How should we celebrate a season as inclusive when capitalism and dominance promote exclhat can our schools learn from the legacy of Nelson Mandela?
Even though our family was considered “working poor”, we never went without the absolute essentials. We had food; we had shelter; we had clean clothes. Yet, as I experienced other families and societal messages, my sense of want increased – and my self-image and confidence skewed. I am a grown man now. I have a good job. I have my doctorate. I have a house. I have a lot of stuff – property. I am not that young man anymore – and yet he is still me. At time when the poverty rates in America (and in our schools) is at their highest since the mid-1960’s, I wonder how our working poor and poor students navigate in a world that has become increasingly more commercial – where status (and sadly humanness) are defined by our property rather than our person.
Oddly, when I think about status – I sometimes think about backpacks. Backpacks were not always a staple for students. It was in high school that I first realized more students now owned them than not. I was still carrying my books under my arm – or when there were too many, in a re-used plastic shopping bag. The first time I remember thinking that I could – or should – have a better quality resource was one day when I was walking home. On one not-so-unusual day I did not have enough bus fare; I started my two-mile hike home, and the bag ripped. Something about the awkwardness of the book covers digging into my forearm made them heavier – and made me a little resentful. Resentment can serve as a back door to entitlement, and I found myself asking why I did not have it as easy as other kids – or easier. As a young person – these feelings were never more visceral than in December.
It was my first year of teaching that I learned December was a time when students – and adults – frequently feel depression. This occurs not despite the fact that December is a time of many holidays – but in part due to it. On top of a significant change in daylight, December marks a time when young and old are bombarded with mass images of resource-rich, nuclear families (usually from dominant culture) happily gathered in perfect homes, around lavish meals, and engaged in civil activities. While I hope – and believe – each family can and should experience love and functionality, few if any families experience the perfect picture life together as the striven norm of these images. Even though, most of us are well aware of the exaggerated nature of these messages, how many of us explicitly work to create an environment that does not perpetuate their message – especially for those students who are experiencing their own lives so vastly differently?
As an educator, I have considered, “What are the messages and norms we reinforce – without even trying?” Specifically during this time of year,
Do we encourage or host gift swaps? If so, what structures are built in the activity so that even a student who does not have enough money for breakfast could participate without incurring additional, unnecessary cost? (i.e. You could encourage students to come after school and make gifts.)
Do you host potluck celebrations? If so, how can students who cannot bring food still participate – without shame or unnecessary identification? (i.e. You ask for volunteers to come early and help cook at the school or help decorate for their participation.)
Are you aware of and make transparent the cultural connections (or lack thereof) to any given holiday? My partner worked in a school of students who primarily were from immigrant families. Thanksgiving was not a holiday for them – but he still valued the time for them to reflect on that for which they were thankful. Each year he and I would cook a full thanksgiving dinner for his classes at which they shared out loud the gifts and blessings in their lives. Many said it was the first time they had a traditional Thanksgiving.
What are the “normed” rituals of society… and your classroom? Is Christmas normed? Is “no-holiday” normed? One year, at an all-school celebration, the Activities Director asked for student volunteers for a competition. Once on stage, he announced that the students would compete to name each of many Christmas carols playing. I stood in awe as I watched the one Jewish student (who could have come from any other number of backgrounds) as she stood there respectfully, but blankly. Upon meeting with the student government reps later, I was proud that they heard the message so easily (more easily than the Activities Director). They were ready to reclaim and redefine their own rituals to be more inclusive – and not at all exclusive.
The work to intentionally focus on equity is not easy – at least not as easy as maintaining the status quo; but, it can be exciting and rewarding. Given the opportunity, we can redefine the rituals and messages of this season to be reflective of some of the more common values of community, love and hope. Each of us, as educators has that opportunity. What can you do? What will you do?