I teach predominantly Hispanic students. During a student lead discussion today on Ann Petry's biography, "A Glory Over Everything" (which documents Harriet Tubman's life in the 1800s) a question of social justice emerged. Quickly the conversation shifted towards demographics.
But first a little context:
In 1680, blacks made up about 7 percent of the North American population. By the mid 1700s, they accounted for more than 40 percent. More than 90 percent of slaves lived in the South. By 1808 Congress had outlawed the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but not slavery itself. By this time, less than 10 percent of slaves were African-born.
Now, back to the discussion.
Students abruptly narrowed the focus on Tubman's struggles associated with slavery and punctuated by her life in the cotton fields. Petry imparts Tubman's glory and triumph through her freedom songs, chants, and quilt squares while laboring on the plantation.
"Can anyone connect to Tubman's experience here?" I asked awaiting my first brave volunteer.
Since making sound connections is always difficult for 12 year olds I allowed lots of wait time. Suddenly, one student called out, "What was going on with Mexicans during all of this?"
There it is! I thought. An initial attempt at a connection. I stirred the pot. "What do you mean?" I asked
"Well..." he said reluctantly, "...While blacks were being mistreated, how were Mexicans being treated?"
I stood quietly and let the weight of the question linger. Seconds later Student E offered, "This reminds me of the way Mexicans are treated in the U.S. today."
"Can you support that claim? " I proded.
He continued. "Mexicans are mistreated today, like blacks were then. Some states are even passing laws making it legal to discriminate against Mexicans."
A lightbulb went on in students' eyes. Many nodded in a collective sense of discovery. From that point, I began to frame the discussion in a context of victory. "And for the Latino community," I asked "what triumph will emerge from the injustice? What will stand out from their collective experience like a glory over everything?"
A few others responded, but one in particular wrapped up Student E's connection with this jewel, "a sense of community" he added.
I was so proud of the shared knowledge they had constructed. The meaning they had strung together shone brightly like beads on a bracelet. Eager to continue in this vein of self awareness, I moved on to another student standing on the precipice of discovery. The hand adjacent to Student E's caught my eye. "Student A, what connections did you make to the text?" I asked.
"This reminds me of something I saw on TV." Student A offered.
Great prelude. Maybe Student A will share any number of social injustices saturating the news these days. I thought to myself. I asked Student A to be more specific. She continued.
"Haven't you heard of dentist racism? My mom and I were watching a show where the people were discriminating against dentists." she said, intending to be informative.
I admit, the reference escaped me. Without sounding dismissive, I asked her to clarify. She went on to describe a late night show she had watched with her mom about dentist racism.
Silence fell over the room.
Pair by pair, I felt students eyes scan my face in desperate search for their cue. Should I laugh? Should I nod in agreement? These thoughts painted their expressions.
Again, I drew a blank but couldn't risk extinguishing Student A's delicate enthusiasm.
All of a sudden, my Teacher's Aide erupted in laughter. I shot a look of confusion her way. She took a moment to gather herself -- prolonging a moment of discomfort--and in deadpan
delivered these sage words:
Do you remember that episode of Seinfeld? Student A couldn't remember the actual term coined in this clip, so she improvised dentist racism.
My students amaze me. They make me proud. They make me think. The make me do double takes. They give me stories to tell. But most of all, they make me laugh. And that is the glory that prevails.