Bear witness.

Joanne Jacobs had a post last week referencing a Newsweek article about the new movie Precious (based on the book Push by Sapphire) in which the Newsweek writer complains that Precious should be taught math rather than being encouraged to write her story. And the article and its comments left me frustrated, but I couldn't quite put my finger on why (except of course that I'm a Language Arts teacher and I think my content matters). So I went about my way feeling irritated but unable to articulate a response.

Then yesterday I read a post from Larry Ferlazzo referencing a post from Angela Maiers about using the words, "I notice..." with students. In Angela's post, she quotes the movie Shall We Dance, saying,
"We need a witness to our lives. There's a billion people on the planet... I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you're promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things... all of it, all of the time, every day. You're saying 'Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness'."
And suddenly it was so clear to me.

Everyone needs a witness. Everyone needs to know that their life matters, that THEY matter, that they're SEEN. If you feel like you're nothing, like no one cares, like you have no possible future other than violence and pain and trouble, why would you care about your education? I sure as hell wouldn't.

Maybe I'm speaking hyperbolically when I speak of no possible future. For some kids, I certainly am. Not for all of them, though. For some, it's true.

My content area lends itself to seeing kids - they write about things that matter to them, personal experiences, hopes and fears. And I get to read that writing, and so I get to know more about them than some of their teachers do, perhaps more easily. But the thing is, any teacher can see a kid. Any teacher can get to know them on a personal level. Any teacher can notice a student who seems off and say, "Hey, you okay?" I asked a student that this morning; she told me she'd been crying last night, thinking about her dad who was murdered last year and then her cousin who died yesterday. I'm not close with this student; she told me because I'd asked. Can I do much about her situation? No. But at least she knows that I know her well enough to see when something is wrong. And I'll check in with her again tomorrow to make sure she's okay, or see if she wants to talk any further.

A burden shared is a burden halved; an old, perhaps trite, aphorism...but true. And sometimes burdens are so incredibly heavy that they crush you to where you can't even inch forward. If you don't share it, you'll never get out from under. You'll never be able to move, to heal, to breathe.

See your students. Talk to them. Listen to them. Do it whenever and wherever you can - in the hall, at lunch duty, when they come in to make up a test, at a concert or game. Give them a chance to open up to you. Because they have to tell their stories, they have to know they're seen, they have to get through those life-sucking burdens, or they'll never be able to care about the statistics and probability lessons that Newsweek's Jennie Yabroff thinks are so crucial.

Be their witness.

(Photo credit to Sonnett)


Joan said...

Wow, what a great post!

Though I teach 6th, self-contained, language arts is my love, my passion.

I have nothing to add, you said it so well.

Left Coasting said...

Please consider sending 200 words from this beautiful essay to Newsweek as an LTE. Thank you!

OKP said...

Amen. Well said.

teachin' said...

Thanks, all.

"I'm a dreamer but I ain't the only one Got problems but we love to have fun" -K'naan, "Dreamer"

I teach eighth grade Language Arts at an urban school. My kids kick ass and will change the world. I want everyone to know.
Copyright 2009 I'm a Dreamer All rights reserved.
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