At St. James, as I’m guessing in most schools and institutions right now, we are looking for new, creative and effective ways to explain and teach the students about equality and diversity. As we all are painfully aware there is a great deal of racial unrest that is happening all around the country.
As a history teacher, this is something that is discussed in my classes a lot. There are a lot of things in American History we are ashamed of, slavery being #1 on that list. But even after slavery was eradicated it was followed by so many shameful things that tried to keep people of color in a form of slavery one way or another. For example, Plessy v. Ferguson was a Supreme Court case in 1896 that set off decades of legal segregation. This case made it legal to have “separate but equal” facilities. This case, which started with a man of mixed race protesting his inability to sit in an all white train car established segregation, a twisted system that remained for a very long time.
As a person with a moral compass, I often teach these shameful pieces of history in disbelief and I’ve been teaching it for nearly 20 years. Nevertheless, the shame and disbelief that some of this stuff really happened and that our federal government sponsored it is always shocking. One would teach the Holocaust or Japanese internment the same way.
How. Did. People. Think. Any. Of. This. Was. Ok?
We will never really have a great answer to that question, other than to know that people believe what they are taught.
I believe hate for others is a learned behavior. Look no further than Westboro Baptist Church just around the corner from here in Topeka, Kansas. The Phelps family did unspeakable things during their time in the limelight. They protested the military and held signs at funerals that said things I can’t even bear to repeat. I remember my first encounter with them on campus at KU. I was headed to Spanish class and what must have been a 5-year old held a sign and yelled at me “God hates fags.”
Being new to Kansas, I got an education that day. Who were these people? Why were they on our campus and what in the name of the LORD was wrong with them?
I felt enormous pity for that little girl who yelled at me and all the other students walking to class that day, because she was only going to get that single story that her family was telling her and that…was really not her fault. A 5-year old cannot decide to stand on a street screaming things at others and holding signs (they can’t even read) that profess hate to all different kinds of people. That hate was something she learned.
At St. James the admin and faculty have been engaged in conversation in the recent years about what we can do to combat systemic racism and promote equality and diversity. We are aware that our population isn’t as diverse as we’d like it but also aware that some of that is out of our control. So…what can we, as a school and as educators do to arm our students with the tools they need to engage in civil discourse in a world that quite frankly, is really confusing.
In conversations with a colleague in recent weeks she was telling me that she was invited to take part in a 21-day challenge through her service to the Kansas City Junior League. This challenge was about diversity, inclusion and equality. The people who did this challenge were sent materials every morning that they were asked to read and reflect on and then they had a zoom call every night for 21 days with their small groups for discussion.
This was not a small time commitment for a woman who has a full time job, a full time family and volunteers in her community. I was so interested to hear more about what she learned and the things they discussed. I think we can all agree, this topic is pretty important right now. One of the things she exposed me to was the greatest TED talk which then led to an incredible conversation with my class and hopefully will give these students meaningful tools to “add to their binder” (a student’s words, not mine) on life.
The talk was from a woman named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian novelist. She talks about the “danger of a single story.” I cannot recommend this talk to you enough. It’s truly amazing.
In this 18 minute talk I was spell bound to every word she said. She talks about her experience being an African woman as a young student at university in the United States. She talks about her experience growing up in Nigeria as a member of the upper middle class and her exposure or lack there of to other African nations and their experiences.
Mostly, she talks about how it is dangerous to see or hear only a single story about any one person, people, place or situation.
While this is not a new concept to me nor one that I haven’t thought about or experienced myself, her words put it in a whole new perspective to me.
When I asked my students how one might perceive me walking through the halls at St. James things like “a strong willed woman who isn’t afraid to go after what she wants…and a little scary” were said. I have to laugh, because I am not a stranger to that description. But, we went on to discuss how while I am a strong willed person and I am not afraid to go after what I want, that I am most certainly not scary. However, the dialogue that a strong willed woman is a “b” (to use my student’s words) is unfair and only tells a singular story and doing so is dangerous.
