Silence Will Not Save Us: Why We Cannot Ignore Students' Experiences
"Some things are better left unsaid."
This is a common refrain I heard growing up, particularly being a chatty kid with a big mouth and a less-than-developed filter. When, for example, I took the host during communion at a new parish, chewed for a moment, and told the priest frankly, "It's a little stale," my parents would remind me that some things were better left unsaid.
And sure, that can be true. There are hundreds of little truths we might decide are to not speak of. We hold in the truth in an effort to be kind, or maintain security and happiness in a relationship.
This, when I am being compassionate, is what I imagine the teachers who tell their students to "check their baggage" at the door think they are doing. In my most hopeful state, I tell myself that they fully believe that when they tell their kids that their classroom is an "escape" from the outside world they face, they think it's they are doing the kindest, best thing they can for kids.
And to some extent, classrooms can of course be an escape from the harsh realities. We can provide spaces of validation, support, comfort, and love that may not exist in their outside lives, as well as a place to dream and imagine new worlds that the rigors of their current existence may not afford them room for.
But no space is truly safe if it does not reckon with the complete and total experience and existence a kid faces each day.
Because, to be safe, our students need to know that all the things they might feel or need to express will be honored and valued. In telling our students to try to "forget" about the problems we face, we are sending them the message that the lives they lead are shameful to begin with.
Recently, I engaged some teachers I work with with Dr. Chris Emdin's amazing text, "For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood... and the Rest of Y'all Too" (have you read it yet? If not, please read it. Read it now). In getting to reread it, I was struck with this important passage:
I engaged in a Twitter debate with one of these educators recently and was astounded by the fervor with which he defended his school's practice of "cleaning these kids up and giving them a better life." With that statement, he described everything that is wrong with the culture of urban education and the biggest hindrance to white folks who teach in the hood. First, the belief that students are in need of "cleaning up" presumes that they are dirty. Second, the aim of "giving them a better life" indicates that their present life has little or no value. The idea that one individual or school can give students "a life" emanates from a problematic savior complex that results in making students, their varied experiences, their emotions, and the good in their communities invisible. So invisible, in fact, that the chief way to teach urban youths of color more effectively—that is, to truly be in and in touch with their communities—is not seen as a viable option.
It's important to note that a big part of that difference does not begin with students. The change actually must start with our own mindsets and beliefs as educators. It would be false to state that the communities our students come from are devoid of problems. It is understandable that we want our students to find success and happiness in opportunities that may appear out of reach given the current circumstances they inhabit.
Yet it's important to remember we can acknowledge problems and want to give our students increased opportunities without causing them shame. Telling our students they can "escape" their community or experiences in their entirety, without giving them the tools and knowledge to help mediate some of the things they are struggling with, doesn't fix their problems. Instead, it teaches kids that their experiences—the difficult and the beautiful—are something to be ashamed of and suppressed. As Brené Brown says in her book, Daring Greatly, "Shame derives its power from being unspeakable." By stripping them of the language and skills to face their lives head on, we only make them believe that their silence and ours will somehow save them.
Unfortunately, it will not. Speaking "properly" will not save them. Dressing "properly" will not save them. Even going to the best schools in the world will not fully "save" them.
I know that because, in some ways, I lived it. I grew up in a primarily affluent, white community because my parents wanted my brother and I to have a great education. We learned how to "speak properly," how to interview well, how to dress "professionally" when asked.
And, even with all that, we are in no way "saved" from discrimination or racism. I still hear remarks telling me to go back somewhere based on my face, no matter how "proper" my speech is. I have had people assume I was a maid or that my father was a gardener—his medical degree didn't save him from that belief. It didn't make it easier or better when I heard racial taunts growing up and was told by teachers to "ignore the bullies."
Did the ability to code switch help us? Of course. But assimilation alone would not have saved us. In fact, what helped me deal with these issues was knowing the pride and culture of the people I came from to draw strength from. What helped me manage was talking openly and frankly with my parents about what I was dealing with.
In another part of Daring Greatly, Brown notes, "... true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance."
Our students deserve to find true belonging in our classrooms, not a temporary escape that fails to give them agency. To do anything less, as well-intentioned as it may be, is not enough. As hard as it is, we must commit ourselves to face our students hard truths in order to help them do the same.
While some things may be better left unsaid, our students deserve a safe space to say everything that's on their minds and in their hearts, even when it may be difficult to say or hear, so that they can find ways to grapple with those things and move forward. They deserve to explore their authentic and imperfect lives in order to be completely seen and, in being seen, loved by us as well.