The Power of Perspective

Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch and Yaegel T. Welch as Tom Robinson in BroadwaySF’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

We just had the privilege of seeing Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in Chicago. Full disclosure: TKAM is one of my favorite books, and I loved teaching it to high school students. I love the Gregory Peck movie, too. But Sorkin’s version made me rethink the book. He forced me to recognize some of its limitations even as he managed to make it feel incredibly current.

I grew up with parents who worked for civil rights, and I have tried to honor their commitments by making my own efforts. The horrific events that propelled “Black Lives Matter” spurred my women’s activist group to build on our reading and discussion of White Fragility with other readings and with actions, like questionnaires for school districts and local candidates. I’ve always believed myself to be an ally even when we didn’t seem to be making much impact. So Atticus had always seemed heroic to me.

Toni Morrison was right in 2015, however, when she argued that TKAM perpetuated a “white savior” narrative, in which whites led the fight for civil rights and blacks were helpless, passive actors. So how do we acknowledge the limitations of a book that fit its time period but now seems outdated?

Enter Aaron Sorkin. He shifted the focus and added tough questions. Sorkin recognized that Atticus never changed in the book, nor did he have the heroic flaw that Aristotle insisted was required for effective drama. In the book, both of his children experience a loss of innocence, and Sorkin created an Atticus with a sense of humor who had his own loss of innocence. Atticus taught his children that everyone must be treated with respect, but both Atticus and the audience have to grapple with question of how we should respond to those who show bigotry and commit heinous deeds, a very timely question. Sorkin challenged the white savior arc of the book and the passivity of its victimized blacks. He gave his characters of color more agency. His Calpurnia, the black housekeeper and surrogate mother to the children of Atticus, challenges his liberal views and commitment to niceness, forcing him to recognize the corrosive evil of racism. Sorkin’s story questions the purity of our justice system. And the play, which begins with the trial and references it periodically throughout, ends with a call to action as Scout shouts, “All rise!” Sorkin challenges liberals like himself to stop sitting back and offering empathy in place of action.

As a teacher, I long for the chance to take this play back to the classroom as part of an extended study of sources. I’d take Lee’s first novel, Go Set a Watchman, along with her Pulitzer-prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird, the 1962 Academy Award winning movie starring Gregory Peck, the 1990 stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel, and Sorkin’s play script. What a remarkable opportunity to see the impact of a novel’s time period on its views and the perception of it, to recognize the impact of great editing to evolve from the first novel to its follow-up second version, and – most of all – to appreciate the way literature allows us to confront our world and its limitations. I remain a voracious reader not only because reading transports me to other worlds and other worldviews, but because literature and the discussion of what we read gives us a fictional venue to explore tough issues in a context once removed from our own daily lives. The evolution of my response to TKAM reminds me of the power of great writing once again.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

An Op-Ed caught my eye this week, reminding me that young people often can be remarkably wise. I find myself remembering the phrase, “out of the mouths of babes,” “a shortening and revision of expressions in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In Psalms 8:2, God ordains strength out of the mouth of babes and sucklings; in Matthew 21:16, praise comes from this source. Later generations changed strength and praise to wisdom” [].

I’ve written before about the current trend of parents and taxpayers to show up at school board meetings to attack board members verbally over fraught issues like mask and vaccine mandates, as well as their concern that critical race theory [CRT] is being taught to their children, causing them shame and harm. Their position shows a true misunderstanding of what that theory is and where it is taught. A scholarly framework first developed in the late 1970s, its “core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies” [].

Few K-12 schools teach that theory, but it really doesn’t matter, because opponents simply use the label to identify any teaching about racism. They would deny the systemic racism clearly apparent throughout society or insist that students shouldn’t learn about it anyway.

Philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When I was in high school in the 1960s, even though my school was nationally known for excellence, I did not learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre, redlining, the Tuskegee experiment, or most other racist events and tragedies. I knew about Freedom Riders because my parents were involved in the civil rights movement, and because one of the young adults killed was the son of friends of theirs. I didn’t learn about Japanese internment or Stonewall and other LGBTQ assaults either. A colleague taught me about driving while black many years ago, a problem that only received national attention recently. How can we make our society more fair and just if we don’t know our own history?

A black high school junior from Brooklyn, New York, wrote about this more eloquently than I can. In a January 14, 2022, Op-Ed in the Washington Post, “Take it from a high schooler who’s actually learned about CRT: Adults need to chill out,” Christiane Calixte wrote:

Opponents of CRT claim that this academic lens is divisive, anti-White and anti-American. Many have claimed that its teachings are a means of forcing a political agenda onto children in lieu of focusing on subjects deemed more educational.

Don’t be fooled, though. The retaliation against CRT shows that parents have no idea what students are learning — and that their protests are less about education and more about a projection of their own biases and fears [Washington Post].

Calixte’s school offers both a 75-minute workshop and an optional senior elective on CRT. She took the seminar and assures readers that it promoted neither hatred of white people nor their shaming. “In our discussion, CRT also wasn’t presented as absolute and unchangeable truth. Throughout the lesson, teachers emphasized that all students had the right to agree or disagree with the teachings” [Ibid.]. She warns us that CRT is “simply being used as a straw man for those who aim to restrict speech and knowledge — and, in some cases, perpetuate bigoted ideologies” [Ibid.].

Calixte’s closing plea speaks volumes: “Don’t reverse centuries of progress in favor of promoting ignorance. If the goal of schools is to create a well-informed populace, then nuanced discussions of historical racism must be held in classrooms. It is the only way young people will learn to think critically about our country’s institutions, and the only way to create an inclusive America for future generations.” [Ibid.]

Christiane Calixte’s Op-Ed should remind us all that our young people are more capable than we credit them for, that they can and must think critically about our institutions. And she is not alone. According to a 2021 Washington Post IPSOS poll, “Just under 6 in 10 teenagers said that racial discrimination is “a major threat” to their generation, including larger shares of Black (85 percent), Hispanic (69 percent) and Asian teens (68 percent) than White teens (43 percent)” []. Young adults have led the way in other areas of discrimination. For example, a research report from NORC at the University of Chicago describes an growing generation gap in  attitudes toward same sex marriage : “While 64 percent of those under 30 back same-sex marriage, only 27 percent of those 70 and older support it” [NORC]. In the Pacific Standard, a nonprofit publication that for more than a decade published award-winning work on social and environmental justice, a sociologist and professor of religion at a Catholic university, describes the tolerance he sees in his daughter and in his students as “ a beacon of hope for all of us” [].

Why, then, do so many fear teaching truthful American history? I can’t get the lyrics of a song from the musical South Pacific out of my mind lately:

You’ve got to be taught

To hate and fear,

You’ve got to be taught

From year to year,

It’s got to be drummed

In your dear little ear

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Imagine if our careful teaching switched from promoting bigotry to trying to understand the strengths and flaws of our great nation by exploring true history and learning from it? Young people are up to the task. We must be, too.

The High Cost of Ignorance


I have been grappling with the extent of my own ignorance for weeks now. I graduated from an Eastern public high school nationally known for excellence, then earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and later a Masters degree from Southern Connecticut State University. Despite studying history at all three schools, I had never heard of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. How is that possible?

I’d never heard of Black Wall Street and Tulsa’s affluent black community, the Greenwood District. I did know about Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store, because the news about that awful case continued during my childhood. The Tulsa Race Massacre started in a similar way, when a young black man named Dick Rowland was riding in the elevator in the Drexel Building at Third and Main with a white woman named Sarah Page. The accounts from that elevator ride varied, yet the Tulsa police arrested Rowland the next day.

