While I grew up in fairly diverse areas, my pivotal high school years were spent in a primarily white town, and my high school, at the time of my graduation did not have one African-American student. However, the town was very close to the diverse populations of the South Side of Chicago, and even my first job, which was less than three miles from said school was extremely diverse, so growing up, I was no stranger to different types of people and cultures.
Now, my first exposure to rap music came in 5th grade as I discovered LL Cool J, and from there I was hooked (you’ll see the connection in a second). I’ll spare you my hip-hop history, but if you ever want to chat about it, I’m more than willing. Long story short, we fast-forward to junior year Eric wearing a shirt with a very large Snoop Dog face on the front. I was leaving speech team practice one fall evening, and as I went out the door to enter the parking lot, a custodian stopped, begrudgingly stared at my shirt, and the following transpired:
Him: What’s that on your shirt?
Me: That’s Snoop Dog.
Him: Looks like a target to me…
His tone, actually, really, and honestly scared me. But I walked on, and I did not stop wearing that shirt. From a young age, I recognized the hypocrisy and bigotry that existed in my community. However, I was certain that as I got older and these ignorant people retired and died off, things would get better. It had to, right? If you are in your late 30’s, you know what I mean.
We know things on the racial front have not died down since the mid-90’s, maybe a little, but the events of the past year have us revisiting the idea that racial inequality and bigotry are still very, very real.
I stopped at an estate sale this afternoon around my old high school, which is now much more diverse, and I overheard a woman, that was browsing declare “Yeah, but those (N-words) keep moving in down the block.” Damn. Just as I thought and hoped things around the old hood had changed, some back-woods Chicago suburbanite had to crash into my day. I honestly could not even look at the woman that was speaking. I turned and left without any hesitation. You can say that I should have confronted her and her archaic beliefs, but I was not up for the battle at that time, and the people in the chat were older…not going to be swayed by a dude wearing an Outkast t-shirt. Seriously, here’s me in the shirt. It’s awesome!
This estate sale experience ignited this blog post. But, let me back up a bit because earlier in the day, looking for a new graphic novel on diversity and acceptance to add to my list of books that I plan on teaching in my graphic novel senior elective this year, I ended up, with the help of fellow comic book teacher Claire, stumbling upon a 2014 graphic novel translated from French titled Adrian and the Tree of Secrets. It’s a book about an intelligent high school boy that’s dealing with his sexuality, and when he finds another boy similar to him, and they get found kissing, the stuff hits the fan. It’s not the best book I’ve read on the topic; it’s good, but I don’t know if I’d order 32 copies for my classroom. But! Even before my run in at the estate sale today, I had a moment where I contemplated the teaching of that book and how it would not only make certain students uncomfortable, but it might even anger parents.
Let me say this right now…the book is innocent. The drawings are simple, and the only bit of nudity is a very small portion of bare butt while one of the boys gets ready to jump into the shower at school after gym class. And nothing really on the language front to worry about here, especially for seniors. Just thematically. There is a part when the boys are kissing that one of the boy’s hands begins to drift south, but the other boy stops him, and nothing happens.
I’ve seem much more questionable material at high school speech competitions, in books that are in the cannon, and during high school plays. This book would not make the inappropriate list compared to some of the things we perform and read at the senior level. Heck, Ronell and I talk about the craziness that is Brave New World all the time!
So what’s the big deal? The big deal is that in 2015, while there is no defending racial bigotry in our society, although it still exists, and some people do strongly believe that it’s OK, there is still a much larger collective that is robustly fighting for anti-LGBT rights and support. I’ve never been one to tell rational people how to think or feel, but having liberal friends and teaching in a fairly liberal community, the story of two boys finding love in each other does not faze me, the story is beautiful and touching (it’s not the content that would keep me from ordering the copies for the classroom, it’s the story-telling, but another time for that), but I know it may affect members of the community. So I put the question to you: to what extent is it our responsibility to teach tolerance of all groups in our classrooms? Of course, I’m going to do my best to prevent ANY and ALL bullying that I see; that goes without saying, but what if a student becomes offended by the book? Should I just offer an alternative text? Is that then singling the student out? Do I just watch what I say while teaching the text? I’m really good at separating my personal views with those of the classroom, and I pride myself in not projecting my views on the kids, but while we recognize that some students will take issue with some hot-button topics, and most of us have discussed how to handle a student that may decide to argue a less popular stance on this type of issue, the handling of such issues, to some extent still befuddles me.
