From my t-shirt which displayed the definition of feminine (characteristic of or unique to women), to being the lone voice arguing the pro-choice side in my senior composition class, to creating a panel of career women speakers for our Future Homemakers of America meeting, I didn’t fit in. I felt the sting of unfair and saw it happen to other students in my small white high school.
Obviously, the issues we experienced then are nothing compared to things happening right now: the fear my friend Kim, who adopted two boys from Africa, experiences when a video shows cops handcuffing teen black boys in a park in St. Paul, Minnesota, for seemingly existing. It’s nothing compared to trying to get to a safer environment for your children and being separated, imprisoned and called “animals.” It’s nothing to not having clean drinking water like the families of Flint.
But somehow in that tiny rural town a seed was planted to care about fairness for all, no matter race, income, gender, and so forth. I want to do that for my students.
After mulling the why of this extreme focus on fairness, I've come up with three moments that made a difference to me:
The first? I read. Voraciously. I fell in love as a first grader and never looked back. In reading, and enjoying the hell out of it by choosing my own books, I learned empathy.
Next, I was lucky enough to befriend an Egyptian girl named Salma Elkadi in my first grade class, a Muslim. This fortuitous moment occurred because a hospital in our tiny rural community had visiting physicians from everywhere in the world. We became friends and visited each other's homes. I remember being shocked as I walked past an open door and saw Salma’s mother in her afternoon prayers. I learned early on that different isn’t bad.
Obviously there are more than three but this last one still stings, which is kind of funny when you see what it is.
I ran for president when I was 12. It was an exercise in voting for the sixth graders in 1975, the Ford/Carter election year. I took it very seriously. My dad helped me write a speech about women’s rights and the space program and a strong military. Much of it was his ideas and words but I was already a little feminist having argued for the Equal Rights Amendment on the playground in fifth grade. There was a primary in which I won my party's nomination so it was down two candidates. I recorded my amazing speech on a cassette and it was played for each sixth grade class.
I lost. The winner was a comely auburn-haired football quarterback who’s speech consisted of he and his friends laughing a lot and promising Coke machines in the middle school. The sting of such utter stupidity winning an election sunk into my soul. (This sting was repeated in November 2016 with much worse consequences.) It was because they were cute boys.
I watched teachers allow their children’s friends come to class late without a tardy but not others. A friend said, “Why did you say hello to him? He’s so weird,” when I spoke to the kid with cuts on his arms who was living in a foster home. I hated all of those things.
How does this translate to my classroom and my students?
I start the year with an attitude about my classroom that I share with the students in my “I Don’t Care” speech. I tell them all the things that will not change how I treat them: money, parents, which church they attend, the teacher down the hall's opinion of them, siblings, sports, clothes, etc. Social justice in the classroom. Put your money where your mouth is.
I devise assignments that give them a voice; one they’ve never used sometimes. Sometimes they hate these assignments and want a multiple choice box. Most love it.
I try my best to meet the student where they are, which is the ultimate fairness. No one gets perks for athletics or family. Sometimes a student sits the class out in the peace corner, because LIFE.
I get things wrong sometimes. I apologize.
I'm human. They are human. We are slogging through the mire of the bells ruling our time, the pure insanity of seven hours of back to back to back to back to back to back to back classes, bell to bell ladies, bell to belllll. 30+ bodies in a classroom. 1000+ plus in the halls at passing time. Constant chaos. Whew. How does this ever work? It works, sometimes, when we reach out and acknowledge, "Hey fellow human, how are you?" It works when we don't have tight lesson plans because the discussion of whatever we just read is too juicy and powerful to cut short. It works when we don't forget what unfair feels like and we don't participate in it. Thank god for all those moments I felt the sting of unfair. And I didn't forget.