I’ve thought a lot about my old French teacher over the last years, about the parts of herself she had one day shared with our class; the feelings and the memories of the time when she was writing her masters memoire while her marriage was crumbling apart. I’ll never forget the impression she described, of both being elated and miserable at once, but I only truly understood what she meant many years later as I wrote about my fieldwork experience studying the world of surgery. I wasn’t married, nobody had died, but my studies in anthropology had started to change me, gradually stripping layers of skin and psyche. I was bare. It felt as if my universe was falling into pieces, and yet, amidst the destruction and the doubt, it felt like revelation, like I was finally getting one thing right. Her story helped me get through when I wanted to give up. It gave me courage when I was flailing.
Not to generalize- I know generalizations usually only serve to enhance biases we have about things and people- but I can’t shake the thought that it takes a certain kind of idealism for a person to become a teacher. It takes a keen sense of observation, the capacity to see beyond- faith, as ‘the giver’ would say. The best teachers see things in you that you wouldn’t dream seeing in yourself. They are relentless.
Erin Gruwell: The evaluation assignment was to grade yourself on the work you’re doing. You gave yourself an F. What’s that about?
Andre: It’s what I feel I deserve, that’s all.
Erin Gruwell: Oh really?
Erin Gruwell: You know what this is? This is a Fuck You to me and everyone in this class. I don’t want excuses. I know what you’re up against. We’re all of us up against something. So you better make up your mind, because until you have the balls to look me straight in the eye and tell me this is all you deserve, I am not letting you fail. Even if that means coming to your house every night until you finish the work. I see who you are. Do you understand me? I can see you. And you are not failing.
(Freedom Writers, 2007)
Growing up I was lucky, and I never realized it until recently. My teachers were inspired. My teachers were forces to be reckoned with. They took the time, they listened and cared. Some of them didn’t give lectures; they were entertainers, playwrights, storytellers. They were educators to the core. They were better than the characters you see in movies because they were real. Some were so well-liked, they were loved. Once, upon a teacher’s announcement that she had been transferred, a reserved and introverted girl in my class got up on her desk and re-enacted the scene of ‘O, Captain, my captain’ from the Dead Poets Society that we’d seen in class a month or two prior. Think about what kind of teacher it takes to inspire that.
Our teachers knew us not only by name, but by our idiosyncrasies, by our passions and sometimes by our fears. We were all different- different colours, different homes, different backgrounds- and yet, they treated us the same, on equal footing with them. The reason they did was because we weren’t just kids or students; we were future adults, and maybe even parts of themselves.
On the day she spoke of her most personal memories, my old French teacher had shared parts of herself with us. It was special. I just had not realized how special that moment had been back then. Perhaps because we had been spoiled. Perhaps because we were privileged. High school, although daunting, wasn’t a fight for survival to us; most of us went into the real world with no idea that life was hard or a struggle. We had been lucky until then. We could have entered the adult world the same way other kids did, but the reality is that today, with these memories, we don’t walk through this world the same way as others; we’re different. We grew up with hope and dreams. I’ve come to realize upon meeting other people that these can be scarce commodities to come by. Not every one is an idealist. Not every one makes the effort to look beyond.
Margaret Campbell: It’s too bad you weren’t here even two years ago, you know. We used to have one of the highest scholastic records in the district, but since voluntary integration was suggested, we’ve lost over 75% of our strongest students.
Erin Gruwell: Well, actually, I chose Wilson because of the integration program. I think what’s happening here is really exciting, don’t you? My father was involved in the civil rights movement. And I remember when I was watching the LA riots on TV, I was thinking of going to law school at the time. And I thought, “God, by the time “you’re defending a kid in a courtroom, the battle’s already lost. ” I think the real fighting should happen here in the classroom.
Margaret Cambpell: Well, that’s a very well-thought-out phrase. Erin, I think you’re a lovely, intelligent woman. But you’re a first-time teacher.
I’d like to think that altered us, that it was enough to make us inherently different; more hopeful, more tolerant and compassionate, more optimistic about people and about life. I’d like to think it also made us fighters, that it instilled us with a sense of duty to battle for what is right. I hope some of us became doctors who not only treat the sick, but also do it without condescension, prejudice or judgment. I hope some of us became writers to rewrite the world’s history. I hope some of us became public defenders, honest politicians, upright journalist, worthy citizens. I hope some of us became loving mothers, but most of all, I hope some of us became inspired teachers too- teachers that see beyond ‘troubled teenager’ labels, teachers with their heart on their sleeve and endless patience. The world needs more compassion- not because it’s cheesy or the right thing to do, but because of events like the ones that took place in Ferguson and stem from intolerance, division and contempt. Mostly misunderstanding.
Margaret Campbell: You’re an honor student. If you transfer to Mrs. Gruwell’s class, think how that’ll reflect on your records.
Victoria: It doesn’t matter to me, my grades will still be the same. Look, Ms. Campbell, when I first transferred to this school, I had a 4.0 average. But when I applied for advanced placement in English and Math, I was told it’d be better for me to be in a class of my own kind. Now, when I did get in, my teacher said “Victoria! It’s not everyday one finds an African American student in AP and Honors courses!”… As if I didn’t notice. And when I asked another Honors teacher why we don’t read more black literature, she said, “We don’t read black literature because of all the sex, drugs, cussing, and fornication”. I thought a simple… “It’s inappropriate”… would have sufficed.
I may be naive, but maybe it all starts in a classroom, with one humane act, one random act of kindness, a single moment of truth. Maybe one act like that can change the world. I may be naive, but maybe I’m just an idealist… and proud of it too.
Images Source: movie the ‘Freedom Writers’ (2007)