“It’s a hard time to be human. We know/ too much and too little” Ellen Bass “The World Has Need of You”
I feel like this quote is my touchstone these days. I feel it as I learn more of the world, as I watch my children grow into it, and as I watch the rest of us try to live in it…clinging to what we believe is right (we know too much), often so fervently, we miss the whole truth (and too little). But as Bass’s title proclaims, “The World Has Need of You,” so even when I am overwhelmed by the surrounding maelstrom of voices and vehemence, I have to remember that I am called to work for good, to work for betterment, to work for peace and freedom and love.
Last weekend was a tumultuous time. This seems to be commonplace these days.
The President called out NFL players using words I’m not allowed to utter in the classroom and certainly words I teach my children not to use toward others. NFL players, coaches, and owners reacted in solidarity with each other, as if to say “This is our family. And you cannot call them names.” And we, as a people…as a nation, erupted. All the while, those in Puerto Rico, an American territory, whose homes and livelihoods were demolished by Maria were left waiting for aid, for response to a crisis of massive proportions.
So, as a teacher, what do you do? I cannot simply leave it alone. Students need a forum and information, they need discussion that includes opinions other than theirs and they need to practice civil discourse. There were lots of options, and heaps of resources immediately became available. But, it seemed to me important to engage in a different kind of conversation first. It seemed important to find out where my students landed on all of this before furthering any kind of agenda, before deciding what to teach. They are individuals, after all, so just as I would ask a bit about their reading and writing histories to gather some ideas on where to begin teaching those things, I asked a seemingly innocuous question during notebook time.
What is blindness?
We are reading All the Light We Cannot See together as we begin the year and Doerr, the author, starts a paragraph with this very question as he begins to explain what it feels like for one of his characters to have become completely blind. Yet, as the weekend was eclipsed by the start of a new school week, I began to understand this question in a much different way. So, I asked my students to forego consideration of physical blindness and to dig into other ways people could possibly be blind.
As always during notebook time, they responded to this quote in any way that made sense to them. Some illustrated their thoughts, others wrote poems, while still others wrote in prose. After a few minutes of this reflection, we discussed.
Their responses were beautiful. One student wrote a sort of list poem that describes various scenes of people we might easily forego truly seeing. She was inspired by the idea that we so often ignore or “blind ourselves” to the truths of the lives of those around us because then we can keep living our own comfortable lives without the discomfort of the reality of so many. It is easier to know too little and remain content, than to be disrupted and called to action by knowing too much. Her list of those people who are easier not to see included:
“the young girl whose feet are bare as she walks to school.
The boy who feels alone in a crowded room
The dad who returns home in the morning to make his son breakfast and doesn’t eat
The man whose face is hidden behind knotted hair and harsh wrinkles…his sign
dampened by the rain as he sits on the uncovered curb
the boy who sits watching the chatter.”
The class was moved by her description and it drove us to really dig in to who it is in this world that we are missing. Who is it that we are blinding ourselves to? What struggles are being faced that we can’t see because of whatever privilege allows us to ignore them. A truly relevant reminder and an invitation to continue defining the many ways each of us experiences privilege.
There were various other ideas and theories shared on what it is to be blind—not seeing the world around you, blinding yourself to an idea or to another possible opinion, feeling blind in math when you just can’t see the answer, and so on. But one of the more heartfelt responses came near the end of the conversation and I think speaks to the importance of conversations like this in our lives.
One girl raised her hand and said, “Blindness is choosing not to see that there’s a human being behind the opinion you so angrily disagree with.” She proceeded to speak passionately about why this upsets her so much and the rest of us joined in. In this moment, the room became aware that the world isn’t about a single side. It isn’t a single story. It is about many people, with varied backgrounds, with differing opinions coming together respectfully to find a better way.
Sometimes, the issue that calls us to action isn’t necessarily where we need to begin. Sometimes, our greatest understandings are those we come to when nudged rather than shoved.
All the time, our students are capable of so much more than we realize and we need to give them the time and the space to explore their ideas and opinions as well as the opinions of others. All the time, we need to extend our respect to them as individuals in this world and remember that while they are with us for school, they are also concurrently still trying to figure out where they fit and how to be in this world. The world has desperate need of them too and it is our job to help them navigate the waters of knowing too much and too little. Indeed, “[i]t’s a hard time to be human,” but in our classrooms with open communication, with respect and with time for our kids to reflect and to think, we can extend the comfort of community to ease the difficult moments. We can create a space to try new ideas and to grow as thinkers.
Our discussions did not end here. This was just the beginning…well, not entirely, these discussions are a staple of my classroom, but for the purposes of considering what was incited last weekend, it was just the beginning.
And then today, Friday, one of my seniors entered my room thoroughly annoyed with someone else’s closed minded opinion on the purpose behind the “take a knee” movement. This is a student who a year ago only saw the importance of standing for the anthem and saw a pro football player potentially only standing for himself. Today, I sat in awe as I listened to her share with great emotion about the different resources she had read or listened to that were making her think and about how we need to look hard at ourselves and why it is we might take issue with these players and their decision to take a knee.
She was doing exactly what I hope all of my students will do. She was seeking information, asking questions, and forming opinions based in research…and it was all self-motivated. This kind of growth and development is one of the coolest things about teaching kids—they are willing to open their minds and look around and even sometimes, change their minds. They don’t always see it as admitting defeat or to being wrong just to create a more informed opinion. There’s no shame attached in that change.
When it comes down to it, the point of these discussions is never for my students to share my opinion. It is for them to become informed on their side and on other sides before digging in and fighting for it, and it is to learn to speak civilly, even in disagreement, because when we lose respect, for ourselves and for others, we, in a sense, deny our own humanity and the humanity of the people with whom we share this world.