With my summer at home drawing to a close (leaving in one week!) I’ve been thinking about my role as a teacher, and my responsibility in the lives of young people. I’ve written about why I teach in the past, but I don’t think I’ve touched on some of the experiences that helped me understand that my job is really to shape minds.
The way I see it, one of my responsibilities as an educator is to make sure that my students grow up to be responsible global citizens who are empowered to affect change. I believe that everyone has the power to make some sort of change, either in one’s own life or in the wider world. The way I choose to do that is to help young people realize that such change is possible. I affect change by cultivating my students’ ideas so that they believe in themselves.
Or, at the very least, I try my hardest.
When I was in high school, it used to be cool and slangy to use the phrase “that’s so gay” to describe something obnoxious, irritating, annoying, boring, or simply uncool. (With any luck, I have just dated myself.) That bothered me long before being an ally was an accepted part of society. I felt the same way about the word “retarded”, which was also in vogue amongst my peers, and which also takes on a variety of negative meanings when tossed around by teenagers with pants around their knees (yes, that was also cool at the time, which should say a thing or two about how we’ve all managed to grow up). When I was 17, I finally felt comfortable enough with myself to stand up and say something. I remember looking at my boyfriend, and later at a handful of other friends, and saying, “That’s offensive to me. If you mean “stupid,” just say so. You wouldn’t say “straight” for “cool”, so you shouldn’t use “gay” for “stupid. Please don’t do that around me.”
They rolled their eyes, they scoffed at my attitude, but they listened. I remember my boyfriend giving me a what-the-hell look and then saying to me, “I’ll stop if it really bothers you, but you’ll have to help me.”
And that’s the way it went. It turned out that a lot of people in my social circles back in 2007 had similar feelings but had tossed around slang the way kids toss around slang; without thinking. As a teacher, I try to use language that empowers my students. I vividly remember opening a class discussion my first year teaching about the difference between being ignorant and not knowing. The comment, “I just can’t talk to her! She’s ignorant, she doesn’t know anything!” following a disagreement between two students about race promoted the discussion. We concluded that ignorance is knowing and ignoring, while not knowing is simply not knowing. Rather than blaming one another for being uncertain, or for lack of knowledge, we can teach. I honestly don’t remember the comments made leading to this discussion, but I remember taking my teacher voice out of my pocket and saying, “Stop. We need to back up here.” And both of those students later thanked me for doing it.
As simple as it sounds, the biggest idea I can help my students understand is that if you choose not to act, there will be no results. I’ve heard every excuse for inaction: “But I’m just one person.” “No one will listen.” “Honestly, I have other things to worry about.” “That’s so much work.” “I’m just going to live in a cardboard box and be happy.” “There’s too much hate and too many haters to even bother trying.”
So, haters, here I am calling you out for ignorance.
Haters claim that the world is too big with too many problems so individuals can’t solve them. Haters claim that there’s no point in looking out for others because you never know when someone’s going to stab you in the back. Haters claim that you can’t fix other people so you should only worry about yourself.
Haters are ignorant, because they know better. They have seen change and they know that it comes from people doing exactly those things that are really very hard.
Haters, in short, are wrong.
Wrong because there are people who care, who dream, who believe, who yearn. There are people who look around dissatisfied and are not content to remain dissatisfied. There are people who hope, who watch, who wait and get impatient; instead of giving up, those people act. They do something. Instead of growing increasingly irritated with people with whom they do not agree, they make changes. They work to understand. They surround themselves with like-minded people, and find power in groups.
History is full of groups who acted, groups who fought, groups who won. There is strength in numbers, and I want my students to believe in themselves, join those groups, and make the changes that they, at 14, 15, 16, or 17, represented and endorsed in my classes. If I didn’t believe they could do it, I wouldn’t say so; I would lose all credibility as a teacher, as a mentor.
Haters, I know some people who are going to rock your world. Hold on tightly.