Understand the Past, Empower the Future

Ashley McCall ’12 teaches third grade at LEARN South Chicago.

This past February, my scholars joined their peers across the country to celebrate Black History Month. Some content was new, some was review, but all of it was acknowledged as a representation of American history as whole. Black history is, of course, a crucial part of American history and should be appreciated as such in our daily living, teaching and learning with our scholars. As my students expand their knowledge about the struggles of the past, they make connections to the injustices they see in their own present: gun violence in the neighborhood; homeless men and women whose humanity is ignored; families ripped apart by court systems. These “lessons” are anything but history.

I have the privilege of teaching some pretty awesome third graders. As bright and inquisitive as they are, they are too young to fully comprehend the complexities and depth of the systemic racism and oppression that pervade our country. Yet they are quite attuned to that something-just-isn’t-right feeling that started to make many of us itch at their age. When we discussed the story of Ruby Bridges and the concept of separate but equal I was intrigued as I watched them grapple and work to make sense of what it meant. Not just the definition but the reality of such a statute. We considered what separate but equal meant on paper in contrast to its true implications and then compared it to the Chicago public school system. We compared it to their neighborhoods. These kids might not yet be able to craft a dissertation but they see and feel the inconsistencies and inequities in their daily lives. These history lessons inform them of a past that continues to impact their present.

As these young people grow up, our task is as urgent as ever. This school year marked the first in which the majority of public school students are minorities. Our generation has a responsibility to work to ensure that each scholar has the opportunity to develop within a system that affirms their identities, recognizes their value, applauds their ingenuity and grants them access to the opportunities they have been denied for far too long.
While the “whites only” signs of the 60s have come down, the reality of separate and unequal endures. Alongside glaring gaps in educational, employment and economic opportunity, people of color in this nation face a variety of subtler, yet no less damaging assumptions and microaggressions. Enthusiasm and zealousness are perceived as aggression; artistic and individual expressions are perceived as statements on behalf of the entire race; promotions and professional recognition are undermined by whispers of affirmative action; children playing games and hanging out are threats and disturbances to the peace.

I used to say that I would never become a teacher. Between the bureaucracies, challenges of partnering with families, ever-changing measures of aptitude, the balancing act of what should be done with what must be done, and heaven forbid self-care, there are plenty of reasons not to. But when I was offered the opportunity I said yes. I said yes to Teach For America because I’ve been trying to make sense of buzz words like “diversity”, “equity”, and “justice” my entire life and education is a platform on which all of them meet. I had the privilege to attend and graduate from a strong high school in the northern suburbs of Cincinnati. It is in the top 5 percent of high schools in the state and yet peers that looked like me still managed to get stuck in unfortunate social and academic situations because of a lack of resources and support. If black and brown students could be failed by a protected, well-resourced suburban school, I could only imagine what the experience was like for my peers in less fortunate situations. I don’t ever want that to happen to my students — I hold them to incredibly high expectations because I want them to be prepared for a world that is not set up for them to succeed.

As a country, we have many long strides to take before we truly achieve justice for all and it starts with truth.

To fix the systemic oppression that has created the gross inequality of the present we must first acknowledge its many faces. It will take the hard, dedicated and honest work of countless leaders and change-makers — some who have experienced these inequities first-hand, others who bear witness from further away. We must work toward long-term, structural changes as well as the immediate, urgent opportunities to change the way our students view themselves and their futures.

As teachers, we play a central role in this. Every day, we can remind children that their thoughts, ideas, identities, questions and opinions are worthwhile. We can share our own stories so that when our students look to the front of the room, they see a little bit of themselves reflected back. We can and we must remind them that they matter; that they always have and always will.