I somehow doubt that this colleague ever would have believed in an America where in the short course of one week there could have been a school shooting in Matthews, North Carolina, a massacre of Jews in Pittsburgh as they gathered for Shabbat services, the shooting of two African-Americans in Kentucky as they shopped for groceries, and a myriad of pipe bombs mailed to prominent Democrats.
As we witness these expressions of hate and violence against American citizens, it becomes our obligation to make sure that hatred is not allowed to take hold or force us to live in daily fear of our fellow man. As he discussed a divided America back in 1957, journalist Max Lerner wrote: “one may see in these polar impulses the proof that American life is deeply split. One may prefer to see them as contradictory parts of a bewildering puzzle. Or one may see them as signs of an effort, on a grander scale than ever in history, to resolve the conflicting impulses that are to be found in every civilization but each of which occurs here with a strength and tenacity scarcely witnessed elsewhere.”
So, how do we teach our students to discuss controversial issues or work through controversial situations?
It all begins with us.
We must be the leaders who build up our young people to be better, more active citizens within a global society. That may mean that we need to step out of our comfort zone and have purposeful discussions of controversial topics that consider all viewpoints, while listening to those viewpoints. We must make our classrooms a safe haven for all our young people.
But sometimes, your students become the teachers.
In the spring of 2004, students at my high school faced a truly tedious situation. Just as I was beginning my annual unit of Holocaust studies, I was made aware of a small but intense neo-Nazi group forming within the school. Students who had been friends since childhood were now being turned against each other by a charismatic mastermind who espoused terms such as “inferior” and “racial purity”. When I questioned the continuation of my unit of study, seniors who had taken my class the previous year encouraged me to persevere. After all, as one young lady reminded me, one of the best means of quelling this hate group would be to continue to teach students the consequences of prejudice and hate. The passion with which I had taught this unit had shown them that besides being their instructional leader, I was also their role model. Students banded together to live the lessons learned from their Holocaust unit and stood up to this hate group. In the end, the values espoused by my students paid off. The leader of the neo-Nazis chose to graduate in summer school.
There can be no ambiguity when it comes to rejecting anti-Semitism, hate, and bigotry. As educators, we must continue to teach our young people to be upstanders and not bystanders within society. As Anne Frank said, “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness; I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too. I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”
It all begins with us.