Respecting the Image: Teaching for Social Justice

I was in my first year of teaching. It was second semester, and I was having to teach a required ACT course. I was burnt out. One of my students in the back of the classroom had his hood on and was exchanging dollar bills with another student. As a public school student myself, whose model of classroom management that I had received from my own teachers had been one of confrontation, I knew exactly how to handle this situation. I needed to shame the student to get his attention. It didn’t matter that my teaching context was a predominantly African-American school in Mississippi, right?

“_____________, you may not care about your future, but please respect that others around you may.”

It is with much embarrassment that I admit that I said that. Not surprisingly, the situation quickly escalated. In order to save face, the student responded with profanities. Before I knew it, he stood up, dropped his book bag, and raised his hands as if preparing for a street brawl. I had degraded a student’s dignity and worth to the point where he felt he had to fight me for it. A defiant tear ran down one side of his face, and I watched him brush it away before his friends could see. That moment in time still flickers through my mind like some image on a film reel that I cannot unsee.

I have learned a lot about teaching in an African-American school over the last three years. I share that anecdote, because it was a turning point for me where I began to realize that, as a white teacher, correcting black students in a state that is still fraught with racial tensions comes with a lot of historical baggage. You can try to ignore it. You can dismiss acknowledging it as white guilt. But it is there. It’s a pain that resonates on my student’s faces, students who do not have the benefit of saying, “I don’t see color. My primary identity is not my race.” It’s convenient for whites as the majority to downplay race as a primary factor in identity, because the majority does not have to account for that in their identity. This is something I have only recently come to understand: how the African-American community is a people robbed of a collective history because of the 18th and 19th century practices of manstealing. Or rather they have a different collective history, one that is inseparable from the trauma of slavery and segregation.

In terms of my teaching, this has transformed my approach. Unless I recognize and respect the unique identity of each individual student, I am not teaching in a way that respects the image of God in them. And inherent to the identity of each African-American student is the narrative of how whites have treated blacks. If I (we) want to change that narrative, it does not happen by pretending it is no longer relevant. It only happens through empathy: imaginatively entering their experience and understanding their perspective. By empathy, I do not mean a paternalistic kind of sympathy. That kind of approach only further perpetuates injustice and inequality. Sympathy looks from the outside while empathy looks from the inside. Sympathy looks down on one in pain while empathy looks across to one in pain. Only when we seek, albeit imperfectly, to understand what our neighbor is going through will we foster equality.

And so I ask my white brothers and sisters, when you look at the face of an African-American adolescent, what do you see? Do you see the context of pain and suffering and inescapability of them having to define themselves by their own skin color? If you do not begin there, you do not see. My eyes are now starting to open, but my vision is still blurred. I repent of times when I have acted in ignorance or not loved my African-American neighbor or brother or sister well, and I continue to repent. Gradually, by God’s grace, my sight is improving.

When a Wife Leaves: On the Lost Art of Lamenting

There wasn’t a “Dear John” letter pinned to the fridge. No one’s clothes were dumped on the front lawn. She didn’t speak the words, “I’m leaving you.” Instead: silence. A nearly six month long, poignant and enduring noiselessness that signified the ending of a nine-and-a-half year sharing of lives.

I write from a place of pain. I don’t write for sympathy, and I don’t write to win arguments. Writing for me though is a way to heal. Since my separation, the great paradox has been that in my brokenness I have been able to experience a wholeness. That there has been real loss—for the one flesh has been torn apart—is something that I am compelled to give voice to.

Perhaps my readership would still question why I write this. Aside from the necessity of lamenting in order to fully heal, a practice our culture too often neglects, there is a need for all art, particularly writing, to be honest. Ernest Hemingway said, “Write the truest sentence that you know.” Honesty should not be confused with indiscretion. There is much of my narrative that remains private. Like all stories, there are many details that need to remain submerged beneath frozen waters. Nevertheless, it is still a story and all stories that are meaningful must be truthful.

Also, stories have a beginning. As I hope to speak with forthrightness about life, art, theology, and culture as on previous blogs, I felt it was necessary to begin with where I’m at now. It would seem disingenuous when my chest is gaping to begin with a film analysis or a culture reflection, a kind of false comfort, like the music that played while the Titanic sank. Rather, I start with my wounds clear and on display and am reminded that our Savior shows–not hides–his wounds.

I discover that there is a great mystery here: without touching the wounds, both his and mine, there is no wholeness. If I do not lament, there is no life. Our culture, even the church, tries to circumvent the grieving process, tries to shortchange the need to inhabit our loss. We expect recovery, even demand recovery after little rest. As a result, we are the wandering dead, roaming with no places to lay our heads.

And so I put my head on the pillow of suffering, embracing and not escaping the mourning process, for it is the only way to truly live. And though I make my bed in a house that’s no longer home and I sleep alone, I know I wake to a new morning.

This is my expression, my lament. These words are the tears I shed. With each passing day, the mending continues. There are haunts hanging on pictures on these four walls that frighten and yet if these are my ghosts, I don’t ever want to be purged. Memories cast evening shadows long and drawn but even departing experiences cast a light to be chased. I don’t want to recall; I don’t want to forget. A queen-sized bed lies as a fossil with covers made and untouched since November. A master bedroom remains an untouched sanctum as if the matrimonial spirits can be sealed inside.

The kitchen, this place, has become utilitarian. My table has become a chair. I only eat to be filled. A Crayola sketch dangles from the fridge door, all the characters still in place: Mommy, Daddy, big sister, brother, and her. I cannot help but wonder what her family portraits would look like now. When the night approaches, I call out into the darkness, to no one, to God. The void surrounds me ravenous, like a wolf. I know my Shepherd won’t let it swallow me.

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