My heart has been really troubled and full lately. I've been thinking about this moment in our time, wondering and worrying about so much. I spent some time writing tonight and this is what came out. I can't do everything. But I can do what I can do. Warning: It's very long.
Dear Child of Color*,
I want you to know something. I want you to know you are welcome in my classroom. I will do all I can to receive you with love and respect. I will not make assumptions about you. I’ll challenge the narrative that casts you as being less innocent or more aggressive than your peers.
There is so much going on right now, so many burdens your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents have had to carry. I am so sorry, dear child, that you still carry them, that this is the world we live in.
Whatever storms break outside, I hope my classroom will be a refuge. I hope you’ll understand that in my classroom, you have value and dignity. You are loved. You have a soul, a heart, and a mind, and I will do my best to engage you soul to soul, heart to heart, and mind to mind. I know I don’t understand what you experience; I know enough to realize that. But I want you to know that whatever may separate us, I love my students, and you are my student. For whatever that may be worth, it is yours and it always will be.
Dear Muslim child,
I know what it is like to have people misunderstand and misconstrue my faith. For many years my faith was been seen as being dangerous and un-American. Politicians wanted to stop my people from leaving their countries and coming here.
In the early 19th century the Governor of Missouri actually drafted an order citing the need to drive my people from the state or exterminate them. I know what it is like to live a faith whose practices push you to swim against some cultural currents. I know what it’s like, a little at least, to be seen as foreign and strange, to have things you think are sacred mocked and demeaned.
You are welcome in my classroom. I will do all I can to help you feel safe, to not feel foreign or strange. I’ll try to learn your songs, I’ll try to help teach your peers to sing them as well, even as I hope you’ll sing with us the songs of other cultures, peoples, and faiths who also came to these shores, people who ultimately did find refuge and sanctuary from storms. The good news is that America has fulfilled so many promises in the past. I believe she will continue.
I want to be a safe place for you. I hope my classroom is a sanctuary and that you always feel welcome. I hope you feel that you are home, that you belong. You do.
Dear Latinx child:
I have read about taunts you receive, chants you hear directed at you, whether or not your parents were born here. I have read about the fear many families feel as they leave in the morning, wondering whether something as small as a traffic stop might become the incident that could tear the family apart.
I’m sorry you are caught in this trap, where people cast suspicious glances at you, where you are made to bear the weight of a long, acrimonious dispute. I can’t imagine what it must be feel like to be the proxy for hotly-debated social issues.
I want you to know that in my class you belong. You are one of us. You are valued and celebrated, regardless of where your parents or grandparents were born. In my classroom I hope you feel that you are the only part of your story that matters.
I hate the ugliness around us. I sometimes weep when I think of the messages that bombard you. I am so sorry for it all, and yet I admire the strength you show as you rise above it. I will try to help you gain confidence in your intelligence, a conviction of your worth and potential and the knowledge that you are vastly—infinitely—more than you see in movies and advertisements and magazines and in so many other ways. I am sorry you are growing up in a sick culture. I’ll try to make sure you feel respected, heard, and safe, and I’ll try to celebrate all you do, all you think, and all you are as a human being.
I hate the way our society demeans and objectifies women. It’s an ugly, ugly thing. I also hate what our society does to men, the way they infantilize, mock, and demonize. I wish you were not growing up in a world where adding the prefix “man” to something was pejorative and “manly” wasn’t a joke. I will try to help you develop true confidence, and I’ll try to help you be free to be who you really are. I understand that adolescence is different for you than your female peers, but that doesn’t make it—or you—bad or wrong. It’s just different. You are not distractions to be managed. Yes, puberty means that sometimes it’s harder to reach you or guide your behavior—but that means I need to try harder. It means that if I’m any kind of a teacher, I’ll figure out ways to bring you along.
Dear other children--those who may struggle with anxiety, depression, sexual identity, poverty, family problems, and any number of other difficulties, I know that not every burden is visible, not all pain is obvious. Goodness knows, adolescence can be hard enough as without anything else thrown in. I grew up in pretty favorable circumstances, but I had a funny name, was pudgy and incredibly awkward. I couldn’t do anything that had any sort of coolness. In fact, the cooler an activity was, the less able I was to do it. The nerdier an activity was, the better I was and the more I liked it. So I think I can remember enough to understand just a little bit, enough to want to help.
I can’t fix everything in the world. Sadly, I can’t fix much at all. But I’ll do what I can. I’ll try to build your confidence, try to help you see what a bright, brilliant light you are. I’ll try to challenge and nurture you so that you can grow up and meet the fullness of your potential—and I’ll try to make sure you know I see that potential. I’ll try to give you all the patience and all the encouragement I would want my own child to have.
Please know that if my words of love are to mean anything at all, I must discipline you. I’ll expect you to do your best. I will challenge you, for I do you no favor by letting you slide by. Life is demanding. Trust no one who expects nothing of you; they are not your friend. There’s much we can’t control about our lives, but I believe the effort to reach our fullest potential is always a choice and helps attract good things. It also makes us happier people.
While I expect much of you, please know I also expect much of myself. I will give you credit for your efforts, and will try to look past your mistakes. I will try to give you the benefit of the doubt and apologize when I’m wrong. I hope you’ll do the same for me.
I can’t promise perfection, for I am growing too. I am human; therefore, I am flawed. My aspirations sometimes exceed my ability. But I promise my sincere and ongoing efforts. I will take comfort in what I will tell you when your voice cracks or you sing a wrong note: the only way to avoid mistakes is not to try. To sing is to take a risk. The greater the reward, the greater the risk. The more complex the concert, the more practice is required.
Whatever my flaws and failings, please know that next to my own family, teaching you is where I find my meaning. I will define my success by how well I reach you. I believe I will one day answer to God for how I treat you. That doesn’t mean I’ll always succeed, but I will always try.
You won’t understand what I’m about to say for many years, perhaps not ever, really, unless you become a teacher. Once you walk through that classroom door, you became part of my heart, part of my life. That will not change or fade with time. You will forget me long before I forget you, before I stop thinking of, worrying about, and praying for you. There’s a form of love that we don’t have a very good word for in our language. It’s not anything I can easily explain, a teacher's love is real. It's unconditional, it’s both fierce and soft, and it’s remarkably enduring. For whatever it may be worth, it is yours.
(Yes, I want you to use that title. I earned it. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done. But it changed my life, and education can change your life as well. It's the greatest equalizer we have).
* After some consultation with some friends, I opted for this term as opposed to “African-American” or something else. I realize "People of Color" refers to other groups and communities beyond African-Americans. However, given this very tense moment in our country’s history, I wanted to be as respectful as possible. This was the term my friends advised me would most likely be the most acceptable to most people.
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