What Doesn’t Kill You

The Monday after the mass murder at Pulse in Orlando, FL was also the last day of classes before end-of-year testing began. Attendance was low & classes were loosely structured – test prep, last minute grade savers, can I please just read my book? I had thought about the shooting all weekend, but I had no words yet. 
I teach students who are newcomers to the US, who have immigrated from countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America. Many of my students practice Islam. Many look like the Latinx clubgoers who were attacked at Pulse. Many come from places where governments are corrupt, violence is public & frequent, where homosexuality is considered a capital offense, where gay people are proclaimed subhuman. 

I only spoke to one of my students about the shooting. L brought it up to me, asking if I’d heard about it. I braced myself for a conversation about homophobia & respect; L is the kind of student whose anger & desire for attention manifest in making deliberately hateful comments for their shock value. I was raw & stinging underneath my skin, angry beyond coherent words, & I wasn’t sure I could be calm enough to handle what he might throw at me. 

I told him: Yes. I heard about it. It made me so angry, & scared. 

L was quiet for a moment, looking at me thoughtfully. Then he said, This stuff isn’t supposed to happen here. 
A friend of mine, another high school English teacher, confers with her students after their daily freewrites by asking them what they have written about & jotting quick notes in her log. On Monday, one of her 9th graders told her, I wrote a list of reasons why people who don’t know me might try to kill me. 

How am I supposed to write that down for my conference notes? she asked me. How do I even begin to say something that matters to that student? 

& she told me, she shared that story with a few friends, some teachers & some not. One of the fellow teachers said, Oh, 9th graders are so dramatic. 

I have made the same list. More than once. 
Who I teach & what I teach, & who I am, brings me often to the intersection of politics of language, identity, religion, culture, feminism, & more. I’ve heard a lot of frustrations that adults feel about “politically correct” thinking & language – that words will not change feelings & ideas, that these are band aids on broken bones, that oversensitivity is going to raise our children to be weak & useless. I have heard teachers use justify their refusal to bring issues of race, gender, & sexuality into their classrooms. To them, I say that I don’t think it’s about us, necessarily; it’s about the younger generation we have a hand in raising. Maybe the words I use & those I choose not to use will do nothing about my own cynicism, my apathy, my held biases. But 10 years of teaching has shown me the power of words & how they influence mindset, openness, & thought. When I ask myself what I want my students to learn & take away from my classroom, it is never my lack of faith in humanity. If we want them to do & think & live better, then we have to teach them how. 

Some people like that. Many do not. But it’s not about us. 
Right now, teachers are being discouraged from talking about the massacres & murders of their students’ time. Sometimes, it is test pressure. Often, it’s that teachers aren’t trained or prepared to have these conversations. Sometimes, there are direct orders from administrators, or protests from parents who do not want teachers pushing political agendas on their children. 

Passing a test cannot be more important than becoming the kind of adult who has agency & knows how to maintain it, who both wants & can plan how to improve their world. 

We need to accept that educators need to be trained – really taught & practiced at – teaching through trauma, even more than they need a scripted & leveled curriculum. 

& maybe part of our problem is that people consider teaching students that everyone is human, everyone deserves recognition of their humanity, is a political agenda. 

I don’t have any answers, any profundities to share about the victims of this massacre, or of any other. I am not adept at teaching this way or bringing the real world into student discussions, with getting over or going through my own fear. I have only the dread I carry deep in my belly, dread that my students navigate a world that sees them as less & less than what they are, that reduces them to slivers of their identities & judges them. That dread, that fear that I will walk into my classroom to find another of my students has been murdered or attacked because of their ethnicity, their clothes, their sexuality, their neighborhood. That, the certainty that we can & must do better, & an aching raw wound for a heart. It still works, though. 
A prospective teacher in my friend’s graduate class once confessed to me that she was just not comfortable putting any LGBT-themed books in her future classroom library. “I’ll just set some aside for a student who is dealing with…that issue,” she said, flustered. 

“What if you don’t know?” I asked. 

She looked confused, like maybe I was not as smart as she had thought, like, how would she not be able to know? 

“I mean, what if you have students who are hiding themselves & too scared or feeling too alienated to express themselves, or students who are even in denial themselves? How can you know what they need if they’re hiding it from you & everyone?”

She shook her head. “Um…”

“& what about your other students?”

“What do you mean?”

“Shouldn’t they learn that gay people are normal, that they’re teenagers who do all sorts of teenager-y things, like have favorite music & fights with siblings & best friends & crushes & everything?” Shouldnt they all learn that being a different kind of person doesn’t make anyone less of a person?
It’s not about us. It’s about our students, their futures, & doing right by them. If it’s about anything else, then isn’t it part of the problem? 

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6 thoughts on “What Doesn’t Kill You

  1. Thank you for this. It’s also about all the teachers who are hiding as well, who can’t be fully joyful in their humanity while they’re teaching for fear that someone’s parent will object to their mere being.

    This week, as a member of the LGBTQ community, it was hard and terrifying to walk around in the world. When other teachers asked me how to talk about this in their classrooms, I said, what we really need you to do right now is be an out ally. Say to the kids in your classes, “this made me so sad and mad and scared because my (fill in the blank) is gay, and I love them and I’m so scared other people hate them and might hurt them.” When teachers are out about the queer people they love, it gives kids permission to be out about their own queer loved ones, and begin to be more compassionate in the world.

    • Yes, this. Being visible as someone who loves LGBTQ people has been an important part of my role as a teacher all year. It’s how I have addressed homophobic language or jokes in classes & one on one, & how we have framed things like ‘respect for all’. I’ve said to students that we don’t know what someone else’s life is like, & how you’re affecting them when you make fun of or express hate toward people they love. I’ve told them that I have dear friends & family who are gay & I love them, I don’t want them to ever experience hate or violence. Thank you for reading this & sharing these words. I love you & I’m with you. ❤

  2. Beautifully put, P. Thank you for your mind, your heart, your advocacy. I had a similar experience and took the last few minutes of each class to talk about perspective and that I was feeling very sad… to give some space for talk…just small group as I roamed around. My other significant factor is the predominance of muslim students who are beyond numb. It’s Ramadan and they’re immersed in religion every moment. I’ve learned that forgiveness is a tenet of this time of year – and one student looked at me with saucer eyes beneath her hijab as we spoke, just shaking her head, unable to speak the depth of the scars. Thank you again – to speak up now is the only weapon!

  3. Thank you for, as always, thoughtfully speaking about important issues in the classroom. And thank you support group Jen and Christy! I too, try to make this part of all of our realities. I tell them about my daughter and my brother-in-law and all my friends who I worry so about. We can let them see sad but we also need to show light. That they can be change agents. I became a teacher after the events of 9/11. I worried so much about what we were saying to children and what they were thinking about the world-

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