Who am I to talk about equity?
I’m a white girl from Wisconsin. I grew up in a middle-class home where my father read me books every night and my mother sat me down at the kitchen table to ensure my homework was completed. All summer long, I ran around with kids from the neighborhood until my parents called me back home, never fearing for my safety or worrying about what was for dinner. I experienced little adversity during my childhood.
Flash forward 20 years, and I’m teaching students who live not more than one mile from my childhood home, yet I hear languages other than English spoken regularly and taste food so different than my farm girl, meat and potatoes diet. I see children wearing worn-out clothing, lining up to take food from our school’s food pantry. I hear stories of abuse and neglect, of single-parents barely making ends meet, of foster children who have bounced around from one home to the next, not believing they are loved. I talk to children who are not yet teenagers contemplating taking their own lives, adolescents who have yet to know of the beauty of living because their lives are so chaotic, they truly cannot slow time down to be a kid. Tiny pieces of my heart break after each story or passing comment, and yet, I know my job is to show love and compassion to these precious souls all the while trying to achieve academic, social, and emotional well-being.
In my early career, I shied away from talking about the “big” topics of racism, sexism, classism, or injustices of any kind. How could I consider teaching about injustice when I had not experienced it myself? Yet, I quickly realized, how could I not foster discussions on these topics when these young ones were living and breathing an entirely different childhood experience than my own. Put simply by educational speaker Kristin Souers, “Children haven’t changed; childhood has.”
With each student who comes into my life, I am becoming more aware of the systemic issues facing these young adults and their lives. I am becoming more aware of how varying family dynamics impact my students’ home life, like Nate who takes care of his younger sister all night when mom works second shift. I am becoming more aware of how language barriers affect the whole child as PaHoua translates every email, phone call, and parent-teacher conference from English to Hmong and back again. I am becoming more aware of the societal perception of technology-obsessed youth that conflicts with my own experiences of young adolescents like Liza who uses technology to create projects to better our society.
I am becoming more aware of the extent to which my children grapple with issues of poverty as Robert is sleeping on a friend’s couch while his family is separated into three other homes, waiting for space to open up at the Salvation Army. I am becoming more aware of the ever-growing mental health needs of my students as Traci battles her inner demons of anxiety and depression as a 13-year-old. I am becoming more aware of how many students have faced trauma and my role to embrace learner-centered healing as Sagar punches a wall because he cannot hold in the anger from past hurts.
I am becoming more aware of the continued resilience of my students, who come to school every day wanting to learn despite the hurdles they may face.
So who am I to talk about equity?
It’s not who I am. It’s who I am becoming.