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Educational Activism
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Anila Akram

Grade 12 student

Teacher activism to me is about being progressive about education. It’s not about how many clubs you can advise, and how many kids think you’re cool… it’s about opening students’ eyes to that place outside of school. You know, that one called “the real world.” Teacher activism means equipping students to become more than just the next science and math champs. We debate about interesting topics in school just to learn about how to debate, not to actually discuss the topics. Teacher activism to me is about spreading knowledge, more than anything else, in courses like Law, World Issues, History, Civics, English and in clubs like the gay-straight alliance, or anti-discrimination clubs to teach students how to counter the injustices they will find in the world.

I encountered teacher activism myself in the eleventh grade, in my English class. Our teacher constantly pumped us with new information about the world around us: about religion, about politics, about war, about peace. So many times I would leave that class angry, because of the things he had told us… but they were all true. What he was really doing was challenging us with this knowledge and saying “now… what are you going to do about it?”

In not being an activist, nothing really changes. You graduate and leave the closed environment of school… and then the real education starts. People laugh at your high school naivety and they give you new knowledge, better knowledge, knowledge that makes you powerful and privileged and rich. So without social activism, you go on, ignorantly committing the same injustices that those before you have been committing. By becoming social activists what we stand to gain is a real education. The walls of the school will be broken down and we learn about life from a life perspective: the shoes on my feet, they were made in a sweatshop. And the taxes I complain about, they pay for the welfare my family used for many years. This is the reality of life, and without teacher activists teaching this to us… we become clones of the society before us. I spend a lot of time learning about how if I’m not punctual, I won’t get a job… but I don’t spend any time discussing how sometimes I could be on time and I still might not get the job because of this really thin piece of fabric around my head. When teachers do not spread knowledge about social justice and how to achieve it, I stand to lose my optimism… my belief that the world can be better. I stand to lose my confidence. I stand to lose my mind. And as we all know… a mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Now, as we embark on today’s workshops, I’d like to share a story that may inspire you. When I was younger, my father didn’t live with my family. My parents were not legally separated or divorced, but I was still only living with one parent. On Fathers Day, my fourth grade teacher told us to make Fathers Day cards. I hadn’t seen my father in 6 years and she told me to write a haiku about how much he meant to me. I didn’t know what to write. She knew about my family situation but pushed me to do it anyway. She told me that I had to make the card because it would make the other kids uncomfortable if I didn’t. They would ask questions and that would just be difficult. I was shocked, but I didn’t question her. I made the card, and I made it really nicely too. I glittered the word “dad” and made a heart around the poem. And so I went on, for the rest of the afternoon, making this meaningless card. As I left the class, I threw my card into the garbage. It was just a piece of paper to me. The day was over and tomorrow would be a new day, with no aggressive mention of fathers. But, I was mistaken. The next day I saw my crumpled up card on the teacher’s desk. She had pulled it out of the trash, and there in front of the entire class, she handed it back to me and said, “I expected more from you. Respect your work! Now take it home with you and give it to your parents.”

My point with this story is that my fourth grade teacher told me it would be best for everyone if I made the card… the rest of the students would ask questions and that would be difficult. When I look back, I wonder, was it best for everyone, or just best for her to avoid the questions? As far I’m concerned, it was social studies class… I shouldn’t have been making glittery cards in the first place. But even so, if I had been allowed to not make that card that day, then yes, it would have been awkward for me, doing something different than the rest of the class… but not nearly as uncomfortable as it was being forced to make a card for someone who wasn’t in my life. Why was it such a nuisance to her that my family wasn’t “normal?”  And now, 17 and just a little bit wiser, I see that we spend a good deal of time in high school trying to break down the stereotypes of class and sex and race and families and sexual orientation that students have been building up for years. If we had just addressed them in the beginning… would they be so prevalent now?

Teachers often look up in shock when kids are talking about things they’ve heard on TV, like “oh god, are we going to have to explain this now? Better not, or we may just open up a can of worms.” Well, I’d say that with topics like homosexuality, poverty, and religion -- they are people’s lifestyles…and the format of my family was my lifestyle… it’s not a can of worms. It’s not a stain on the rest of society.

Hopefully my story will inspire you to see that we can’t shy away from many of these issues and wait until kids are old enough to handle them… because by the time you think they are old enough they have already spent all of their lives learning stereotypes. Now, instead of educating them for the first time, you’re competing with almost a decade of ignorance.  The best way we can learn to be equitable, truly, from our hearts, is if we learn it first… before and not after the stereotypes.

That’s just one little story about a father’s day card. And the reason I thought I should share this story is because after 8 years, it is still the only memory I have of my elementary school. So I challenge you teachers, to think about what memories you want your students to leave with. When the years pass, and they forget the schoolyard and the classes and the hallways…what do you want them to remember about you, and your words and your lessons? Children look up to their teachers… never make them regret that reverence.

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