Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Email from a friend.
I remember a History class during my junior year of high school. A young man -- a popular honors student -- noted without irony that America would be a better country if gays were rounded up and killed. The teacher heard him. And said nothing.
When I think back upon this painful memory, I am struck that though I had this teacher for two years, it was her silence that I remember most after all these years.
I am now a teacher.
I teach in a rural location. I teach kids who have never heard words like misogyny, feminism, sexism, and they laugh when you mention the word homophobia or racism. The school is 100% white. 100%. As I've struggled to teach them literature, I've been astounded when the overwhelming opinion of The Scarlet Letter is that Hester Prynne was a 'whore' and sinner (nothing wrong with the town who branded and ostracized her), and in mentioning character flaws found in Huckleberry Finn, more than one kid wrote that Jim's major flaw was being black. There is a lot of that, on a daily basis.
Today in another endless debate in Journalism class, the students started moaning and complaining about how much they HATE President Obama. Tired of the tirades of "hate" that come from their mouths, I had the students take out a piece of paper and write down FIVE things they don't like about the President's policies. Give me a reason. Give me a discussion point. Give me something other than the word "hate". The pencils were stationary. They didn't know why they hated him. Or maybe they did and didn't want to write it. The toughest kid in the room, the one who talks about his guns, his trucks, and wears camouflage daily said, "I ain't gonna write it down. I don't need to. I hate him. I hate him."
I know WHY this kid hates our President, but I've never asked or said it or brought it into question before. I haven't wanted to. But today, when the class was quiet--listening to his hate, I simply said, "Do you hate him because he is black?"
And he looked at me and said, "That's the number one reason, I'm not gonna lie. And it's a good reason."
A stir went through the class, some agreeing, and I remembered my high school experience. I remembered my silent teacher. I wasn't going to be quiet, or laugh it off, or ignore it. In fact, I lost it. I mean, I really lost it. Not in a yelling or screaming kind of a way--but in one of those moments of emotion/reason/logic/ and spilling forth the atrocities of what he had just said and what that meant to each of them. To me. To the world. And then, when the bell rang and they went to lunch. And I burst into tears. This is a rare occasion for me. I just can't believe after 8 months of teaching there, NOTHING-- NOTHING has changed. Their ideas, their prejudices. I've been trying to break them down daily, realizing I'm up against years and years of indoctrination.
Coming home tonight, having a glass of wine, I keep wondering if some student in my class today needed me to "lose it." And twenty years from now he/she will remember that I was NOT silent in the face of a racist comment.
Maybe. Maybe not. It is what it is. And that's the reality.