I read this book this morning (I’m currently writing this on Friday night…although it will be published later in the week), and I had the experience at the estate sale this afternoon, so you know why I decided to write about the issues of tolerance all around us in this journal-type entry. These issues still creep into our classrooms whether we want them to or not, and I guess I’m just trying to say that it’s OK if you, as an educator, are still confused by them.
With that said, I’m going to toss this bit of stream of consciousness over to Mr. Whitaker (www.thecomicbookteacher.com) and get his response to my thoughts and ideas. Take it away Ronell:
Thank you, Eric, for giving me this space on your site, and for having the guts to tackle this issue.
I want to start by giving a bit of background about myself, since I think it will help clarify my point of view from this point on. I am the only African-American male English teacher in my district (there are three African-American women in our department), and I am one of two African-American male educators in my building. I can count the number of people of color (including those of mixed racial background) in my building on two hands. I got into education because throughout my primary and secondary school careers I went to primarily African-American schools, but I’ve had ten People of Color as my teachers: four of whom were men, three of whom were African-American, two of whom weren’t gym teachers. I guess I became a teacher because of the fact that I noticed those numbers; I became a teacher so that other little boys could see a bit of themselves in me. And yet, I still write this from a place of privilege. Despite my racial status as a minority, I am a straight, able-bodied, cis (Cis Gender is an association with experiences with the gender in which the person is born) male, and my point of view is still informed by that intersection of privilege.
Eric and I are constantly looking for ways to incorporate literature into our courses that reflect the world outside of our classroom walls, but also reflects the kids we see within those walls everyday. The object is to show kids, through literature, that there is a place for them in this world, and to show them that there are other life experiences besides their own out there. So we choose books like Persepolis, and Lumberjanes, and A.D.: After the Deluge, and Ultimate Spider-Man to illustrate the multitude of human experience out there, and give students the chance to see themselves in the literature. A good reader can get lost in a good story very easily, but when a reader can identify with a character, she can find ownership in that story. Which brings us to the inspiration for this post.
Our current climate is extremely volatile, with everyone’s radar raised and at attention for the slightest bit of opposable action. How does a teacher approach “touchy” material without offending someone? Short answer: you can’t. We teach students to explore and question the world around them, and the thing about questions is if you ask the right one, someone is going to be offended. To answer one of the questions Eric posed earlier, it is completely our responsibility to teach not only tolerance, but acceptance. It is our responsibility to help mold our students into productive members of society, and I can think of no more productive endeavor than to teach students to respect others and themselves. As teachers, our biggest hurdle is our fear. We are afraid to lose control of classrooms, we are afraid students will not respect us if we don’t know all the answers, we are afraid we will offend students or parents, we are afraid we will damage our students, and much of this is guided by our fear of being fired. The thing is, as a privileged member of society, I owe it to my students to get down in the ditches and learn with them. Although I am sympathetic and learning constantly, there are things about the LGBT community or women, or people with disabilities that I will not be able to identify with. So I have to admit that in class when we read something that is outside of my realm of experience, and explore that at the same time as the students. True, we can’t force our beliefs on our kids, but we can model what it looks like when we believe something different. We can model compassion, and understanding, and most of all we can model the constructive way to disagree. Whether you are conservative, liberal, religious, atheist, LGBT, hetero/cis, heck if you’re a Jedi, you need to make sure your students feel safe, and can trust you. Sometimes that means stepping out on a ledge together, and being ok with a little fall.
I’d like to thank Ronell for the amzing words here. Please take the time to follow our blogs and follow us on Twitter. At times, we can be thought-provoking, and at times, we talk about what heroes we’d like to party with!
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Happy reading, everyone!