By nature I am a quiet person, someone who generally goes with the flow of life without making waves. I go about the routines of my life intent on doing so without drawing attention to myself. I doubt that I would ever be noticed in a crowd, which is exactly the way I like it to be. I have the personality of a diplomat, always doing my best to hear all sides of a disagreement and bring people together. Much of my career was spent being a peacemaker between disparate groups. Attempting to be fair, can be a difficult task. There have been times when my efforts to arbitrate not only failed, but also brought the ire of both sides down on me. I’ve had to remind myself that some of the most courageous brokers of peace, like Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were assassinated. Walking the line of attempting to unify people can be wrought with difficulties, and yet it is what I have spent a lifetime attempting to do.
What is a teacher if not someone who shows people how to think and assess without preconceived notions? I have considered it my duty to show my students how to ask questions, do research, consider conflicting arguments and search for truth. Because I was a mathematics teacher much of what I conveyed to my pupils was grounded in long accepted rules and algorithms, but my duties often required me to go beyond the confines of my carefully planned lessons. Every classroom is brimming with the good and bad aspects of humanity that are impossible to simply ignore.
Over the span of my work life I have had to explain the drills for an active shooter situation or stop in the middle of my lessons to calm fears in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. My students have been distracted by the Challenger blowing apart before their eyes or the fear of being deported because they are Dreamers brought illegally to our country as children. Sometimes the issues that I had to address were far more personal like the death of a favorite teacher or classmate. On more than one occasion race became an issue for my pupils and I had to pause my rendering of quadrilaterals and exponents to listen to the raw feelings that poured forth from them. Most recently some of my kids have whispered their worries about Covid 19.
I have never believed that I should be afraid of confronting the concerns of my students or those of the members of my faculty. Sadly in today’s heated political environment there seems to be a trend that discourages honest dialogue. People want teachers to ignore the sincere concerns of students and stick with a canned version of reality that is glossed over without acknowledging the mistakes that we humans have made over time.
If we are ever to become better versions of ourselves we have to confront the truth without fear. We do so not to make anyone feel ashamed, but to demonstrate that we are willing to accept that there have been and still are situations in which one group takes unfair advantage of another. We have to be willing to look at the entire history of the world with an open mind that is intent on learning from the injustices and cruelties of the past that have been perpetrated unfairly on particular people.
I remember a time when there was great tension between rival groups in a school where I worked. I decided to provide my students with a lesson in critical thinking. We read differing accounts of the first shots of the American Revolution. Some were from eye witnesses of the event from both the British and American point of view. Others were from the era but came from hearsay. Finally there were descriptions from historians writing centuries later. My students read each article and we spoke of the possible biases that each contained. We talked about the differences between primary and secondary sources. Finally we had a long discussion of how their thoughts had been changed by looking at the event from differing points of view.
Next we made a big circle and everyone who wanted to speak about the more current troubles within the school had an opportunity to talk, The rule was that we each had to listen and not just be ready to refute the real feelings that would be revealed. By the end of the session the students were admitting to a new understanding of why certain groups felt angry and misunderstood.
We humans are all too often afraid of honesty. We want to look away when we see a problem or point a finger at someone other than ourselves. We boast about being fair and just and then show disdain for anyone who has ideas different from our own. We shout across our divides rather than making a circle and quietly coming to grips with our differing feelings and beliefs. We fear the truth and gloss over the horrors of our past rather than reconciling our ancestral mistakes. We muzzle those who cry, “Wolf!” in an attempt to pretend that all is well. None of us like controversy but if we are ever to reach a level of self-actualization in our world, we will have to be unafraid to follow a vision of truth telling in all things.