured themselves out for us not only in session time but in free time as well. I learned, of course, how to be a better teacher of reading and writing and how to seek change and then to dig until I uncovered the assumptions that might be making that change difficult. I learned how to bring all of this back to my school in a positive way and I learned, once again, the importance of a body of educators sitting in one room excited about learning and opened to the possibilities of growth because…well…our students.
But you know, the most important thing I learned is the one that is most difficult to put into words. And it has everything to do with bias and privilege.
Over the past few years I have intentionally made efforts to make myself more aware of my own bias and to understand the depths of the privilege that makes my life, as well as how I am and how I am perceived in this world, possible. I have intentionally crafted lessons that work to enable my students to consider this impact in their own lives as well. I have followed the brilliant and courageous work of Jessica Lifshitz (if you aren’t following Jess, well, you should be!) and attempted to learn from her process and apply it in meaningful ways for my high school students in our context.
But at Boothbay, as I sat with, roomed with, listened to some of the most brilliant teachers I know, who just so happen to also be teachers of color, I came to understand my privilege in a much different way.
I think that for my whole life I have felt like because I try to be kind and considerate and in no way intentionally believe in or act upon any kind of discriminatory agenda; because I respect the importance of culture, tradition and community; because I speak out about the wrongs I see in this world, in this country; because I work to maintain an open mind and to open the minds of young people in my classroom to experiences beyond their own; because of all of this, I believed that I was erasing the hurt, the fear and that, at least in my presence, those things could eased, assuaged, made better, maybe even forgotten for a moment—that my friends wouldn’t have to worry about them. I wasn’t denying the existence of these feelings, I just thought that because I wasn’t actively working to create them, that there might be some reprieve.
That naïve perception is also privilege.
There is nothing I can do to erase the hurt of past experience, those moments of being made to feel less than free and equal in a country where we are intended to be such, or the fear of this world we live in today, one that is constantly revealing to us that maybe we aren’t as far along as we might have fooled ourselves into believing.
The depths of that pain and that fear run so much deeper than I will ever be able to contemplate and those are the stories that are so often ignored…the stories that are hard to hear, to admit the existence of. Again, privilege fuels that desire to bury our heads in the sand hiding from what feels uncomfortable.
Listening to stories, being a part of conversations that I could not actually participate in other than to listen, to hear, to take in, to learn from—being out of the context of that community of speakers—pointed this out to me in a very real way.
Privilege is not just about today. It is not just about recognizing how my life is easier today because of race, socio-economic status, faith, sexual orientation, etc. It is also about the past. And that is something that none of us can undo.
And this reinforced for me why I center my English II class around the idea and importance of story.
Our stories make us who we are. But, how we hear the stories of others (if we even choose to hear them) and how we act upon the truth of those stories not only becomes a part of our individual story but actively shapes those of others as well.
It is not enough just to know that discrimination exists and that it is an atrocity. It is not enough to speak out about something without truly working to understand the magnitude of it. We need to listen to each other, honestly, respectfully and without judgment, and we need to value the stories of the people around us—allowing their stories to shape our own. We need to see the people around us as just that: people…human beings who deserve to be treated as such; who deserve to be heard; who deserve to be fully who they are.
It is my job to do more than just teach reading and writing to high school students. It is my job to prepare them for the world at large. And in my world, I want careful, empathic listeners who respect the fragility of humanity and stand in awe of its resilience. I want bold individuals who are prepared to civilly participate in difficult conversations so they can leave an impact.
As I begin to prepare for this year, I do so with this in mind coupled with what Vicki Boyd calls “radical humanity”. I don’t know how to teach that, but the idea of it is going to impact every decision I make this year.
And because sometimes you just need a poem, here’s one that felt pretty fitting…
“Gate A-4” by Naomi Shihab Nye