Nobody's perfect, but occasionally I've discovered I'm capable of teaching students useful things. My TA recently told me that she learns something from me everyday which is quite high praise, but my goal is to teach a lot of lifelong skills to students in addition to the definition of hermeneutics or how to find figurative language in a short story.
That's why during my recent lesson on figurative language in Flannery O'Connor's short story "Good Country People" I brought up the fact that disabled people are often hated and other-ized in mainstream culture. As part of my point, I made an offhanded comment about how of course disabled people are hated, and that's why I'd been referred to as an "it" in a public place once. Several students responded in shock to a feature of my life that is so commonplace I forget it really should be upsetting. After class, four students stayed back to ask me about my thoughts on why disabled people experienced this hatred so frequently.
"And don't just say, 'sin,'" my insightful student insisted, "because I want a real answer."
I laughed and promised to give a short "real" answer because he and his friends had meetings and teachers to talk to during access time. "I think our response is to hate what is different, what is other, and that as Jesus followers we have to fight against that."
I elaborated a bit about how I genuinely believe that we have to do something intentional to love people who are different instead of fear them, and I talked about how positive exposure to a particular different group helps with that. When we see someone vastly different from our experience of human, it's disturbingly easy to dehumanize them. People who look at me without knowing me often times are dismissive of me and with small actions and attitudes treat me as something less than.
"But I didn't hate you when I first met you," my thoughtful student was processing this information with his own experience, "And you are the first person I've had a lot of interaction with in a wheelchair. But I respected you from the first day."
"That's because the school had done the initial work of humanizing me in your mind already because I was given a position of authority as your teacher." Depending on the context in which I meet someone, I am able to be seen as a whole person or I am completely dismissed as incapable of all kinds of things rather than just incapable of walking. My brief after school lesson quickly turned to the real life examples of how I struggle to be included even among people who recognize my full humanity.
"Did you know there are three ramps on campus but none of them are safely independently accessible for me?"
"Yeah, and that one by the nurse's office has been redone three times. Each time it's still not safe for me to do by myself. You know what happened after the third time they did it and I couldn't use it?"
"You fought back!"
"I gave up."
This was not the answer my audience was expecting.
"I had no fight left in me. I gave up because my life is complicated enough with other things, and I don't have any energy left to fight that battle. Instead, Mr. Barber and Mr. Coe had to pick up that fight for me because I can't do it for myself. I can't yell anymore, but if their two voices can shout louder than my weakened one, I'll get an accessible ramp someday. I need people like them to stand up for me when I can't do it for myself. I need people like you to be my voice in rooms where I can't enter because you can walk up the stairs that I can't. You need to be the voice who shouts at guys catcalling your friends walking down the street because those girls hear it everyday and feel unsafe walking home at night. You need to speak up for the minority culture groups when you're in majority spaces because purely on the basis of who you are, you are listened to in more rooms than most people."
The student who instigated the conversation had to leave shortly after, but he ended up being roped into making cookies at my house about an hour later. I then had the pleasure of watching two outspoken socialists learn how to crack an egg with two bold libertarians. The four guys have strong political opinions, but I watched them respectfully engage with each other in an intellectually curious and light-hearted conversation before they collectively turned on me.
"Ms. Hewett, you've been suspiciously quiet."
"Yeah, give us some wisdom."
"Aren't you supposed to be teaching us insightful things?"
"I insist upon being taught wise things."
Aside from baking cookies, they practiced some important life skills that afternoon in my kitchen. Jokes on them for that painless lesson on loving your neighbor. It might have been one of my greatest lessons. Not all of my lessons are that great. I'm learning the balance in celebrating the successes outside the classroom that are built on the foundation of good lessons and positive rapport in my classroom. I worked hard on planning the lesson around Flannery O'Connor's short story, but the hour I had all my students took a shift from what I expected and then blossomed into something potentially wonderful. I think I did something right. As I shared the success story with a couple friends this week, I wondered how effective I would be at communicating that same truth to the faceless masses of the internet.
Just like sometimes in my classroom, I won't really know my success rate. Four out of eighteen kids kept the conversation going, but there could be several more who were positively impacted in some way. Likes, comments, and shares are an indication of a blog reader's engagement, but I'm more hopeful for changed lives. One of those four students who hung back asked me intentionally how she could be a better advocate for those with disabilities when she didn't know what their struggles were. I shared that it was a huge first step just opening her eyes to realize she was in a position to help and that she should continue to look for barriers keeping people out of places. I would encourage you, too, to look for ways you can help include people who are different than you - ability, gender, ethnicity or more. There's always someone you can help, and I think looking for that is doing something right.