“Barricading The Light”
Having been an English teacher in public high school education for the past decade, I thought that I’d learned everything there was to know about how engage young people in the ideas and life lessons that are housed in dusty old texts with names scribbled in them that date back to the students’ grandparents. But my experience in a new community in a new state this year has enlightened me to a concept that transcends all else that I thought I knew about school, about students, and ultimately about myself.
I am of the strong belief that everyone can learn and that, as a result, all students should be exposed to relevant and rigorous curriculum that prepares them to think as individuals. Unstated in this belief is that education will result in greater tolerance because knowledge has color, no belief system, no sexuality; it is accessible to all. Romantic, yes, utopian, perhaps, yet I’ve attempted to teach each student each day practicing this philosophy.
The resistance that I meet from a group of young students in a primarily white, small, semi-rural, relatively economically depressed community in central Oregon has tested this belief system on a daily basis. It would be easy and dismissive to account for the daily racial slurs, homophobic remarks, and anti-Semitic slogans that form the cacophony in the halls and the classrooms of my school by simply regarding it as a byproduct of rural America. In short, “They’re hicks, what do they know?” But these same people go out of their way to be kind to me, to embrace me as a mentor. Yet the ideas, the curriculum, the stuff of school and education, that I try to pass on is quickly dispersed with a shield of defensiveness.
The shield is well-worn and emblazoned with the challenges this community has faced, and it has been wielded by parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, and cousins for whom education was not a fire to be passed on, but an impregnable fortress guarded by large words and large ideas that were not welcomed in a sheltered community. The world, however, has changed for this generation of knights, and simply deflecting education will not necessarily land them in a place where they can perpetuate the current system where, generation to generation, good enough is good enough.
Thus, I believe that the resistance I face isn’t based upon a desire for ignorance; it’s based upon a fear of change. The changes that we’re facing, like those faced all over the country, is that the world is growing smaller, and, as it does, it suffocates those who are unwilling to embrace that which they haven’t known. We are in the midst of a squeeze, and so many of the students with whom I work are on the point of bursting. I will continue to keep my hand on the vise, as I am confident that it is only through extreme struggle that this space will emerge as a place where tolerance and love replace fear and hatred.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.