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.
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.
During the fourth week of school, the form came home, stuffed into my daughter’s backpack:
Your student scored a XX on his/her DIBELS literacy test, administered this Fall/Summer. Based on this score, your child will be placed in Open Court Level XYZ [with] TEACHER A...
My partner and I knew when we selected this kindergarten that grouping wasn’t just used in the school, it bordered on being a core value. A mandate to use ability grouping had been written into its original charter. This emphasis was a major negative for us, but a long list of positives more than balanced it out.
I thought I had made peace with it.
When the sheet finally came home though, I cried — and my response had nothing to do with how Zoe placed. Whatever way, I’m confident about my child’s curiosity, desire to learn and willingness to work.
I was sad because I knew Zoe and her little homeroom peers worked really hard to get to know each other and create a new and shared community during those first weeks of school, and now they’d be divvied up for sizable parts of their day. I was sad, too, because these young children, just five years old, had entered the world of testing and assessment, and would probably never experience education without it again. It’s a rite of passage that sometimes can suck the joy and love right out of learning.
There was a queasiness behind my tears, too, a queasiness that stemmed from the years I spent on staff at Teaching Tolerance developing tools help educators improve instructional practice, particularly with students of color like my daughter.
Ability grouping is among the practices the Initiative interrogates. Done badly, or too rigidly, (some researchers would say, done at all), it not only can stifle learning among students (regardless of their grouping level), but also can stigmatize children and bolster stereotyping.
Zoe’s school embraces grouping for the right reasons. Its entire academic program is designed to challenge every learner and close the achievement gap. The administrators and teachers are dedicated to providing the best possible instruction for the children in their care. They believe grouping supports these goals.
Further, they’re well aware that grouping is no panacea. They know the downsides and work to apply emerging research, and their own experiences, to better meet the needs of students. A recent change within the community, for example, was to abandon the term “ability grouping” in favor of “performance grouping.”
Although this may seem a matter of semantics, it’s an important shift. “Ability” conveys a fixed mindset: children come with innate and static capacities for learning and achievement. “Performance” recognizes that what teachers are actually doing is measuring students on how they are currently responding to a certain set of tasks.
This is a line of inquiry I certainly support, as a parent and as an educational advocate. And I trust these educators’ motivations and respect them as professionals.
So why won’t this queasiness in my stomach go away?
“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” These few words, spoken casually by Sonia Sotomayor at the annual Mario G. Olmos Law and Cultural Diversity Lecture at UC-Berkeley in 2001, came back to haunt President Barack Obama’s nominee for the United States Supreme Court during the spring and summer of 2009. Hard to believe that this brief statement could cause such anguish, particularly among the conservative white senators who form part of the Senate Judiciary Committee, yet they led to days of arrogant grilling by the Senators and weeks of newspaper articles and commentary by television pundits speculating on what Sotomayor meant, whether it would hurt her confirmation, and what it would signal for the new court.
As a Latina (yes, I try to be wise too), and specifically, a Puerto Rican, as well as a namesake of our newest Supreme Court Justice who is also Puerto Rican, I was tremendously proud when President Obama nominated her. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, my story is not very dissimilar from hers, although of course she has reached professional heights that few have. But I connected with her story because it is the story of so many Puerto Ricans, particularly of our early experiences. Many of us lived in some degree of poverty, went to run-down schools, and had dreams of overcoming the hand that we had been dealt. Many of us experienced the surprise, if not incredulity, on the part of our teachers and professors that we were smart, and had a handful of teachers who truly believed that we were. Many of us had parents who believed fiercely in the “American Dream” and worked endless hours every day to achieve it for us, if not for them. Many of us, in a word, have “lived that life,” a life that has informed our worldview, our decisions and our moral judgments. How could it be otherwise?
Yet for some politicians and pundits, Sotomayor’s comments incurred outrage. They carried on for weeks about how her comments were ethnocentric and even racist. It seems that some people simply could not conceive that one’s background should have an effect on one’s life, decisions, and values – which brings up the question: Do politicians make decisions without the benefit of their life experience? Do their backgrounds carry no weight whatsoever in their judgments? It’s hard to believe that only this particular sub-class of individuals, Republican senators, are always completely impartial, that their lives, often of privilege and comfort, have no impact on their work as senators. Likewise, it is implausible that white male Supreme Court justices, in deciding cases that would have a direct impact on women and people of color, were not in the least influenced by their lives as non-people-of-color and non-women. In making judicial decisions about desegregation, affirmative action, women’s reproductive rights and other sensitive issues, it is equally improbable that the Supreme Court justices’ lack of experience with these matters would not enter into their deliberations. Are white males the only people on earth who have no preconceived ideas and, yes, even biases? This is what is most difficult to believe.
No one should use their life experience as the only criterion for decision-making, and this is where wisdom comes in. Wisdom is certainly something to strive for, and wisdom comes not only from books but also from life experiences. From everything I have seen and heard, Justice Sotomayor has made an effort to combine both of these in her deliberations and decision-making. She also made it clear, both before and during her confirmation hearings, that in spite of her upbringing and life experiences, she aspires to impartiality and fairness. This is as it should be, and at least she was more honest than some of her judicial counterparts in articulating that it is often a struggle.
As schools open this month, I hope that teachers take the opportunity to begin a conversation about the Sotomayor confirmation and hearings, and that they invite their students to share their thoughts and feelings about this momentous event. I hope too that teachers frame this conversation as part of the larger American story of struggle and achievement on the part of the dispossessed. It is a noble story, one that is not yet over. And that is why it is important, and necessary, that we now have a wise Latina on the Supreme Court.
Sonia Nieto is a noted education scholar and co-chair of Teaching Tolerance’s Teaching Diverse Students Initiative (TDSi) Advisory Committee.