During the first week of May 1963, more than 800 African-American students walked out of their classrooms and into the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, to call for an end to segregation. Despite frequent arrests and having dogs and high-pressure firehoses turned on them, they kept marching. Their determination and ceaseless bravery—later called the Children’s Crusade—was captured in photographs and newspaper articles across the country. Through acts of peaceful and defiant civil disobedience, these students accomplished what their parents had failed to do: sway public opinion in support of the civil-rights movement.
Fast forward to March 24, 2018. Naomi Wadler, a fifth grader, is standing at a podium in front of hundreds of thousands of protesters at the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC. Young as she was, Wadler, who organized a walkout at her elementary school to honor the 17 victims of the Parkland massacre, delivered a searing and heartfelt speech about the countless gun-related deaths of African-American women in America. Her steely resolve and the power of her message brought me to tears. I wondered: Is this what it will take? Will a new generation of fearless student-leaders be the agents of change that America so desperately needs?
As a teacher, it took me a while to begin to see just what my students truly had in them. During my first two years of high-school teaching, I’m not sure I loved or even liked my teenage students. If someone asked me about my job, I knew the right things to say—working with teenagers was challenging yet inspiring—but I didn’t believe the lip service I was paying the profession. Much of my initial experience in the classroom was emotionally draining, engaged as I was in power struggles with those students, trying to assert my influence and control over them.
It seemed so clear to me then. I was their teacher; they were my students. So I set out to establish a dynamic of one-way respect. I would provide information; they would listen and absorb it. This top-down approach was the model I’d observed and experienced my entire life. Adults talk, kids listen. So it couldn’t have been more unsettling to me when certain of those students—by sheer force of spirit, will, or intelligence—objected. They caused friction in my classroom and so I saw them as impediments to my work. When they protested by arguing with me or “talking back,” I bristled and dug my heels in deeper. I resented them. They posed a continual threat to my ego and my position as the unassailable owner of the classroom stage.
Still, I knew something was wrong. In the quiet hours of the early morning I’d often wake up and feel a discomfort I can’t describe. I’d run through exchanges from the previous day that left me wondering if I was doing more harm than good in that classroom. Yes, I continued to assert my right to the ownership of knowledge, but was I actually teaching anyone anything? I was—I could feel it—actively disregarding the emotional and intellectual capacities of my students, unwilling to see them as informed, competent, and worthy of being heard. I was, I realized, becoming the very kind of person I hated when I was in high school: the adult who demanded respect but gave none in return.