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Let’s First Read the Book

Posted By Michelle George | Sep 16, 2014

       Lately the news is filled with stories of discrimination, hate, and violence. One example is an interview I watched last week with a young man from Ferguson, Missouri. He was standing on the sidewalk dressed in a tank top and low-slung jeans. I don’t remember his exact words, but he said something like, “A cop comes up and he says, ‘Pull up those jeans; you look like a criminal.’ What am I supposed to do with that?”

    Now I have no doubt that the officers in Ferguson, and everywhere in the world, have dealt with enough problem characters to be tempted to categorize people on sight. I also know without a doubt that every kid in baggy pants is not out to rob, pillage, and plunder. Police men and women have tough, dangerous jobs and often have to make quick judgments. As educators, we are often tempted to make judgments just as quickly when we meet new students.

    This year we may greet kids with purple mohawks, pierced tongues, and smiling skull tattoos. A few will come slouching in, glaring at the world, anticipating a standoff. Our first inclination may be to size those kids up as hooligans with no interest in learning, and to write them off before the first bell even rings. We must, however, take some time to look beyond the cover.   

       I learned this lesson the hard way. One of my most painful experiences came during my first year of teaching. We had an eighth grade student who came from a tough family. Her outfits always matched because she only wore black. Her older family members had been more involved in drugs than academics. I don’t think anyone was overtly mean to her, but both faculty and students had very low expectations. When she didn’t finish an assignment or remained silent during class discussions, it came as no surprise. Everyone just accepted her failure as inevitable.

    Early in the second semester, this young lady hanged herself from the football bleachers. Her note explained that she knew no one at school cared about her, and she might as well be dead. I’ll carry the weight of her death forever.

      Since then I’ve tried to ignore the facade of my new students and listen to their individual stories. About five years ago I had a great opportunity. A young girl moved to town about midterm of the second quarter. She walked into second period and announced loudly that she hated school and hated our town. She had blue hair. One side of her head was shaved close to the scalp, and on the other side her hair swung past her shoulder. Her ear lobes had such large holes in them that I could see the whiteboard behind her. It took me some time to understand how to pronounce her name because of the marble-sized ball skewering her tongue.

    My other students sat slack-jawed, in awe of this new student. I greeted her warmly, got her settled in, and started on the assignment.

       Over the next few days she explained in cleverly colorful language that she didn’t “do” school. I was so impressed by her phrasing that I encouraged her to use that topic for her upcoming essay assignment. She did, and it was stupendous! She went on to win a statewide essay contest that spring.

    Now I’d be lying if I said that this young lady enjoyed a school year filled with only successes and sunshine, but she did discover that she had meaningful things to say, and people were interested in reading what she wrote. I also had the privilege of getting to know a remarkable and resilient young woman. Her story was well worth my time.

     So this year I’m challenging myself and all of you to look beyond the covers of the students and adults who walk into our lives this fall. Ignore the tattoos and gritted teeth. Take some time and get to know each of the people you meet as individuals. Maybe I’ll ask why they picked blue hair and not green. What kind of music do they like? Why do they think the rapper Jay-Z is so cool? I’m going to try to read at least a few pages of each person’s book before I write my review. Maybe we can all learn a few things this year.

 

 

 

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