I work in a predominantly white school with what most people would consider high achieving students. Our free and reduced lunch number is small and most people would consider our community a stereotypical suburb. With this comes many assumptions about the kind of people and specifically the types of kids who live in our area and attend our schools. Some of it is accurate, and yet that rarely tells the whole story.
As a white educator, working in this setting, I am very insulated to most of the issues and problems many Americans are currently wrestling with. I have the ability to turn off my TV, mute social media personalities and walk away from some of the ugly that is out in the world. The same is true for the vast majority of my students. However, not all of them have that same privilege as I or their classmates.
As I roll into a new school year, I want to do more. For starters, I want to create a safe space for the young Muslim student who shared with me how often she and her family are racially profiled. I also want to listen and learn from the young African American boy who told me the greatest advice he ever got from his father was, “You can’t be both black and brave in this country.” In addition, I will strive to better understand my students who gender and/or sexuality are not socially understood or accepted and the fear for their lives they are living with. I could go on and on of stories my students bring to me in which I always have a choice to engage and feel uncomfortable or move on and remain in my own bubble of comfort. I am refusing to move on anymore.
I will likely screw up from time to time and say the wrong things because of my own ignorance. There are certainly so many people who are engaging in these tough conversations with kids and I want to continue to connect and learn from them. I can’t save anyone and am not naive enough to believe I can fix the problems of the world or even in my student’s lives. Our job is not to fix things or assume kids want or need our help. Many of the kids I referenced don’t need me to help beyond just to listen and be there when and if they want to talk. Too often we want to step in and “fix” when it’s not our place or simply isn’t needed.
To be honest, I think our bigger impact can be had on the “other” students who live the insulated life I referenced and have not had to face these hardships. The friends of the Muslim girl who had no idea she was treated differently because of her religion. Or the buddies of the African American boy who can’t understand why their dads have never told them something like his did. Now, there is nothing wrong with living a life with minimal hardships and having things come easy. The problem is when we take that for granted and assume others experience life in the same way.
In my role as a school librarian, I am going to look to the books for guidance. Yes, books. I don’t have life experiences which can speak to many of the struggles our kids are working through in their lives. Nor am I the authority on gender, race, sexual assault or so many other things I am trying to learn more about. Yes, there were things in my childhood growing up in a rural, all-white, town that I can bring to the table. Yet, for many kids, I can’t relate and think it would be arrogant to try. Instead, I want to listen more and let the books do the talking.
I am going to challenge myself to read more but also get more books into student’s hands; books that make them laugh, cry, and hopefully widen their perspective on the world around them. Some of these books made me uncomfortable but in that feeling, I was forced to challenge my own views and begin to shift my thinking. Again, I will likely screw up as I’ve been known to do, but I want this school year to be one where we engage in powerful stories which push my students to think outside their bubbles of safety.
Kids should read:
Dear Martin and then check the news to see that yes, African American kids are killed because of their music.
The Track Series because it challenges stereotypes to show kids they don't have to be somebody or something because others think they should be.
Gracefully Grayson or The 57 Bus to understand how hard it can be for individuals and society to come to terms with gender identity and the real-life consequences.
The Summer of Owen Todd or Speak and recognize the high probability that one or more of their classmates is being sexually abused or assaulted.
Internment or Amal Unbound to gain a deeper understanding of the Muslim faith but also a cautionary warning of where our society can move to if we don’t speak up for each other.
An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People and understand how to respond to and discuss the implications of phrases such as, “Go back to where you came from.”
Refugee, or A Land of Permanent Goodbyes, or even Enrique’s Journey and connect with kids who didn’t choose to leave their homes and become refugees.