In the wake and aftermath of the horrific events that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia last Saturday, my heart goes out to the family of Heather Heyer. She was a 32-year-old paralegal who did what she could to stand up to the bigotry and hate that reared its ugly head in her hometown. If given the opportunity, I believe that I would have done the same thing as Heather--joining a protest and taking a stand against divisiveness while supporting inclusivity. She was tragically killed by a 20-year-old male from Ohio, an open member of the alt-right, who deliberately rammed his car into a group of protestors at a high rate of speed and then raced away, leaving dead and injured people behind with clearly no compassion for them whatsoever. It’s jarring for me to think that what happened to Heather Heyer on Saturday could have easily happened to me.
Equally as shocking to me is how socially acceptable it has become for a legion of white men to march in the streets carrying torches and Nazi and Rebel flags. I believe strongly in their ability to peacefully protest, though I personally disagree with everything they represent. My issues are not so much that they protested the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, but that they did so in a violent manner and, of course, the flags.
I just returned from an EF Tours Holocaust in Europe trip. A total of 49 high school students and parents to made the voyage overseas to bear witness to the worst humanitarian disaster in our world’s history. While walking somberly on the grounds of Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Dachau it’s easy to wonder how such a thing happened. Fast forward two months from me being in those concentration camps, turn on the news, and I have my answer. When it becomes socially acceptable to openly, and brazenly, display your hatred toward your fellow man, that’s how it happens. When the leader of a country draws false equivalencies and refuses to denounce such actions, and they become stronger as and more intense as a result, that’s how it happens. When the general public gets tired of fighting for the oppressed, that’s how it happens. Fortunately, on that last point, we are far from there.
Teachers are morally obligated to lead this charge. Christina Torres, an English teacher in Hawaii and a former Hope Street Group State Teacher Fellow, said in a blog on Education Week:
“We must teach our students that the ‘history’ of these events is far from ‘past’ and ‘passed.’ The history our students face now is a very living thing that we must learn about in order to affect change for our future. The longer we live with the myth of racism or its tendrils as bygone ideas, the more we provide the tinder of complacency that allows fires of hatred to fly through our streets.
As many of us prepare to return to our classrooms, we don't just need to buy flowers and make bulletin boards. We need to prepare and read resources (like #CharlottesvilleCurriculum from Melinda Anderson) that help us make space in our classrooms to discuss these events. We need to ensure that we treat our students' stories and the stories happening right now as a very real, living thing that our kids have the ability to change. They deserve that knowledge. They deserve that power.” I couldn’t agree more.
What will this look like in my 11th grade English classroom? I’m not entirely sure yet. I need time to process this recent event. Perhaps my students will return to class eager to discuss it, which would provide me with a teachable moment on which I would surely pounce. If that doesn’t happen, and I don’t expect that it will, then I will likely encourage my students to investigate this issue for themselves and draw their own conclusions about how they have the ability to change society for the better. It’s scary giving my students such autonomy to make up their own minds and leaving my own opinion out of it. I’m not too worried, though. Despite the despicable display of hate and intolerance in Charlottesville, I still firmly believe that most people are good; they recognize that for American society to thrive, we need to be tolerant, unprejudiced, and accepting of our differences.