Sometimes as educators we are in the right place at the right time. For example, my Developmental Writing class was applying Aristotle’s artistic proofs to a video by poet Meta Sarmiento, After North Korea’s Threat. One of my students, a young black man, commented “That %$#^ happens to us every day”.
It was the week after NFL players took a knee during the national anthem. President Trump’s comments were fresh on many minds.
“Can you explain?” He went on to explain his experience being black in the United States. Others started to jump in as our class time expired.
“We can go here if you want. Friday.” The class agreed. After the class I had students stop by my office, ready to do research, excited for the opportunity to “make their case”.
I got worried imagining a WWF match taking place between my strong personalities. The following email went out on Thursday morning:
“As we saw in Meta’s video today, there are social issues taking place in many cultures. I am encouraged that young adults, like yourselves, are willing to discuss this conversation further within our classroom.
In order to not have complete mayhem ensure, we need to establish a few ground rules:
It is my hope that as we leave class, we will have a deeper understanding of each other. I look forward to our discussion."
Attached were two videos from Upworthy.
I was still nervous. Friday, I arrived early and wrote on the board: 1. Be Civil 2. 5 second rule (breathe before responding) 3. This isn’t a debate – let’s seek understanding.
I put the desks in a circle and as students arrived there was an excitement in the air. They took their seats.
And no one spoke.
I look across at the young man in combat fatigues. “May I put you on the spot?” He nodded. I asked him as a person in the military what his thoughts were on the NFL player’s actions. This student rarely speaks in class yet when he started to explain, the others appeared spellbound.
“My job is to protect this country. I would never think to not stand for the anthem or the flag. I have had brothers die defending that flag. I don’t think it’s right.”
And then I asked permission to ask the tough one, “As a young, black man, what are your thoughts?” He went on to describe where he was from. A place where there are people who could be successful yet chose the easy way of drugs and such. He talked a lot about choices people make.
I thanked him for his honest answer. The next few started by thanking him for his service.
Another student talked about his family being civil servants. “Cops, military, a couple firefighters,” he said. He went on about how not all cops are bad and blamed the media for what they choose to show. Others agreed.
One of the females told a story of profiling in her small town. Others jumped in with personal experiences of racism.
Occasionally the group would yell, “Breathe!” when folks started to interrupt each other. (I was told to breathe a couple times, too).
A few students commented that from now on they will stand for the anthem, even when watching at home.
Much to my joy, there were not any arguments. I watched students from different backgrounds, socioeconomic status’, and race, sit and listen to what each other had to say. They wanted to understand. I wanted to understand.
I wish we could say we solved the problem of racial injustice.
We didn’t. Yet the discourse was a step in the right direction. As educators, we have the platform to get the tough conversation moving. Sometimes we hesitate to go deep when we should.
I wanted to do a writing exercise at the end yet with ten minutes left, I hesitated to stop the exchange. Unbeknownst to me prior, there was a mix of liberals and conservatives, black, white, and Asian, each wanting to be heard and more importantly, acknowledged.
In the end I was awestruck. My students accomplished a conversation on a tough issue in a more mature manner than most politicians.
I sent the following the next day:
Ladies and Gentlemen:
A quick note to say again, how proud I am of each and every one of you.
Yesterday’s class was unique. We came together, practiced open-mindedness, sought understanding, and most important in my opinion, respected each other’s views.
One could say we do that on a weekly basis yet when we get into the hard stuff, respect is often difficult to maintain.
I appreciate everyone who felt comfortable to share their experiences.
We may have only scratched the surface, yet I believe we have assisted each other with more understanding of our fellow students and the world around us. And that, my friends, is the purpose of education.
I am humbled as a teacher and grateful to have you as my students.”
And today I understand more about the race issue, than I did yesterday. In the process of teaching, I was schooled.##