Once upon a time someone accused me of being prejudiced.
I had recently graduated from college and was teaching Spanish and English Literature at an inner city public high school. It was not an easy year, but I learned a lot working with students from every race and ethnic background. Paradoxically, most of what I learned came from the problem students, and I had two of them in my Study Hall.
For thirty minutes every afternoon those two arrived in my classroom with no intention of studying. One student was black, the other was white, and both had reputations which meant that both spent a good portion of their high school career either suspended or in detention. Together, they were Trouble.
One day I walked into the room after the bell rang and announced, “All right people. Let’s settle down and open your books.”
All of a sudden, the black student stood up so quickly that his chair scooted back and hit the wall with a crash.
“What do you mean by people?” he demanded. “Are you talking to the black people in here?”
Outwardly I remained calm; inwardly I was stunned. The class, which up until that moment had been filled with the noise of 17 students settling in their desks, was now deathly silent. Nothing had prepared me for this, but as I looked at that student standing defiantly in the aisle, as I heard the white student snicker, I instinctively knew that I would not, could not allow him to pull me down that rabbit hole. So I calmly told him to either sit down or go talk to the principal.
He chose to go talk to the principal. And on the way to the office he ranted to everyone he met how I had singled him out because he was black.
Now, no one took him seriously. Not the principal and not the students in that Study Hall. Still, as unfounded as his accusations were, the words had been hurled into the air to scatter like confetti and that bothered me.
It bothered me that he labeled me in such a despicable manner and that nothing I could ever do or say was going to convince him otherwise. He had taken the very essence of who I was – the ideals and beliefs upon which I stood and taught – and reduced everything to the color of my skin. And the color of his. How could I defend myself from what he chose to believe about me?
The fact is I couldn’t. He believed what he believed. The only thing I could do was continue to teach my students with love and example. I would not let him change who I was and, most importantly, not allow him to change how I saw others.
A few months later I had an opportunity to address this issue when I overheard some of my students in the hallway laughing at another teacher's quirky character trait. When class began I drew a blob-like design in the middle of a large piece of paper and went around the room asking everyone what they saw. Some students saw a circle, some a black hole, while others said it was a planet or a man’s profile. I asked every student in that room and not one single person – not one! – said they saw the piece of paper.
When I pointed this out to them they became quiet. They had been laughing at the very same teacher who stayed after school to help them with their homework and who checked on them when they were absent. Some of the students looked embarrassed, but just as I had refused to let the actions of one student define all others, I wanted my little lesson to be a reminder not to reduce the whole of a person to one, limiting label.
The school year ended and I never saw that black student again. I don’t know what happened to him, but I often think of him. I wish I could invite him over for dinner, or introduce him to my sons and watch them play basketball together in the driveway. I wish he could meet Sister Gaudiosa who has stayed with us over summers and Christmas vacations – a nun from Tanzania who is a sister to me in every way but blood.
These past few months, as my husband and I watched the horrific events unfold in Dallas and Milwaukee, as images of angry protestors marched across our television screen, as two presidential nominees continue to accuse one another of being racist, I often think back to my first year of teaching. If there was one thing I learned that year it was this: people are people and ultimately – in all the ways that matter – we are more alike than we are different. It sounds so simple, but if we can embrace that one fundamental truth and see Christ’s presence in others, then it’s impossible to go to a place where you can’t see past someone’s race, ethnicity, or religion.
Change is not easy. We can fight racism in the courts, condemn it from the pulpits or broadcast its effects in the news, but ultimately it’s up to each and every individual to decide on whether to include or to exclude, to respect or to resist, to accept or to condemn. It may seem terribly elusive, but to see a change we have to be the change.
Think of it as a Revolution of One in which we all play a part.