While most people claim to value honesty, I have come to realize that, ironically, they seem to be lying. The bigger the issue, the more especially true this is. I’ve thought about writing about this several times, but this phrase from a NYT article about middle schools actually got me to do it: “Discussions of damaging stereotypes related to race, gender and sexuality are avoided even though these are the very issues that make middle school students disconnect.”
I know a lot of teachers avoid these discussions, but kids love them. When I teach Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One, one of the discussions we have is about the power hierarchy of South Africa described in the book and how it compares to the social hierarchy in school. The kids really respond, because it’s pretty much the only time an adult asks them about one of the most central issues in their everyday lives. I’m not judgmental about it, and generally, neither are they. The point is not whether some groups are good and some are bad; it is simply about who has the most power and influence and how that affects the overall culture of a school. They get to talk about it honestly, and they have a lot of really good insights.
When I teach books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I don’t tiptoe around race and the history of racism or how that history affects us today. That is, after all, one of the main reasons for teaching that book, as far as I’m concerned. In my contemporary literature class, we read American Born Chinese and we have an unfiltered talk about racial stereotypes—what are they, where do they come from, when do we catch ourselves getting sucked in by them? I openly share times I have caught myself falling into that trap, as well as how I have felt when I have been stereotyped and judged, so the kids feel safe to share honestly, too. It’s another really lively discussion, and it’s always respectful, even though the stereotypes aren’t. Believe it or not, people can talk honestly about prejudice (and even admit to it in themselves) without endorsing it.
What I’ve found is that many people believe you can’t have these conversations and have them be respectful. In short, we can never be honest about any of these topics because we can’t even discuss them. People somehow think that an objective discussion of unpleasant facts or undesirable sociological phenomena can only be an endorsement of these things, rather than an important exploration of them and their effects. But how can you solve problems if you can’t even talk about them?
There was another recent article in The Times about Michelle Obama’s distant white relatives, a branch of the family tree that dates back to the antebellum South and a slave who bore her master’s child. Many members of the white branch of the family didn’t want to talk about it for fear of being called racist. They’re racist by simply and accurately identifying the fact that their ancestor created a child with a slave? That doesn’t say anything at all about their feelings. One woman was interviewed, and she said she hoped the relationship was consensual, because she hated to think that her ancestor had raped a slave, though she knew that often happened. A commenter raked her over the coals for that comment. Why? She admitted that what she hoped was unlikely; she just found the thought of rape repulsive and hated to associate it with her family. Where is the sin in that?
The blog entry I recently wrote about bullying was picked up by The Christian Science Monitor, and the responses there were often assumptions that, just because I’m willing to identify a broader set of issues underlying bullying, because I don’t force people into only one of two categories (“bully” and “victim”), I blame victims and identify with bullies. The truth is, almost nothing fits into one or two simple categories. The commenters who wanted to oversimplify were mostly adults, but kids love these more nuanced conversations because they, themselves, know the realities of their world are complex. It is precisely the adult insistence on simple, black-and-white views that frustrate kids and prevent the real conversations that need to happen. Over the years, I cannot tell you how many kids have told me how much they appreciate my total honestly and comment on the fact that I see things in their lives much more clearly than most adults. Why am I like that? Because I never forgot what it was like to be a teenager and have adults talk down and assume I couldn’t handle complex ideas.
The day after the shootings, asked by Oprah Winfrey to describe the social environment at Columbine, I said we were a largely homogenous school, mostly white and middle class, so the kids were much alike. Because of this, we have very few cliques—it’s mostly one big clique. That, of course, means that kids on the outside are very much on the outside; there are few alternative groups. (Later, many of my students agreed with this assessment.) The next day, a caller on a radio talk show said I was racist, and several others implied that I had no tolerance for kids who broke the mold. Note, nowhere in that description did I say anything about what I thought of these qualities. I only identified, pretty accurately, our demographics. As it happens, I have often bemoaned the lack of racial diversity at Columbine and am glad to have seen that changing over the past decade. I have chosen to teach in the nontraditional programs at school since 1995. I seek opportunities to teach kids who don’t fit the mold. I love them, and often, they love me. Many of them have friended me on Facebook, and there are some I meet for coffee or drinks. (Yes, they’ve stayed in touch long enough that we can do that.)
America is putting a lot of emphasis on skills measured by tests these days, but encouraging kids to really be able to objectively analyze and evaluate their society and their world is every bit as important. If we want what’s best for kids, we should be encouraging these kinds of discussions, not vilifying the people who take them on.