The shooting in Orlando this weekend has weighed heavily on my mind for the past few days; it has settled into the back of my brain, penetrating my thoughts whenever I get a moment to rest between the hectic last days of school. While I only know victims through six degrees of separation, I can’t help but see the images of friends, family, and students in the 49 faces of those murdered.
I’m not sure if it is the lockdown drills at school that make these tragedies feel all the more chilling and real, or if it’s the targeting of LGBTQ+ populations when I, oftentimes for the first time, watch young people finding their true identities in my classroom, but this time I feel nauseous and weak and powerless.
To think that this is the world my students are graduating into and growing up in, is frightening.
But as I scrolled through the profiles of the deceased, I found a statement from the father of victim Mercedez Flores. He wrote, “We must all come together, we must all be at peace, we must all love each other, because this hatred cannot continue for the rest of our lives.” That is what the workshop classroom allows me to share with my students—a corner of this peace and love. It opens a door for me to connect with them on a personal level, allowing them to find not only acceptance but also stories, understanding, and success in their books. Allowing them to open up to new literature and explore themselves as a reader sends the message that I not only value them as learners, but I value them as diverse people with a wide variety of needs, curiosities, and interests. This avenue may only be minor, but in the wake of all the hatred and fear, I hope my classroom is a respite from the world. A place where students can learn to at least respect one another’s differences without judgment or condescension, a place where we can explore the difficult themes and navigate challenging conversations in safety.
Everyday gives me a little more hope that this next generation has begun thinking about the innumerable struggles they will have to face. As one of my students wrote about the universality of To Kill A Mockingbird, “For an innocent man to be found guilty is a miscarriage of justice, but for an innocent man to be found guilty for being black is a result of bigotry and prejudice, and shouldn’t happen…Sadly, as seen with Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and others, racism still does exist in this country. To Kill A Mockingbird is a constant reminder of how far we have come and how far left we still have to go when it comes to overcoming racism.” Charlie’s words remind us that stories show us both the fallibility and overwhelming strength of the human condition.
Yesterday morning, as I prepared for my last day of classes (we still have three more days of exams), I reminded myself that teaching allows me to model a life of acceptance and love, of caring and compassion, of concern and advocacy. It may not be much in the general scheme of things, but it is the most productive way I can handle the tragedies our country continues to face. Between cramming in grading and pulling together final assessments, I spent invaluable time writing notes to my classes, collecting ice cream toppings for our last day parties and signing the backs of photos of my students with the books they read this year.
The best part is that the love is returned as graduating seniors from years prior show
up at my door to hug me good bye and have me sign their yearbooks. College students visit to update me on their lives, current students voluntarily help me pack up my room, and former students spend their first summer afternoon organizing my bookshelves for future students. For all the hate that exists in this world, there is far more kindness, far more compassion, and far more love. I know because my students remind me of this every day.