Monday, September 19, 2016

A Safe Place

I teach kids from every corner of the globe. It's one of the best parts of my job. You never know what stories the kids have, what struggles they've been through, or where they might offer something you've never conceived of before. In short, they're very interesting.

And yet, human nature is such that the most interesting people might carry the most mundane of prejudices. I like people from my country, but not yours. If you don't speak my first language, I'm not speaking to you. Your religion is weird. Why do you dress like that? But they're teenagers, and hopefully they're still open to new viewpoints. I've actually seen kids overcome negative attitudes. I'm thinking of one who's come a long way from last year.

But while prejudices come in and out of vogue, new ones can always replace them. Sometimes I see
teachers vilified in ways that make me think we're public enemy number one. With kids, though, there is a built-in adversarial nature. I understand they might not want to do homework, and I understand they might want to go to the park on a nice day. I might go with them if I had half a chance.

Last week we did an activity related to identity. As part of it, students had to write on the board one thing that they are, and one thing that they are not. One student wrote, "I am not gay." Another, in a gesture he deemed hilarious, erased the word "not." I was going down the list and discussing it with the class when I encountered this.

I was not pleased. I explained to my kids that we are from other parts of the world and from various cultures, and told them that someone, somewhere, hates each and every one of us just for being who we are. I told them that was not acceptable in this classroom. I told them there was no difference between judging someone for being gay and judging someone for being Christian, Muslim, Jewish, black, white or green.

They were a little surprised. Isn't it okay to make jokes about that group of people? Well, not in my classroom it isn't. My classroom is a safe place. No one here will make fun of you for the way you speak English. No one here will make fun of you because you come from this country or that, or even if you come from the moon. No one here will make jokes about your language, your religion, or your family.

I don't remember everything I said because it was kind of a torrent. I expect better from kids in my classes. I expect that we will have the sort of respect for one another here that we may not find out on the street. I expect not to see that kind of attitude in my classroom, and the next time I do we're gonna have a long talk about it when I drag your parents to school.

I don't know, really, how effectively I can unset or remedy deeply held prejudices. But anyone in my classroom who chooses to act on them will find it inconvenient to the extreme. My classroom needs to be a safe place for everyone. My students now know that, all 46 of them, and if they ever fix my class size, I hope even those who move bear this in mind wherever else they go.
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