The Youth Are Our Teachers

Yesterday two fierce, intelligent, courageous young women reinforced my belief that we adults can learn from youth. My teaching memoir, Tales Told out of School: Lessons Learned by the Teacher (due out next year), tells the stories of my learning from my students. Yesterday two 2020 graduates of a nearby high school in a very white community organized a Black Lives Matter rally. They faced opposition; indeed, the original site was changed after the homeowners of the subdivision where the public park is located lodged such vigorous protest.

Bethany Duffey and Izzy Mohatt brought together a diverse group of people and wonderful speakers to help us all learn. My heart broke listening to Marcia Lane-McGee’s description of her experiences as a black student in a white Catholic school. She resurrected painful memories for me. My first teaching job was in a white, working-class Catholic school in Madison, WI, which took in expelled students from the public schools. One of my students was a year older, two heads taller, and infinitely blacker than her classmates. Though she responded well to my encouragement and pulled her grade up to a C, the principal lowered it to a D because, in her eyes, my student couldn’t possibly have done that well. Impotent to change her mind or protect my student, I was grateful to be leaving the school. I knew her action was wrong. Listeners yesterday knew that Lane-McGee’s being ostracized for the color of her skin was wrong.

18-year old Isabella Irish, whose organization of a Black Lives Matter rally in nearby Batavia inspired the Elburn organizers, said “Black power is giving power to people who have not had power to determine their destiny. In today’s America, African-Americans don’t need to be accused of a capital offense to be discriminated against and murdered.”

I have been aware of my white privilege for decades. Doing my high school research paper on James Baldwin’s writing fifty-five years ago first opened my eyes to the world beyond my white suburban community.  Reading Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility last year with a group of fellow activists had pushed me to want to do more. But I still hadn’t found my voice until the murder of George Floyd. I wrote a letter to the editor of our local and regional papers. Our group met last Saturday to develop an action plan, and each of us is taking ownership of specific steps.

But these young people didn’t wait on us. They saw injustice and stepped up. I am humbled and inspired. And I am grateful to them, not just because they generated a rally with enough space and social distance for us to feel safe to go despite the pandemic. I am grateful because they remind me, at a time when our country feels torn asunder, that young people like them can lead us from darkness into real, systemic change.

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