Today Representative John Lewis was speaking at the school where my sister works as a social worker. I took the morning off of work and went along with my sister to hear Representative Lewis speak to a group of middle school and high school students.
This man. He. Is. Inspiration. Embodied.
He and the illustrator of the March trilogy were at the school to talk about their books and their lives and the world that we live in.
Representative Lewis began by telling his story. The incredible story of his life. He spoke of the world he grew up in, the fight that he became a part of and the love that he continues to hold in his heart.
And then he spoke right to the kids. And he told them to have hope. He told them to carry love instead of hate. And then he said words that continue to sit so strongly with me. He told us all, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something, say something and not be quiet.”
I walked away with those words still at the very front of my mind because, though he was speaking to the kids at that moment, it reminded me so very much of our job as teachers.
Whenever I talk with others about the social justice work that I try to do with my students, of the books that we sometimes read, of the conversations that we sometimes have, of the discussions of race and gender and gender identity and racism and Islamaphobia and on and on, the very first question that people often ask is, “What about the parents who get angry? What do you tell them?”
And I think it is a fair question. I think it is important question. But I also think that it is one that should propel us forward instead of holding us back.
I wonder what John Lewis would have said if someone had asked him, “What about the people who you are making angry by trying to fight for change?” Listening to him today, I imagine he probably had an answer much more brilliant than mine. I don’t know exactly what it would be, but I do know this: the question alone, the worry alone, the anxiety over what others might say who disagreed with what he was doing, THAT was never enough to stop him.
And yet. I think it stops us sometimes. A lot of times. The fear of parents, the fear of other teachers, the fear of angry phone calls and emails. I think that sometimes those things stop us before we even have a chance to get started.
Because here is the thing. There is no possible way for me to ensure that parents will not call and be upset by something that I have done in the classroom. There is no possible way for me to ensure that every book that I put into my classroom library will make every family happy. There is no possible way for me to ensure that every conversation that we have in the classroom will make every family happy.
But. That cannot stop me from doing what I believe is best for our kids and then working ALONGSIDE the parents in order to ensure that every child feels comfortable with the work that we are doing.
So, what do I say to the parents who express concern? The truth is that at first I don’t say much. I listen. I work to understand. And then I often explain what led to my decision to do what we did and I work hard to make sure that that answer ALWAYS starts with the kids. The work we do is often in response to comments made by the students themselves. The work we do is always at a level that works for the students in my classroom.
The conversations that we have, they can bring discomfort. Discomfort is what helps us grow and pushes us beyond what we have always done and always known. But it is unfair of me to expect that parents who are not present in the classroom during this discomfort can possibly always understand what led to it and that we walk through the discomfort together as a classroom community. And that we come through it, on the other side, into something incredible and hopeful and beautiful. It is my job to help parents and families and administrators to see that.
And sometimes they won’t. And that is okay. Sometimes I have to be okay knowing that there are people who disagree with me. Who disagree with the work that we do. I have to work hard to take their ideas and thoughts and concerns and use them to grow my own understanding and to always do better for the students who sit there alongside of me. There will be people who disagree with me. And that is uncomfortable. But the discomfort alone cannot stop us.
Because my discomfort. It is so small compared to what was described to me today by Representative John Lewis. He spoke of being grateful that he was able to give a bit of blood during the Selma march in order to help to change the world.
He was grateful to be able to give a bit of blood.
Think about that. The power of that. The power of that one man. And then think about our own task. The work that we can do in our own classrooms with our own students. The work that we can do together.
So know that the objections will come. Be prepared for them. Above anything else, let the families of your students know that you love those kids with your whole heart. First, leave them with no doubt that your primary concern will always be the well-being of your students. Then, dig in. Get used to feeling uncomfortable. Be prepared to have difficult conversations, in the classroom and with families and coworkers and administrators. Seek solace and comfort in others who are doing the work.
And always, always, always think of those who have come before us. Who have put themselves in much greater danger, in much more difficult positions, all in the hope of helping to make the world a better place.
And then keep going.
And keep in mind the words of this great legend and hero, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something, say something and not be quiet.”