Lies Our Students Tell Themselves

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Part of the 'Why I Teach' series

"I'm too poor and too black."

That's what one student told me not long after I started teaching here in Selma, Alabama. He didn't beat around the bush, and I wasn't just reading some subtle message into his behavior. He said it plainly — that he was "too poor and too black" to make it in this world.

I hear statements like that from my students far too often. They have opened my eyes to the battle I face every day. As teachers, each time we step into the classroom we vow to fight the lies that hold our students down.

I've been immersed in the culture of Selma for the past 15 months. The world knows Selma as a focal point of the Civil Rights Movement. Presidents and presidents-to-be have come here to commemorate the city's role in the struggle for equal voting rights.

Despite the city's prominence in the public eye, progress in Selma is slow. This racially and economically divided town exemplifies the need for change, the need for social justice and the need for healing.

I teach in a rural, all-black school just outside of town. My students are hopeful yet disillusioned, free yet held down, youthful yet already grown. Many live at or below the national poverty line, have faced racial struggles, and can relate to at least one of Langston Hughes' deferred dreams. On the way to work I pass a golf course, one that even in the year 2008 is closed to blacks, and therefore to all of my students.

Yet it's not so much the racist minority in the community that disturbs me. What disturbs me is the mindset I see in many of my students who — subtly — seem to believe that they are inferior, that their life options are limited, that they are unworthy of their own hopes and dreams. Statements like "too poor and too black" hint at a belief in the lie.

Here, the enemy comes in the form of that mindset. In your neighborhood, students may suffer from other toxic lies, ones no less damaging — lies of sexism, economic power, religious bigotry or intolerance toward anyone or anything different. No matter what their form, there's only one way to counter these lies: by changing lives, one mindset at a time.

On a recent field trip to the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, I saw an immediate change in the mindset of many of my students.

Take "Jack," for example. Just a few days earlier, Jack had made a derogatory comment about gays. As we walked the hall dedicated to contemporary issues, however, he was the first to announce, "We have to treat everyone right, no matter what!" This unexpected remark came as a response to a story about a hate crime directed at a gay man.

Then there's "Alfred," a student with a sweet smile who tries to put on a rough exterior. On the ride home, I looked at him and stated, "You are not the thug you pretend to be." We talked candidly, and he said he realized that he is a better person than the tough-guy act he had created. I saw that spark in him and a big, soft heart. Since the trip, Alfred has been one of the best-behaved and most motivated students in class.

There's also "Daneka" who talked about her commitment to being different, to going to college and to helping others.

What changed and inspired these kids? It was simply information — information about their own history, and information that led to a greater understanding of those who are different from themselves. Information that sorted the truth from the lie.

It wasn't just data in a textbook. It was real information my students could relate to. Information about social justice. If you aren't teaching social justice and tolerance, you aren't really teaching at all.

A little education can change a mindset, and when the mindsets change, futures change. That student who, a year ago, was "too poor and too black" to go to college has just been admitted to Samford University — his dream school.

By learning the truth about himself, he has overcome a childhood of abuse, poverty, and lack of parenting. This young man stands as an example of how dramatically a life can change when we are willing to stand together to fight against injustice.

But the deepest change I feel personally is in me. I have grown to love the kids as family. Sharing a piece of their lives has renewed my commitment to breaking down barriers and challenging misguided mindsets. Teaching is about creating change and giving hope. When you give hope, I've found, you receive hope. I can't think of a better reason to teach.