Have you ever walked in the same hallway every day -- or driven from point A to point B -- without remembering how you got there, who you passed, or what you saw?
As I prepare for Mix It Up at Lunch Day, I continue to see things and people that were once invisible to me.
One morning not long ago, before the start of school, I saw two students sitting on the main stairway, glanced, smiled, and kept on walking. As the days passed, I realized those two students sat at that same spot, as they did every morning, in the middle of the main stairway, to themselves. Finally, I started making conversation. I introduced myself, asked what grades they were in, what their ambitions were. They are two African American 11th grade sisters.
As I spoke to them, and really began to see them, it struck me: how many students are “invisible”? How many people in our school, adult and students alike, have blindfolds on? As we built our relationship, I began to ask my new friends some questions -- particularly how two African American students in a primarily Arab American school were viewed. (I work at Fordson High School, in Dearborn, Mich., where more than 90 percent of the student body is of Middle Eastern descent.) Thus began our journey to recruit a diverse student population for Mix It Up at Lunch Day.
I began to look “at” instead of “through” the school’s population. I found other teachers who wanted to be part of the project. The next step was to have a meeting with teachers and a diverse group of students.
We brainstormed ideas for the Mix It Up Lunch. Our challenge: How do we make the invisible visible? We have three lunch hours. We also have access to lists from teachers to help us pick student advisors: athletes, bilingual students from the English as a Second Language program, musicians from the band and choir, and students with special needs.
Our plan for Mix it Up at Lunch Day was to assign every table a student to facilitate. We brainstormed different icebreakers for students to use with others at their table. What would you rather have, a car without a license, or a license without a car? If you could be an animal, what would you be and why?
Another activity for the students is to circle up, with one participant in the middle, and ask such questions as: “If you’re like me, and you like pizza, switch positions.” Students could not go to the same spot, and whoever did not find a spot had to go to the middle of the circle and pose the next “if you’re like me” question.
We are meeting weekly with the student/teacher advisors to run through the exercises, find a room large enough to host Mix It Up Lunch and secure the lunch menu.
For everyone who feels overwhelmed preparing for Mix It Up at Lunch Day, my advice is to empower the students. They have ideas, thoughts, ambition and the ability to see what’s really going on. Advise them, encourage them and nourish their ideas. They teach me, and not the other way around.
Today is the 11th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard. I don’t think anyone can contemplate this date without a mix of strong emotions. But for me, the date always brings a special blend of anger, shame and guilt.
Many people will use this day to commemorate the life of Shepard, a 21-year-old who was brutally murdered in a hate crime in Laramie, Wyo. Many will remember the people in Laramie who spoke out against hate and homophobia after Shepard’s death. Their efforts snowballed, inspiring a movement that led to the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act which is now before Congress.
That’s what most people will remember. But I’ll remember Billy Jack Gaither, who was murdered just a few months later in Sylacauga, Ala., not far from my hometown.
Unlike Laramie, Northeast Alabama reacted to this anti-gay murder with an uncomfortable silence. Gaither’s friends and at least one local pastor spoke out about the crime. But for the most part, rural Alabamians turned and looked away. Many people didn’t even want to talk about the fact that Gaither was gay.
Looking back, I see that I was part of the problem, part of the silence. At the time of Billy Jack Gaither’s murder, I was working for a newspaper not far from Sylacauga. Sylacauga was outside our “coverage area,” so we let Associated Press report the story for us.
But as a reporter, I felt that the lack of local outcry was a story in itself. My editors told me I could run with my story if I could find an angle in Etowah County, where my beat was.
I struggled with the story for weeks, but it died before publication. It died because the gay community in my area didn’t have a public face. It died for lack of strong straight allies to speak out. And it died because the reporter didn’t push hard enough – because I was afraid I would cross the line from journalism to activism.
I’m not proud to be part of the silence that surrounded the death of Billy Jack Gaither. But it taught me some things. If we want to respond in the right way to acts of hate, we need more than just a conscience. We need spaces where LGBT issues can be discussed. And we need to have the courage to step outside our professional comfort zones, and take the risk of being considered an “activist.”
Every day at Teaching Tolerance, I hear from teachers who are doing those things. On this sad anniversary, I just want to say thanks to all of you. When you’re doing the work, you may not feel like you’re having a great effect. But, when that work isn’t being done, the silence is deafening.
When my daughter was three, she showed up at preschool without her normal braids or twists, her glorious afro present for all to see and celebrate. Her little peers didn’t respond kindly though; they chimed in instead — quite loudly — with criticism: “What’s wrong with Zoe’s hair?”
Some might fault my partner and me for placing Zoe in a nearly all-white preschool. We welcome, and understand, that criticism. And yet, as Zoe has entered kindergarten, in a school that’s nearly a quarter African American, her lived experience hasn’t changed all that much. Tears greeted me on a recent Wednesday along a familiar theme: Other children had teased her that day about her hair.
