…reflecting on students, the struggle & social activism by Stacey James McAdoo…
When I was 21 years old my boyfriend very effortlessly, yet meticulously, created a piece of artwork that resonated with every fiber of my being. I wasn’t a mother or educator yet (and at the time was unaware that I ultimately would ever become either), but I knew the chubby-cheeked little boy in the “Born in the Struggle” image quite intimately. I loved him without even knowing him. And I wanted to save him. He was my brother. My cousin. My neighbor. My friend. My classmate. He was every black child – male and female – that society and the schoolhouses had failed. He was also me.
I don’t know when I discovered Margaret Mead’s quote “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” But I do know that just like a lot of Leron’s art, it, too, left its mark on my heart. And when I made the transition into the classroom, I often found myself sharing it with my students.
The only way that I know how to save a child is to empower them…to remind them of the greatness that is already within them…and to encourage them to take their light into the world and make it better. This nudging is sometimes subtle and looks like our beginning of class routine of quick writes, catch-ups, logic questions/riddles and recitations. Other times it’s direct and in the form of one-on-one conferences, whole group discussions, problem-solving tasks, goal setting and lesson plans.
I have developed a very extensive Civil Rights Unit for my Oral Communication class that includes a visit to the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site where they learn about the 1957 Desegregation Crisis and the Little Rock Nine. In the early years, one of the highlights of the lesson for the students was getting to meet the beautiful Spirit Tawfiq (a daughter of one of the courageous Nine).
Once back in the classroom, we debrief the significance of how those nine brave children could look hatred in its face, fight a system designed to oppress them and still grow up to have the ability to love. I share with them how I am personally indebted to those nine children because without them I wouldn’t even have the opportunity to be a teacher at Little Rock Central High School.
Recently a small group of dedicated students decided to pick up the social justice mantle — on their terms. They called out policies and behaviors that they felt were rooted in discrimination, devised a plan and demanded action. Unlike the Little Rock Nine (who were escorted and advised by members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, adults, and community leaders), these specific 2019 students went to battle by themselves. And while I am proud of their conviction and courage, I am deeply saddened by the last two words of the previous sentence: by themselves.
Armed with a lot of questions, days after their cause caught traction I sat down with the youth (none of whom I’ve ever had the honor of being assigned as their teacher of record for any class they’ve had). “Was there a particular reason you didn’t seek out the help of a teacher or trusted advisor ahead of time or did you all just simply not think about it or us at all?” I asked. My heart broke in a thousand pieces when a student looked me in my eye and replied, “Honestly, we didn’t think we would have yall’s support. Plus we didn’t want to get any teachers in trouble or fired.”
Let that sink in.
Students…who are the nucleus of education…the reason for a teacher’s existence… and the subject of many a politician, lobbyist, and policymaker’s rhetoric…who felt they were being discriminated against in a system that was supposedly created for them didn’t think that we — mandated reporters — would have their backs. Additionally, the fact that these teens were keenly aware of the adversarial power struggle that many teachers face and the tight rope that we have to balance was equally as disturbing.
We can teach them about history, try to make it as relevant as possible by connecting them to living history and espouse “Children first” or “We’re doing this for the children” all day long. But if we don’t create an environment (throughout the entire building, district, city and state) where they trust us and honestly believe that we all have their backs, everything we say is just lip service.
What are some specific things that you think we (educators, leaders, community members and policymakers) can do to ensure that our youth feel empowered and supported at school?
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*Stacey James McAdoo, the 2019 Arkansas Teacher of the Year (affectionately referred to as 2019ATOY), is a 16-year Oral Communication instructor, AVID Coordinator and sponsor of the spoken word collective called Writeous Poets from Little Rock, Arkansas. She teaches at the historic Little Rock Central High School where she is the living embodiment of her ATOY platform of using passion and poetry to close the opportunity gap.*