In 1996, I assigned my class to read an essay by an African-American author and came face to face with racist resistance. When I saw the arrest of South Carolina Dylann Roof for the killing of nine people, I recognized that face from many I had seen in my own classroom.
During my second year of teaching at a rural school in eastern Kentucky, I announced one day to my English class we would be reading Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When The Other Dance Is the Self.” As the class turned to the essay in their textbooks, I heard a snort in the back of the room. I looked in that direction and saw Jason, shaking his head, then slamming his textbook shut. I walked over and bent down next to his chair.
“I ain’t readin’ that n—r lit.” His tone was even, calm, dispassionate.
“Come outside with me, please.” I rose and left the room. Jason followed. When we got in the hall, I shut the door, and he leaned against the lockers.
“What did you say?” I said.
He repeated it. The hall was empty. I could hear the art room down the hall bustling with activity.
“Jason, this is 1996. That language is completely inappropriate in my classroom.”
He looked at me finally, level and stoic. Then he shrugged. “That’s just the way I was raised.”
Last week, when I saw Dylann Roof’s red-rimmed eyes staring back at me from his mug shot, I thought about Jason and a dozen other students I’ve encountered who have looked at the world through the narrow, unexamined lens of racism, isolation, and suspicion.
I teach in another school district now, but I still live in the same county, a place where racial divides have been present throughout history. In 1964, as the county school system sluggishly moved toward integration, the African-American school was burned down along with the African-American Masonic hall. The arsonist was never caught, and the district finally integrated in 1965, one of the last school systems in Kentucky to do so. Today, a glance of the high school parking lot reveals a half dozen pickups with rebel flag license plates, and the annual fall festival held each year downtown hosts booths selling guns and Dixie paraphernalia along with fried pies and peanut brittle.
Jason didn’t read Walker’s essay, even though I attempted to draw him out with several conversations about the topic. After he graduated the following year, I lost track of him until about ten years ago. I’ve seen him around town, working for the city. Even though Jason didn’t become a mass murderer, I thought of him—and all the other students like him—when I saw Roof’s picture. I still feel as though I failed Jason by not doing more to challenge and broaden his worldview.
As a high school teacher, I am aware how entrenched 18 years of cultural and familial beliefs and practices are in my students. I’m not convinced I could have changed Jason’s mind, but as a teacher, I am called to participate in what a former colleague calls, “the constant labor of democracy.”
In a free nation, schools have an obligation to be a moral force as well as an academic one, and teachers are on the front line in the struggle to demonstrate the principles of peace, reason, grace, community, and open-mindedness.
Here are seven actions that all teachers should agree to act on without reservation.
Address racist, bigoted speech immediately. Hate speech, and the ideology from which it comes, is insidious. Name calling, joking, and bullying cannot be filed under “kids being kids.” Ignoring racism does not make it go away; it makes you a collaborator in the discrimination.
Be explicit about advocacy and safety. Safety, both physical and psychological, is a prerequisite for learning. All students – the bully and the victim alike—must know you will ensure their safety and protection. A classroom is a microcosm of the larger democracy, a place where all voices have a right to be heard and all viewpoints can be considered in a safe and respectful environment.
Educate yourself and your students about social justice. I recently attended a Holocaust Educator’s Network seminar, sponsored by The Memorial Library of New York. One of the sessions centered on the Pyramid of Hate, a high school lesson developed by the Anti-Defamation League and Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Such tools help students apply the lessons learned from the Holocaust and other genocides to their own schools and communities. Teaching Tolerance, the educational arm of The Southern Poverty Law Center, is another great resource for teachers.
Pull the fringe kids inside the circle of light. Young bigots are bred in repressive, unquestioning places: in prejudiced homes, in isolated and homogeneous neighborhoods, maybe even in quirky religious sects. Bring these kids whose ideas put them on the margins of society into the mainstream with non-threatening conversations and reflection.
Provide an outlet for reflection. Isolation is the cauldron in which disaster boils. Reflection is often an underutilized tool in the fight against hatred. Reading and writing on the topics of social justice, diversity, and family, religious, and political values can prevent the alienation that further isolates and radicalizes the bigot. Turn kids on to the language and literature of power and beauty in relation to their own lives. Give them time to reflect on their tiny world as merely one brief location in the vast expanse of history.
Teach rational thought. By modeling open-mindedness and fairness, you serve as an antidote to the polarization kids see in social media and hear on talk radio. Teach students how to analyze two opposing viewpoints, how to thoughtfully dissect an argument, how to become independent thinkers, and how to effectively work together for solutions.
Maybe none of this would have stopped the rage that led Roof to kill nine African-Americans. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade, further isolating himself in a culture of drugs, racism, and hatred, but we must continue the fight. If, as Martin Luther King, Jr., stated on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol, that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” we teachers must always be passionately and tirelessly doing our part to bend that arc.