What fascinates me about all of this isn’t so much how my child is “different.” (She’s not “different” to me.) What draws my attention is that her peers seem so predisposed to examine the “other” — overlooking the ways hair connects us as human beings.
This is among the reasons I am thankful to Teaching Tolerance for affording this opportunity to present three lessons about what unites us, and can divide us (if we’re not careful), when it comes to hair:
For young children whose classrooms are based around learning centers, there is Who Has Hair? (Pre-K-Grade 2). This comprehensive unit, featuring an original picture book, is crafted around the premise that all mammals have hair. It builds on literacy goals, extends to science and arts activities and introduces preliminary service learning.
For upper elementary students (grades 3-5), there is Caring for Hair, a language arts and health lesson that helps students understand the diverse ways human beings — male and female, of color and not — groom hair.
For middle- and upper-grades students, we get to the pesky issue of who should have say about our hair — and why. In Should Your Hairstyle Be a Constitutional Right?, students examine school policies that dictate hair grooming, in the context of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
As Shana Alexander, the first woman staff writer and columnist for Life magazine, put it, “Hair is terribly personal, a tangle of mysterious prejudices.” Let us bring those mysteries to the forefront — and discover what we share in common.
The beginning of the school year is always filled with excitement, but this year our school initiated a project that is still taking on a life of its own.
My school, Scarsdale Middle School in Westchester, New York, embarked on a journey to bring peace and empathy to our school culture. The school celebrated International Day of Peace, which was established by a United Nations resolution in 1981.
This day provides an opportunity for individuals, organizations and nations to create practical acts of peace on a shared date. Our school created a peace promise that all the students signed, stating that they will “lay down their weapons of hate”, which meant that they will try to empathize with others and think about how their words could hurt someone else. We are trying to educate our students on the negative impact that words like “[that’s so] gay” or “retard” have in our school and in our community.
My 300 students also created a giant peace sign that we assembled on the front lawn of the school. The peace sign was made out of paper pinwheels. Each student created a pinwheel that was designed to communicate to others what peace means to them. It was a beautiful sight. We are hopeful that this promise of peace will set the tone for the year and possible change the culture of our school forever.
On Nov. 10, 2009 we will be participating in another day of peace -- Mix it Up at Lunch Day. We are looking forward to the day, which will continue our theme of empathy and peace. Mix It Up at Lunch should not be just “one day.” It should be the start of something that your school should cultivate throughout the school year.
The Mix It Up Day conversations and activities should continue throughout the school year with the hope that it will change your school culture into a nurturing and safe environment for all.
How are you planning to make Mix It Up a year-round event at your school?
A couple of nights ago, I took my daughter to Chuck-E-Cheese, a tradition of ours when her other mother is out of town. We play skee-ball to win long rows of tickets that we later exchange for plastic toys and stickers. We play — it’s our way of lessening how much we miss the Mom who’s not with us.
This particular evening something besides the blinking lights of games caught my eye, though.
A group of women in hijabs had gathered to celebrate the birthday of one of their children. They chatted and smiled and boxed away the balloons that kept floating into their faces. Laughter came from their table quite frequently.
This isn’t an unusual sight in our area of Denver, Colo. We interact with women in hijabs and men in galabiyyas in restaurants, at museums, in the park, at the grocery story and in my daughter’s school. We are neighbors; we share community.
On that night, though, these women stood out for a single reason: Najibullah Zazi had just been arrested here on federal terrorism charges.
My mind raced: Did those women know him, that man accused of conspiring to set off bombs in New York on the anniversary of 9/11? Could one of those women be his wife? Could one of those children be his child? “Fear! Disgust!” That’s what my brain said to me.
I’m not proud of these thoughts, these automatic connections I made between a group of Muslim women happily celebrating a child’s birthday and an accused terrorist. And yet, my mind made them. It was an implicit response. And it was bigoted.
Judging by the behavior of other Chuck-E-Cheese patrons that night, I wasn’t the only one passing judgment. The place was packed — yet every table around these women remained vacant, two rows deep. No one — not a single soul — sat next to them.
Neither did we. I’m not proud of that, either.
In all honesty, my child didn’t notice any of this. She was fixated on skee-ball — getting that little wooden ball up into the hole worth 100,000 points — and feisty with her mother for serving her a heaping salad alongside a single slice of pizza.
But I noticed it all, my own reactions and the reactions of others. And I know that’s why my daughter and I read My Name Is Bilal as our bedtime story that night. Certainly, it was an effort to soothe my conscience, but it also was a small step toward creating the possibility that my daughter, faced with a similar situation at my age, might have a different response.
Perhaps she, when grown, might ask for a seat, share in their laughter, honor their resilience — and celebrate a child’s birthday.