For the last few days, my AP students have been working their way toward and into a short story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie titled, “A Private Experience”. A superficial description of this story might read something like this: two Nigerian women seek shelter together in an abandoned shop during a riot. However, what this story asks students/readers to confront is far more complex than that simplicity. Through her careful storytelling and arrangement of detail, in the nuanced way her characters reveal themselves and their truths, Adichie places readers in the position of having to consider their own assumptions and biases. She coerces us to exchange places with these characters facing an actuality that the comforts of American life (even at its worst) do not reveal. The exchange between these two characters opens eyes to both the assumptions we make about those we only think we know that establish distance between “us and them” as well as misunderstanding and to the compassion one human can share with another that bridges that vastness.
I wasn’t sure how ready my students would be to read this story with honesty and without pushback. These kinds of truths can be super uncomfortable and while I know my kids well enough to realize they can do this kind of work, I wasn’t sure they were in a place to examine it willingly. We waded into this story by considering what the call to “love your neighbor as yourself” truly means in this modern world. Then we read some history of the riots that took place in Nigeria in the earlier parts of this century–so, not so long ago. Then they read the story independently–so it was just them and the words on the page–a conversation between reader and text before we hosted a conversation between reader and other readers in community. They needed to have the space and the quiet to think this one through and to question themselves adequately before really speaking to the story and the power of its influence.
I spent today listening to their thoughts and explanations of how they connected with this story; how it made them confront truths that weren’t so easy; how they appreciated the way Adichie’s style and craft drew them into this honesty without screaming it at them; how they now understood that academic knowledge of a crisis doesn’t supplant the lived experience of those moments. I spent today with reminder after reminder of why our young people don’t receive the credit they deserve. It would have been so easy for them to stop short of meeting the story where it asked them to. It would have been so easy to just see a story about one woman attempting to help another. It would have been so easy to never involve themselves because it was just an assignment for English class. They didn’t do any of these things. Instead, they allowed themselves to be vulnerable and to share the not so pretty realizations they had about the assumptions they make of others…to discuss what they learned of themselves and of others in the reading. Their intelligence and their honesty and their willingness to be uncomfortable and to sit with that discomfort was compelling.
It was also a brilliant reminder of why I teach young people and the hope their ability to step out of their comfort zone and embrace new ideas delivers. I cannot speak for all high school students on all the days of the year, but today, my kids made me proud as they taught me a thing or two about how to confront difficult ideas courageously in community.