The other day, after running into two disgruntled students, I was wondering if I am doing anything useful as a teacher. Today I remembered what I love about teaching.
This week in my World Literatures class we are reading Abeng by Michelle Cliff. This is a coming of age story of a creole girl in 1950s Jamaica. It has three (at least) story threads running through it: the childhood and sexual awakening of Clare Savage, the protagonist; the story of Clare's plantation owning ancestors on the eve of independance in the mid-1800s; and the fight for freedom by the "maroons," escaped slaves under the leadership of Nanny, an Ashanti woman who escaped slavery in the 1700s.
The thing that is interesting is that I have a primarily white classroom full of very suburban kids. But I also have one African-American male student and one Muslim female student. I sometimes worry that I shouldn't draw attention to differences--the very P.C. thing to do these days is to ignore the differences we have. Politely pretend they don't exist. But that also allows us to ignore the very real problems that arise out of not seeing people as they are, which allows us to later see them as "other." Today I called on the black man in my class and asked him to give us his take on the slavery and racial issues in the text. He hemmed and hawed a bit, then he said "Oh, I just read the books for what they are. It is just literature." So I didn't push him anymore, but one of the themes I have been pushing the class to look for in the texts are the similarities between ourselves and other cultures. So I called on the women in the class to look at the choices the character, Clare, is facing--whether to embrace her mother's black heritage or her father's white culture, live within the middle class life of the paternal family or embrace the rural poverty of her maternal grandmother's culture, accept the docile domestic roles offered to women or choose masculine roles and with that embrace her nascient lesbianism.
The character of Clare is torn between two worlds. She visits the maternal poor black culture in the summer, but can return to the safety net of the middle-class paternal culture at any time. Her black friend Zoe has nothing before her but poverty and the drugery of a life of "woman's" work. Clare will go to college and leave Jamaica, Zoe has no such chance, limited as she is by the color of her skin.
As we are talking about this, suddenly my black student wants to speak. He makes the comment that many of these same students in this class are in his African-American literature class, too. And there they also discuss the issues of race and social class and the disenfranchised vs. the priviledged. But the thing that strikes him is that all the white students can close the book and go home. Maybe they have felt some empathy, but in the end they are the recipients of white priviledge while he will always be judged by the color of his skin no matter what he does.
I see people around the room looking uncomfortably down at their books. I see some nodding in understanding. And I think that, no matter what else we say about this book, nothing will compare to this one young man's courage to say what we all know but rarely acknowledge--that in some way we are all complicit in racism by not only our deeds, but by our lack of doing.
After class he hangs around for a moment and I thank him for speaking, and he thanks me for making him want to talk. Also hanging around is the Muslim woman. She wants to talk about her up-coming paper, she says, and we discuss the options for that. But as we are walking out together she very quietly asks: do I know what she needs to do to become a teacher? Who should she talk to about her major? She thinks, she says, that she'd like to someday teach a class like this, on literature from the non-western world. She wants to do what we do in this class--find and appreciate the similarities between the many different peoples of the earth through the beautiful things--the literature, the art, the music. Because, she says, she can see now how we are all more alike than we ever are different.
And suddenly I am reminded of why I love teaching.