Then “An inflammatory report in the May 31 edition of the Tulsa Tribune spurred a confrontation between black and white armed mobs around the courthouse where the sheriff and his men had barricaded the top floor to protect Rowland. Shots were fired and the outnumbered African Americans began retreating to the Greenwood District” ( The next day, Greenwood was looted and burned. “In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, more than 800 people were treated for injuries and contemporary reports of deaths began at 36. Historians now believe as many as 300 people may have died” (Ibid.). According to the New York Times, “The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 killed hundreds of residents, burned more than 1,250 homes and erased years of Black success.” Twenty years ago, the state of Oklahoma published Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, acknowledging $1.8 million in property loss claims — $27 million in today’s dollars. According to the New York Times, “Much bigger is a sobering kind of inheritance: the incalculable and enduring loss of what could have been, and the generational wealth that might have shaped and secured the fortunes of Black children and grandchildren” (Ibid.). Indeed, calling it a riot instead of a massacre may have insulated insurance companies from claims.

The spate of articles, interactive internet pieces, and documentaries acknowledging the hundredth anniversary of this carnage educates us all about this slaughter and the racism that provoked it. This staggering loss of life and property is a tragedy; so is the loss of future opportunity. The dead remain in part uncounted and uncelebrated. The magnitude of this event and its inhumanity haunts me.

Last summer forced me to explore the way this country’s wealth was built on the back of slaves, the inexcusable inequities of wealth and housing and healthcare, and the very real dangers for people of color in their interactions with police. We cannot allow this to continue. If we believe in our country’s Declaration of Independence and truly “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” then we must act to end racism and inequity.

Education is the first step toward making our society fair and just. Only when we learn the truth about our history will we be empowered to change it. I live in Illinois, which just adopted “Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Standards.” Although they only affect preservice teacher training programs and don’t take effect until 2025, they are a baby step in the right direction. The United States of America can only achieve its aspirations for a fair and just society by teaching citizens the ugly truths about our country’s past so that we can build a better future.

Change Is Overdue

Tonight I spoke once again at a Geneva School Board Meeting, imploring the Board to address the current racist bullying at the Geneva Middle School with meaningful policies and staff development. It brought back the bullying our younger son endured in the 1980s. It brought back the tragic 2010 suicide of a Geneva student bullied for his sexual orientation and gender identity. I spoke to the Board then, too. Their response: one evening speaker for the community and one session of training for a handful of educators.

Change does not happen with one-off efforts. It requires a sustained, ongoing commitment to training and a clear vision of values. Staff need to practice effective interventions before they’re needed. Research shows that students must feel safe to learn. The primary job of the school Board is to ensure that all students have the best learning opportunity possible. That means that they need to make sure all students are safe to learn.

Students need to learn that bullying and racism are not acceptable, and that there are clear and established consequences for those who persist anyway. Students, too, need to learn how to speak up. Role-playing with trainers can make a huge difference.

Yet here we are again. The mother of one of a Geneva student has told the Board how he has been bullied and subjected to racial epithets. Our Superintendent claims that the Board does not tolerate such behavior, but his words are empty without meaningful actions to accompany them. Surely the last year has laid bare the systemic racism that supports this bullying, yet it appears that little has been done. Once again, I find myself imploring the Geneva School Board to honor their commitment to all of their students by providing meaningful training about implicit bias and about how to intervene effectively. I am asking what their process and protocols are to address bullying and how they might improve them. Every school district needs to take a clear stand against bullying and against racism. Every district needs a clear policy that is enforceable and enforced, that provides safety for students and consequences for bullies who won’t reform their ways. And every educator needs to learn how to pay attention to the signs of bullying and how to intervene effectively, instead of ignoring the issue or making things worse.

Geneva schools served my older son – and no doubt most of their students – well. After more than thirty-five years, though, we don’t see much progress for students who are bullied. That progress is long overdue. The School Board needs to take meaningful and effective action now. We all will be watching.

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.