I had the pleasure of facilitating a student leadership conference yesterday helping participants grapple with the difficult conversations of race relations in their home schools. My school sent a contingency of three black students, two white students, and one Asian student, and there were ten other schools participating, with more than 75 students in attendance in total. It was a great opportunity to have some difficult and honest conversations about the role race plays in our specific school settings.
One of the most challenging things was hearing students from all schools express frustration about the lack of support they get for the sustainability of their initiatives. They come back from conferences like this filled with ideas and enthusiasm, and most of them will get something started in their home schools, whether it’s something simple like celebrating Black History Month in February or planning an assembly highlighting diversity. The issue though is institutionalizing these endeavors so that they do more than checking a box. Did we cover diversity this year? Check. Should we cover it next year. We’ll see.
In my nearly fifteen years as an educator, I’ve seen lots of interesting proposals come from colleagues and students about how to improve the dialogue around race in schools, and I’ve watched as the really great ideas produce meaningful experiences for the stakeholders involved…and then I watch how the following year we start from scratch, sometimes acting like we solved the problem and sometimes acting like we have no idea what we could do to address it. Several years ago, a group of teachers organized an assembly at my school celebrating diversity; a teacher spoke about his experiences coming out, a black female student detailed her feelings about never being asked out by a white student, and a freshman girl bound to a wheelchair explained what her daily life is like. After that assembly, I remember my classes had the richest discussions about diversity we’ve ever had. And then we haven’t had an assembly like it since.
This isn’t really the fault of any individual or policy; it’s the nature of education I think. We live in these cycles where one quarter of our clientele changes every year so that at the end of a four-year period we are dealing with a population that has no institutional memory longer than three years. As teachers, we get caught up in this too. The amazing veterans who have retired fade from our mind as we struggle to bring the newbies up to speed, and the amazing crew of students we had last year dissipate from our consciousness as they are replaced by a hundred new faces.
This idea of solidifying great ideas happens even on a small scale in the classroom. I will teach a lesson that is amazing one year, and then the following year, I’ll forget how awesome it was and try to reinvent the wheel, only to remember that I had some ready-made hour of teaching buried in my computer’s file folders. (I’m insanely organized, so I have to admit that this doesn’t happen that often, but it does happen on occasion.)
In any event, I did give our students at the conference yesterday a list of the things that I feel have been successful in the past even though they never got to experience them themselves. Initiatives like this are all the more powerful when they are student driven, and guiding a group of students to make the right choices each year is exhausting for whatever adult ends up taking on the role of mentor.
But the reason I continue to do this work in anti-racist educational practices is because it does matter; it matters a lot. I think I need to ask Siri to remind me that it matters every Monday morning so that I don’t forget. It is the privilege of teaching where I do, where most of my students are white and middle class, that I can get away with focusing in on the symbolism of Holden’s red hunting hat instead of the ways in which the expectations of his affluence contribute to his depression. I can work hard at drawing connections between the great literature I teach and the social problems of the world today, and sometimes I’m just really tired, especially when I’m merely planting seeds that won’t flourish in these students until well after they leave my classroom. I need the reminders to give me energy to keep pushing even when I’m exhausted and the students seem apathetic.
Yesterday was that reminder, so Siri can take the day off tomorrow.