I feel I’ll disappoint a few of my readers with this blog post. I think I’m ready to shoulder that.
Here’s the deal: as ELA teachers, we have a double-edged sword. On the positive side, we can easily bring the world into our classroom walls; on the negative side, we can easily bring the world into our classroom walls.
There are some days that I don’t believe I have the fortitude to do it. Days like the one a few years ago when a group of boys challenged every lesson in which we learned about the Holocaust in Nazi Germany and the surrounding countries. “We think it could be propaganda,” they intoned. A first for me outside of hearing the president of Iran make such claims, I fought to choose my words wisely and responded to their challenge. Later, these three boys and I talked individually, and, while a lot of this came from being an eighth-grade boy, I also knew that some of their disbelief came from influences outside of my control: parents, news media, and possibly some social media fringe movements.
I want my students to be thinkers, so, while this challenge was a bit scary for me, the incident helped me to shore up my own beliefs about genocide and our need as a society to respect all people.
So, when the events of the summer crashed into my news feed, a little part of me rejoiced that we would not have to discuss these issues in class in all of their fresh pain and anger. The other part of me longed for the interchange the teens in my classroom bring to discussing the events in our world. Compared to adults discussing current events, believe me, it’s so much more refreshing to hear what the teenagers have to bring to the table.
While I’m not entirely certain about which direction the discussion will go when I ask for their thoughts on #blacklivesmatter or immigration or “the Donald”, one thing I’ll know I have to address as I do every year is the “R” word.
I’ll bet you didn’t think this blog would come to that. Welcome to just about any serious discussion in real life or on the comments sections of the interwebs. You can almost always guarantee that the “R” word will surface. It goes down something like this:
LOVER OF ALL CREATURES: I can’t believe all of you people. You are saying such horrible things about [insert a victim or victimized group, human or non-human]! What is this world coming to? You are all retarded.
Yes, that’s the word. The word that even a tender-hearted animal-lover slung out recently on a comment thread. The word that a special education teacher who taught students with mental handicaps spewed when talking about something as inane as the schedule. The word that, invariably, my students will use when they are stumped in an argument with another classmate.
The “R” word. It makes my skin crawl. It hurts my ears. And I know that, if I don’t say something, who will?
My first three years of teaching were in early childhood special education. I daresay that, in thirty years, I have never come across a set of parents who cared more deeply for a child than one particular mother and father who happened to be mentally handicapped. No matter the difficulty, they made it a point to be at every school event, send treats for the class, and provide for their young daughter.
At that same time, my ex-husband and I adopted a child who, now in his thirties, is mentally handicapped. Engaging, funny, and one heck of an athlete, the world is a better place because of Wes. Of course he has limitations, but I daresay there are few individuals on earth who could do as many consecutive cartwheels as he can and probably even fewer who can learn languages as quickly and fluently as Wes.
I really hate that word. What I know, though, is that all it takes to stop others from using it is to say something about it. New school year, new classes—we will have the “R” word discussion. After that my students will work as a team to break the chain of insult and pain. Every year, that’s what they do. Because that’s what they do, I have faith that, when they become adult citizens in our world, they will continue to stop the “R” word.
Because, if not us, if not them, then whom?