I believe one person can make a difference in this world, but I also believe that the survival of the human species depends on a universal commitment to understanding and helping one another—especially when it isn’t easy to do so. It was my 8th grade US History teacher, Mr. Gray, who helped me see this.
Mr. Gray was way ahead of his time. When we studied the Civil War, he divided our class into owners and slaves, conducted a slave auction, and those of us who were the owners had to force the slaves to do tedious work (like copying pages from our textbooks). Then we had to write about how we felt in our respective roles and had a classroom dialogue about the experience. I thought the sun rose and set on him. He opened my eyes to the ugly realities of racism and taught me to have the courage to speak up when I know something is wrong. In short, he laid the groundwork for my future as an activist.
The one time Mr. Gray did not allow me to speak out occurred on a field trip. I detested one of the boys in my class (who I’ll call Bobby) because he was just plain mean. While we were on our way home from our excursion, Bobby was reprimanded by Mr. Gray for something and called him “the N-word” in response. I jumped up, ready to tell Bobby exactly what I thought of him, when Mr. Gray grabbed my arm and told me to sit down. He went to the back of the bus and quietly talked to Bobby. I don’t know what he said but, being thirteen, I was still fuming later when I blurted out, “How could you let him get away with that?” Mr. Gray eventually explained Bobby’s home situation wasn’t good—that his father was abusive—and he’d been trying to do something about it. He told me, “Timberlake, sometimes you have to try to understand why a person appears to be hateful. Try not to judge someone until you try to see life through his eyes, until you’ve ‘walked a mile in his shoes.’”
Unfortunately, in 1972 authorities weren’t very quick to respond to reports of abuse. A couple years after the field trip incident, Bobby’s little sister shot their father while he slept because he had beaten their mother.
Mr. Gray’s words profoundly affected me. I felt bad that I had not even tried to understand why Bobby was so mean, and later I was angry that no one had listened when our teacher had tried to prevent a tragedy. However, over the years, our conversation has affected the way I think about other people, the way I parent, the way I teach. Although I had other good teachers, no other educator has taught me so much about what is right or what is important. He was honest, he was caring, and he made me believe I could change the world.
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