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Taking Sides: Revolution or Oppression?

By August 2, 2016February 21st, 2022Resources, Stories, Teacher Voice, Teaching Social Justice

“We cannot treat our students as ‘other people’s children’ (Delpit, 1995) — their pain is our pain… audacious hope demands that we reconnect to the collective by struggling alongside one another, sharing in the victories and the pain.” — Jeff Duncan-Andrade

“Why; our backs are now against the wall. Listen all of y’all it’s a sabotage. Listen all of y’all it’s a sabotage. Listen all of y’all it’s a sabotage. Listen all of y’all it’s a sabotage” — Beastie Boys

I went back to work this week. Over the next few weeks, we’ll all be going back, if we haven’t already. Back to vision plans and team norming and curriculum maps and management systems and buzzwords and “deconstructing the standards.” Back to the incessant hum of “there’s never enough time” and “what if this doesn’t work?” Back to waking up from dreams about school and falling asleep by walking through lesson plans and rosters. Back to the pressure of knowing how much good and how much harm we can cause with just a few throw-away words.

As I go back to work this year, there’s a new sense of urgency that I can’t seem to shake. An unsettling conviction that what we do has never mattered more. I don’t need to go through the whys, you know why.

This is not a safe time in America, especially not for brown and black bodies, and my 12-year-olds in East Los Angeles, though they may not understand the why, definitely know the what. At the end of the last school year, I gave my students a survey that included the question, “What are you afraid of?” The far and away top answer was, as one student put it, “a government that wants to get rid of my parents.” This was not a survey about politics. And yet.

The day Philandro Castile was murdered, I received an email from a former student of mine, a brilliant, brave, young black woman. “I’ve been crying and shaking I’m so angry,” she wrote. “I can’t sit and do nothing. I CAN’T SIT BY AND BE SCARED TO HAVE MY STEP DAD DRIVING!.. I need help Mr. T like I need something to do before I go crazy.”

What do you say to that? I tried, did the best I could, cried with her, and knew it wasn’t enough. I didn’t hear back from her for three weeks, until I received a message that began, “I’m so sorry I never responded, I wasn’t strong enough to read it.” She is strong enough, of course. Infinitely stronger than those she fears. And yet.

Our children’s fears indict us all.

As we turn from a summer dominated by brutality and ignorance to the hope inherent in a new school year, we must remember what we stand for. We must remember that teaching is not a passive act. It is not objective. We don’t teach standards. We teach citizens, warriors, scientists, and poets. We teach brilliant, angry, multifaceted, loving, human beings.

Whether we choose to admit it or not, we teach either revolution or oppression. This tension is at the very heart of what we do. We either stand with our children and strive with them to create something better, or we inculcate compliance and tell them that success and excellence are objective metrics to be measured. We cannot teach if we do not ask ourselves why we teach. We cannot teach if we do not ask why our children cry and shake and feel like they’re about to go crazy. We cannot teach if we don’t choose sides.

In Los Angeles, choosing sides is often framed as an argument between charters and the district, between public and privatized education. This argument is, if you’ll excuse me, bullshit. It’s how we avoid the hard conversations. Pointing fingers at other educators is easy; othering always is. It is much messier to question ourselves, to deconstruct a system of which we are all part.

Credit: PhotoPin, licensed under CC by 2.0

In a system where certain voices are privileged over others — those with power versus those without — teaching is revolution. Learning is revolution. Loving is revolution. So, as this school year begins, we must take sides. Revolution or oppression? The choices we make now, the stories we choose to tell now, the vulnerability we share now, will make all the difference in the upcoming months.

My student ended her last e-mail to me by writing, “You push me to want to make a difference.. Thank you.” Let your children push you to want to make a difference. Thank them. Stand with them.

Guest Post by: Dan Thalkar (@dthalkar)
Humanities Teacher in Los Angeles, CA