I often joke with my students that the course I teach—English 10—should be re-titled “Doom and Gloom Literature.” We read some pretty heavy texts over the course of the year. We discuss the potential for evil within all of us in Golding’s Lord of the Flies and the dangers of silence in the face of evil as we read Elie Wiesel’s Night.
Each year, when we begin Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, about an African-American man who has been accused of a crime he did not commit, we inevitably have a class-wide discussion about things like prejudice and stereotypes in our culture, and where we draw the line between harmless and harmful beliefs. These statements always lead to a fascinating discussion, but this year, the discussion took on a markedly different tone.
This year, my mostly African-American and Hispanic 10th graders began reading the book the day after a grand jury decided not to indict white New York City police officer Daniel Panataleo in the death of Eric Garner, an African-American man who was placed in a chokehold and died while resisting arrest. One week earlier, another grand jury had decided not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown, an un-armed African-American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.
Where in previous years, it had taken a bit of time for my students to get to a discussion of race, this year, it came up immediately. In one class, two of my African-American students brought up Michael Brown and Eric Garner instantly and passionately shared their frustration with both grand jury decisions. As one boy explained to the class what had happened in both cases, my normally squirrely students became quiet and pensive. One of them asked if anyone remembered what had happened to Trayvon Martin in 2012. In another period, a shy girl gave an impassioned, extemporaneous speech about the existence and prevalence of racism in our country that I can only compare to Linus’ speech about the true meaning of Christmas in the Charlie Brown Christmas movie.
When my students reach me, they’re young enough that they still believe that the world is neatly divided into “good” and “bad,” or “right” and “wrong.” They’re teetering at the edge of innocence and experience as they’re starting to realize that sometimes, good people make awful choices, and sometimes, seemingly hopeless and hard individuals are capable of kindness. Throughout the year, I try to teach my students to always strive to do the right thing in spite of how ugly our world sometimes seems.
At the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, the protagonist, Scout, learns that doing the right thing isn’t necessarily always the easiest thing—but ultimately, it is our duty to think about things from another person’s point of view and to stand up for what it is right, even if—especially if—no one else will. During our discussion, my students arrived at that same conclusion.
That day, I wept on my drive home, my heart impossibly heavy. Aren’t we supposed to be past these kinds of things as a society? Aren’t we supposed to be a society founded on equality, fairness, and justice? How is this still happening?
I became a teacher because I believe in the power of young people to create a better world. I believe that young people possess unhardened hearts; I believe that we must do everything we can as adults to prevent our own hearts from hardening. Why is it that as we grow older, we become complacent? Why do we become indifferent to the unfairness and the injustices we witness on a daily basis? I believe that within all of us is a strong sense of right and wrong, yet oftentimes, we adults are hardened by our experiences, and we lose the empathy that we felt so easily as children.
I fully recognize how easy it is to look at our world and to become cynical and to believe that humans are inherently bad. But I go to work every day, where I work with 15- and 16-year-old young people who are so hopeful about the future. Things haven’t quite caught up with them yet, as Dolphous Raymond says in the book. I hope things never will.