“Out of the Mouths of Babes”

by Alicia Brummeler

This past year The Stony Brook School made a concerted effort to create additional opportunities for dialogue and teaching surrounding issues of race and cross-cultural relationships. In the fall, the School named Kris Ryan the Director of the Frank E. Gaebelein Office of Equity and Inclusion. In January, the School designated a week devoted to diversity issues with the theme “Building up Community: Understanding Privilege, Relating with Empathy, and Acting on Justice.” The week culminated with a Chapel talk by Dr. Reggie Williams, assistant professor of Christian ethics at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

The value of these “formal” teaching times and break-out discussions cannot be underestimated. But as every educator and parent knows, there will be times when a question occurs “in the moment” that isn’t part of a set curriculum or a planned conversation. Recently, I had one of these moments.

One of the highlights of my job as a Middle School English teacher is to teach the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Who better to teach privilege, empathy, and the pursuit of justice than Atticus Finch? With his winsome, yet dry style, he teaches Jem and Scout how to be a generous host, even when the guest pours syrup all over his food. He teaches empathy by encouraging his children to consider the other by “walking around in his shoes.” He models the pursuit of justice when he defends Tom Robinson, a black man, knowing the chances of favorable outcome are improbable.

On this particular day, our class was working through chapter nine. Scout seeks clarification from Atticus about whether or not he defends “Negroes.” Atticus responds by telling her, “Of course I do.” In addition, Scout learns that he plans to defend Tom Robinson in his upcoming trial. From a corner of my classroom, one of my international students asked what a “Negro” was. For the briefest of moments, all of the students were completely silent. Then one of my African American students quipped, “It’s me!” and pointed to her arm. Some nervous laughter followed, along with some uncertain glances shot in my direction.

Pausing for a moment to collect my thoughts and take a deep breath, I explained it was common in the south in the 1930s to refer to African Americans as “Negroes” or worse. I added that when a person refers to someone else solely by his or her race or religion it can be derogatory. For added impact, I pointed to one of my caucasian students and said, “We don’t say ‘Hey, white girl,’ when we address a person.”

To be honest, I am not sure I handled this situation perfectly. Should I have said more? On-the-spot situations like this one  tend to make me nervous. I want to be prepared and give thoughtful answers. In this moment, I didn’t have the luxury of a planned lesson with carefully crafted responses. This holds true for me as a parent too. With two teenagers, I find that many of the “challenging” conversations I have are unplanned. Inevitably, just as I am sitting down to work or when I am most tired, a question is asked that can’t be answered with a pat response. Sometimes, I tell my children I need to come back to the conversation when I have had time to think and collect my thoughts. This is true in the classroom as well. What could be more appropriate than to follow up with my students and discuss why our words matter?

Diversity Week and intentional conversations about race and cross cultural relationships are crucial. With the recent events in Baltimore, how more timely can this topic be! In addition, we send a message when we devote time and resources to these subjects. In addition, part of my job as a parent is to train and educate my children. This requires intentional conversations and spending time together. However, over the years I have learned to approach teaching and parenting with a “both and” approach. Yes, spend time planning lessons or having planned conversations and keep your ears open for the comment or question from the corner that perhaps will spark a conversation.

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