Social Justice Hypocrite

By: Stefania Almeziab, M.Ed.

Being hired on as an educator at a school called Changemaker may dictate assumed success as an active change agent, however, an honest moment of student questioning pulled the wool from my eyes to reveal I have allowed myself to become an accidental hypocrite.

As one of my sophomores was mid-keystroke, shaping his research on Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, he asked, “Mrs. A, are you a social justice leader?” Taken aback, more by my inability to say yes than by the question itself, my face flushed as I slowly released the answer, “not yet.”

My exchanges in the classroom rely heavily on the research-backed notion by Carol Dweck that committing one’s teacher language to a growth mindset of “not yet” and focusing on the power of students believing they can improve cancels out years of kids accepting they are either smart or dumb. The opposing fixed mindset verbiage that allows for such labels does only that, holding even the “smarty-farties” from reaching full potential and true confidence to fail and succeed with dignity. In this moment, my “not yet” was purely rote.

My students constantly hear me preach at the pulpit on how they need to be the ones to change the world, with assignments dedicated to learning about international social justice leaders, and all the while from this hot bag of wind with no footing. I had allowed the fixed mindset of “I’m only one small person and this problem is so big” to lull me into the sweet repose of complacency conveniently labeled as “I’m too tired,” or, “When my daughter is older,” or, my go-to, “When I have time.”

It seems I had forgotten that modeling manners and kindness is not enough. While there is no malice or intent to talk the talk alone, a general ability to tell myself why I cannot instead of why I can had taken up residency. The great parliamentarian Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I am a living example of letting the bad guys win; at least I was until March 8th, 2017.

Over lunch, the day before the needle moved a skoach past “not yet”, Snook, our veteran science teacher and activist, said she was planning to don the colors of International Women’s Day and the Day Without a Woman as a demonstration. She explained that women around the country were asked to follow the example of A Day Without an Immigrant by staying home from work and avoiding purchases to show the impact of women on the economy. Those who had to or felt they should be at work were asked to wear red and purple to show solidarity. In true Snook full-throttle, she decided that since there are countless women throughout the world with no rights to education, to their own bodies, to the governance of their countries, to the elevation of their own voices, that she would not speak the entire day. I thought of my sophomore who called me out, begging the divorce of do nothing and I. I felt extreme discomfort and excitement in equal measure.

The next morning, as I sat in my car talking to myself in the mirror like the outcast from an 80s movie psyching up for the big date scene, I debated draping my red hijab (a scarf I choose to wear on my head as a Muslim) over my mouth to heighten the symbolism of my silence. If I covered my face this way, however, in what is known as the niqab style, I would stand to face another challenge. Women who live in countries without oppressive, patriarchal regimes often choose to wear the face covering as a means to be closer to God. I pulled the scarf down, revealing a bare face, to not give rise to common confusion between the captive and the liberated; my religion is a proponent of feminism.

Walking on campus in silence, with nothing on my mouth only cultivated weird looks that prompted communication, so I opted for scotch tape and headed the normal route to my classroom. My students said good morning and I said nothing. I hooked up the Women’s Day YouTube channel to my projector and let other women, veterans, speak for me. The outcome of my demonstration was a mixed bag of more than just the foreshadowed grumblings and high fives.

Reflecting with my students the following day a few males voiced that it was dumb and pointless; some female students said they wanted to join in but felt shy or embarrassed to do so; one freshman expressed gratitude because he didn’t realize how much he depended on me throughout the day; a senior unexpectedly owned his part in the Islamophobia that apparently managed to whisper its way through campus when I started working here; many students said they learned a lot from the videos presented and discussions ensued. A junior in the class reported that she was silent as well and that many tried to get her to speak, disregarding her wishes and stance, and creating a clear picture of why we needed this day.

For my part, this very tiny toe-in-the-water act of remaining silent for a whole day made me understand that I am not alone or powerless against a Goliath. I made a wave, however small; my silence allowed my students to think and speak without constant intervention of my wisp-weighted words. What came out of something so simple was a very complicated layer cake of discussion, and a real straw for me to grasp as a former social justice hypocrite flipping the mindset switch. I explained to my students that this experience made me want to do something a little bigger and a little sooner and little closer to my heart. I told my sophomore he is responsible for teaching me about myself. My students are a mirror I cannot put down that forces me to look at what I have allowed myself to become as an adult. It is constant; it is painful; it is real; it is beautiful to watch; it is growth. It is the same thing I demand of them every day, and it is the same thing I owe them in return.