The summer before my sophomore year of college, I took a few days off from waiting tables to spend time with Numiny, my fairy godmother. She invited my family to stay with her in Cape Cod every summer, told stories of her adventures all over the world — from Lapland to Kilimanjaro to Cairo — encouraged me to read and be brave and accept my nerdy tendencies with grace. She was a philanthropist who built libraries and loved animals, particularly turtles, and would always say she wanted to be the “first penguin” — the one who would jump in first to make sure no one else would get eaten. I cherished our time together, even when she had me remove her glass eye with a tiny suction cup before we went swimming. She was in her nineties and almost entirely blind at the time and had just gotten her first tattoo so “the med students would have something to talk about when they carved [her] up.” She asked me what I was going to do with my life after college. I said I wasn’t sure and explained it was all quite overwhelming. She took my hand and said, “Heed the generous impulse.”
My first impulse was to teach. And so, in addition to my English major, I signed up for some education classes and, by the time graduation rolled around, completed a student teaching practicum at a local high school. A few weeks after I graduated, I was fortunate enough to get hired at the same school. I look back on that time with almost crippling humility, wondering how I was entrusted by administrators, parents, and students, alike, to teach students just a few years younger than I was at the time. There was so much I didn’t know.
This week, I closed the books on my tenth year of teaching and there is still so much I don’t know. I have learned a great deal, as anyone would, over time, from hundreds and hundreds of students who have cycled through my various classrooms. During that first year of teaching, a colleague shared a quotation from the poet Lucille Clifton that carved its way into my brain: “Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.”
My heart was repeatedly broken during my first few years in the classroom, where I finally learned the tremendous privilege of not only having parents with the ability to provide a safe, loving home for me and my brother throughout our childhood, but also the safe circumstances into which we happened to be born by the luck of the draw and our parents’ white skin. I took comfort and honor in trying to create a community in my classroom, where our collective minds might overcome individual hardships. I thought of Numiny and Clifton and of the US motto: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. I would ask myself and my classes: How will we choose to use our time together? We are many, how are we one?
My first classroom was where I learned to be an adult and where I learned the inherent generosity of teenagers, those kids who let me learn on the job and trusted me with their stories, and where, every morning as I walked in the door, I would repeat my two mottos: heed the generous impulse and out of many, one. These words grounded and calmed me. They gave me focus on days when I made mistakes or when nothing seemed to go right and were celebratory on the days I felt worthy of my job.
Reading about my students’ lives — the parents who had left, the drugs in their home, the empty cabinets, the caretaker roles they took on as children, the ways in which they hated how school made them feel yet loved the consistency — weighed on my mind and heart. I learned so much about empathy, about treating students as humans, about where, how and when to push, about how to apologize and how to ask for an apology. I spent a lot of time thinking about my students outside of school, wondering if they were surviving. I spent a lot of time crying in my apartment.
I cry less about teaching now, partly because I’ve gotten used to the reality of the job, partly because I’ve grown accustomed to hardship, partly because I learned to disconnect and mostly because tears aren’t particularly useful. I’m still a crier — ask any of my friends or family who is likely to tear up first and I’ll win by a mile — but I have moved beyond tears in teaching.
I look at the larger picture of America: the mass incarceration of black people, the failure to address police brutality, the way we treat the poor, the rampant sexism of internet trolls, the disregard for our planet, the galvanizing of racist, xenophobic discourse and sentiment, the attempts to take away healthcare from our most vulnerable and to make laws about where people can use the bathroom, and I know I have to teach, not cry. I have to show up. That’s my job. That’s my impulse. That’s my One. I’m not changing the world, but I am trying to set the stage for at least one of my students to ask tough questions, find her passion and maybe do a better job than I am of making the world better.
I’ve learned to be a better teacher in the last ten years and I’m still learning. I wasn’t adept at talking about race or white privilege in my first few years in my predominantly white classroom in Maine. It’s a difficult conversation to have with white students whose lives are hard and, as a white, inexperienced teacher, easy to avoid. Sure, we read To Kill a Mockingbird, but, as a white person, it’s embarrassingly effortless to create distance — mental, geographical, historical — and say, “Things like that don’t happen here and now.” But, of course, they do.
I now teach in a more diverse community and I’ve read a lot of books about race, racism and education. I now know how to explain that white privilege doesn’t mean your life can’t be hard if you’re white, it just means your life isn’t hard because you are white. And the thing about teenagers, the remarkable, beautiful, complicated, overwhelming thing about teenagers is that they are generous enough to understand unfairness when they see it. Out of the many problems they face each day at school and home, unfairness is often their One. Teenagers want to be treated fairly and they understand social justice when given the opportunity.
The problem, of course, is that adults get in the way and teach prejudice. Children can turn on the news and watch both our governor and president spouting racist hatred. They can watch black mothers of murdered black sons having to justify, quantify or explain their grief in ways that white mothers would never have to. They can buy Confederate flag paraphernalia all the way up in Maine and adults, who should understand the hateful history of the symbol, can pretend it means something else. They see overt racism everywhere. They experience or witness and sometimes perpetuate microaggressions every day.
In my ten years, I’ve taught in four schools. I lost my first job as our enrollment declined and recently left a district where white administrators were too scared to say the word “racism” out loud, dismissed student and faculty concerns of racism as “emotional” and excused racist behavior with lines like, “They don’t know any better.” This was not in stereotypical rural Maine, home of the stereotypical Trump voter. This was liberal, middle class, coastal Maine, a town where Hillary Clinton won 58% of the popular vote, a town where the superintendent of schools would rather protect an image of a “nice” community than acknowledge that — like everywhere else in America — racism is alive and well.
How do we expect our children to fight and change the systems of oppression if we do not give them the trust and space to do so? It is our job as educators, as parents, as humans, to be better people. And it is the job of white educators to be allies in this fight, to ask tough questions of our students — the ones who will be police officers, senators, teachers, journalists and parents — and to give space for all students to answer.
In a country where shootings are the third-leading cause of death for children and where one in three black men can expect to be imprisoned in their lifetime, surely we can take time out of our day to talk about systems of oppression, race and violence, empathy and understanding, and “out of many, one.” E pluribus unum. What does “one” mean? What is our One? Who is our One? Right now, as ever in the history of a country we often forget forced out or killed indigenous populations and was later built by slaves, it sure seems like that One is a rich, white male with no impulse for generosity and limited capacity for empathy.
And yet, I still believe in the populace. I believe in We, the People. And I believe in teenagers, those sweaty, emotive, generous, glowing beings who, across races, religions, genders and languages, can guide the way. We have to make room.