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ARTICLE

What Good Is a Voice If You Don’t Use It?

After years of leaving his classroom walls empty, this high school teacher was prompted by the current political climate to do a little decorating. It sparked some fruitful classroom discussions. 

I have never been one to hang much on my classroom walls. No frills. Then the political climate shifted, and I felt compelled to do a little decorating. 

A red equals sign. A black-and-white poster with pictures of immigrants and Ellis Island, as well as the JFK quote: “Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life.” A poster of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. staring off into the distance, juxtaposed with his quote: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Along the edge of my whiteboard are powerful words I pulled from books that I love.

These decorations have prompted some fascinating classroom conversations about LGBT rights, immigration laws, executive orders, civil disobedience and agency. The simple act of hanging up posters has really gotten my students thinking about how they can become agents of change. 

A quote from Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give inspired a period-long discussion about speaking up for others. “What’s the point in having a voice,” she writes, “if you’re going to be silent when you shouldn’t be?” It’s a gripping quote, pulled from a story narrated by a young black woman who watches her friend Khalil get shot and killed by a white police officer.

“What does that mean?” one student asks the day I hang the quote on the wall. “Is that some sort of political statement?” I know that teachers everywhere are being questioned about politicizing their classrooms, proselytizing in public schools. “Not political,” I reply, “personal.” I explain further, “To me the idea of speaking up when you feel compelled to speak up has nothing to do with politics. It just has to do with people and the way I interact with them.”

I give a little wait time to see if anyone is going to take the conversation a step further. We have studied this issue in the context of literature, but I feel my students want to contextualize it in the scope of their own lives. Nobody bites.

What’s the point in having a voice, if you’re going to be silent when you shouldn’t be?

“What do you think it means?” I follow up. Then the floodgates open.

“Well, we all know when we should speak up, but think about how often you don’t,” one student offers. “Seriously, how many of you can think right now of a time when you thought you should say something about what you saw, but you kept your mouth shut anyway?”

Every single hand goes up. 

“Why is that?” I ask.

Because they are afraid, my students answer. Because they have been taught to mind their own business. Because they don’t really understand the issue being discussed. Because they don’t want to make a scene. The list is varied, but something we classroom teachers have all heard before.

“What are some examples people would be willing to share?” I ask in an attempt to take lessons we have seen in books and place them squarely in their own lives. “A kid at lunch the other day said that all the filthy Mexicans should just go back home.” We all quickly agree that is an ignorant statement. “But, I didn’t say anything. My dad owns a restaurant, and he is getting killed on the price of lettuce,” he continues. “So many migrant workers have left because they are afraid that there is literally nobody to pick all the produce. So prices are going up for all of us. Those people work insanely hard and don’t get paid well so that we can all eat salads. They are not hurting anyone.”

Turns out that the rise in prices has more to do with a wet and warm winter in California, but this student’s point about working insanely hard and getting paid very little is accurate. Our economy’s dependence on this “cheap” labor is worthy of a close look. Either way, my students and I all agree it is important to challenge the underlying stereotypes about “dirty Mexicans” who should “go home.”

Some kids offer examples of homophobic jokes and sexist remarks. Others have stories of moments when they did speak up and tell them with pride. Far too many share stories of silence and feelings of shame. 

I think a lot of them left the room looking for an opportunity to use their voice for something good. So, I’m on the hunt for more posters.

Knoll is a writer and English teacher at a public school in New Jersey.