That singular story of me doesn’t address that I am a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, an athlete, a coach, a mentor, a volunteer, a bleeding heart, a person that has experienced profound loss, or a person who has a lifetime of experience that my student’s could learn from. To only see me or anyone as one thing is dangerous and dehumanizing.
That is what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke to in her TED talk. In her talk, she said many profound things but this one stuck with me, “if you show a people as one thing over and over again, that is what they become.”
Read that again. Please.
I think we can all see the danger in that.
She also said that the problem is not that a story isn’t true, but that the story is incomplete. I love that logic.
This logic immediately made me think of my own mother and people like her. She grew up in a physically and emotionally abusive household with parents who abused substances and she didn’t turn out to be anything like that…quite the opposite in fact. In many cases when people grow up in an environment like that one that cycle of abuse and poverty can repeat itself because that is all that person knows. Likewise, it can also be all anyone saw in my mother…a poor and dirty girl from a bad family.
Instead, my mom met some people, mostly teachers, who saw into her heart and saw her complete story and that she was made for so much more. Those people looked past the singular story of a poor, dirty girl from a bad family and opened up doors for her to become who she was meant to be.
Likewise, I listened to another TED talk this morning on my way to work given by a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church, Megan Phelps, one of Fred Phelps (the founder) daughters. It was amazing to hear her talk about her childhood and how it took her two decades of espousing hate to realize that there was another way to look at the world. She talked about being on a picket line holding a sign she couldn’t even read (I then wondered if she was that 5-year old I saw on KU’s campus).
Megan later left her church, the only thing she knew, and started a new life, one free from all of that hate and destruction. If people only viewed this woman as a former member of Westboro Baptist Church she would have never had an opportunity to turn her life around. Instead, she talks about how people actively engaged her in conversation and asked her difficult and pointed questions, she recalled that this civil discussion led to her decision to leave her family’s church and legacy behind…knowing that the people who raised and formed her would never speak to her again. It tied in so beautifully with Adichie’s talk about the danger of a single story.
Adichie talks about the consequences of a single story and this is what she shares:
- A single story robs people of their dignity.
- A single story makes the recognition of equal humanity difficult
- A single story points out our differences rather than our similarities.
When discussing this all with my students (who watched the TED talk as well) we talked about why we are so quick to accept a person’s single story and the consensus was clear…it’s easier. To really get to know one’s real and full story takes time and effort, something many aren’t willing to do.
Another student commented that when one knows someone else’s full story it makes it much harder for them to view themselves as better than the other and that may be the reason why some people aren’t willing to learn more. We discussed how vulnerability has strength because any relationship is a two-way street, the other person has to be willing to share their story too.
Perhaps the thing that stood out to me most about my student’s reflections on this talk and in our discussion was when they said something to this effect…courage is passed down, you learn it by watching others be courageous. This same student want on to say that going to St. James has allowed stories to matter, this doesn’t feel like a high school, it feels like I came here to be a better person.
Wow. Not going to pretend this didn’t bring a tear to my eye. Also, I should point out that I’m pretty sure this was a direct quote, I was taking notes because I, too, was learning.
Another student said all the stories we learn here (at SJA) and all the stories we will learn in our lives are added to her binder of things to utilize as she grows in life.
GOD I hope so, then I can rest easy at night knowing we are doing something very right.
This discussion, this class, was one of my favorites of all time. We talked about real, important and profound things. We applied Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words to our own life and I listened to a very diverse group of kids talk about their own experiences.
To close class today we talked about how amazing the world would be if we all focused on a person (or people’s) whole story, rather than the singular one.
That sounds like a world I’d like to live in!
I’m so grateful to my friend and colleague who stepped into class at the last minute when a guest speaker cancelled and for sharing this story and her experience with me. I am blessed to work with people who are always challenging me.
I enjoyed this conversation with smart, beautiful and promising young humans today and I really believed that when they left my class today, they were going to look for the whole story, rather than the singular one.
If you are interested in listening to this talk, which I highly recommend, you can find it here…
Or the one about Megan Phelps can be found here…