I recently confronted my prejudices. After teaching for many years in a low-income, high-violence area of Oakland, Calif., I decided to do some private tutoring. I sought to avoid the stress of politics in the district and the uncertainty of having a new principal every year for over eight years. Although I had outlasted all of the teachers I had started working with, I felt guilty because this was the population I wanted to serve.
I had always said I wouldn’t work with “rich kids,” but I found myself in a position where many of the families who came to me for tutoring had financial resources that far surpassed my former students. I found myself judging these new families for not having the economic difficulties of the children I had known in East Oakland. I assumed that I would be working with sheltered and self-centered children and families.
Clearly, I should have known better. I thought I had learned not to judge people based on skin color, appearance, or anything other than their particular character. I had put that into practice for the decade I worked in the classroom. I quickly began to humanize my new students. I saw that they had successes, failures and struggles just like we all did. What surprised me the most, however, was the level of compassion expressed and willingness make changes for the better after I talked about my time in Oakland.
One student, who goes to an exclusive private school, asked if I tutored anyone from my old class. I told her I still volunteered at my old school but that parents couldn’t afford to hire a tutor. “But they might need help too,” she said. “What if they need help too?” I told her that many of them did. She looked at me with great compassion. I could tell she was processing that inequity. She told me that when she was older, she wanted to help kids who didn’t have the money to get the help they needed. We have since had several conversations about how she might do that. She’s still young enough to have more ideas than concrete plans, but she will work at her church’s community street meal.
Another student talked to me about how frustrated she is that people in her school don’t seem to care about people who are different. She wants to help everyone see all people as individuals and not as labels. She already stands up against bullying whenever she can, even if it makes her unpopular. We talked about my work with Big Brothers Big Sisters. She hopes to be involved with them or a similar group when she is older. Even at a young age, inequity bothers her greatly. She would love to help people understand each other, and develop tolerance and appreciation.
The learning for me was significant. Children of privilege often need help in broadening their view of the world, becoming aware of issues of inequity and learning about what actions they can take to help. In the case of my new students, casual conversations about my life offered a different perspective from what they see each day. I had not given them enough credit for being interested in the world’s inequities. They had not been fully aware of the impact. Those conversations are important.
I continue to learn from these kids, just like I constantly learned from my students in Oakland. Children and teenagers are capable of great compassion, tolerance and courage. As teachers, it is our job to foster this and to teach them how to use these instincts in ways that can help others. It’s also our job to face and conquer our own prejudices, no matter what they are.
Harris is a teacher, tutor and volunteer in California.