We Must Not Be Defeated (Optimism In May)

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

62 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, we’re still having a passive-aggressive argument over whether every school-aged child deserves equitable funding for their school. Three-score and two years ago, the legendary Thurgood Marshall led one of the most influential civil rights cases in the nation in BvB, a case whose promise has yet to be delivered in full. Our country has neither the political nor moral will, and most of the arguments sound like “I know there’s a problem, but my kid.” We can’t blame “either side” because on this issue, Americans have reached across the aisle for centuries on engraving inequitable situations. These issues come up almost annually, and, with a renewed focus on racial and social justice, major educational figures from Secretary of Education John King on down have used moments like these to speak to the persistent inequities facing our schools.

In my classroom, I bear a different sort of responsibility to this legacy.

There’s the litigious elements of the work we do: education policy, implemented standards, school funding, and standardized testing, individualized education plans (IEPs), Title 1, and a host of other laws we’ve initialized acronymed. Yet, when our classroom doors shutter, there’s the daily interactions we as educators enact to make our students feel included and academically engaged. As often as I study up on the macro-education policy and the ways we need to deconstruct education reform, I’m equally, if not more so, responsible for the ostensible minutiae of what my students do.

I’m a teacher. Not just. We build students.

That’s why, whenever I hear people call students “trash,” “miscreants,” “animals,” or “garbage,” I get right[eous]ly indignant, as if this system doesn’t treat them as . When we’ve already stopped teaching with a month and a half to go, or when worksheets and rote ed-tech dominate the class over critical thought, I can’t stand by that. How do I sit there as an educator who bears this historical knowledge and listen to folks who are supposed to be my partners in this work say students are not worth the time and effort they pledged? How do we debase ourselves as adults to pretend as if we don’t have a higher calling to teach students love, compassion, and perseverance along with our academic lessons? How do we long for days of yore when American history books tell us our country was splendid, yet we dehumanize the children of the people for whom America holds institutional contempt?

How come we allow ourselves to be a worse teacher than we’d accept for our own children?

In the last few months, I’ve had to watch myself teach and have reflected on my craft in ways I hadn’t been asked to since my first year teaching. For long-time readers of this blog, they know I’m tougher on myself than most of my critics can even fathom. I assume all responsibility for the transparency of my works, and all the dissent that comes thereafter. I’ve had to talk myself off many a metaphorical ledge when I felt like I’ve disappointed the very folks who died to assure that my students and I could have some semblance of educational opportunity in this country.

In our weariest moments, we must take heed from the late Maya Angelou:

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

We need to be unapologetically loving and caring, even to the students who cannot afford that emotion to us. Even if our exterior phenotypes and demeanors differ from adult to adult, our inner mindsets are more transparent to children, unaccustomed to the filters we adults wear to get by. We have necessarily tough jobs. 145 adolescents await my every move, pick apart my flaws, and only show me mercy because I’ve earned their respect.  I’ve had to double down on having a winning aura because I refuse to feel like I’ve lost. I’m nervous around those who see children as humans in need of sifting, sorting, and tossing out like the mandates we dissent against. After more than a decade doing this, I had to build over one thousand relationships.

What about our children wouldn’t prompt you to move mountains for them as if they were your own?

Those of us who work in schools and feel a twitch upon hearing “Brown vs. Board” know how many people would give up their current occupations to show kids care, compassion, and calculus 200+ days a year. We will, at once, fight for a better profession and make sacrifices while we do so. That’s “the work.” We suffer for the ones that have left to moister, more fertile pastures and for those who’ve chosen to stay even as they’ve abandoned optimism. We fight on because we see ourselves as the wedges that holds open an ever-closing door, as evidenced by growing segregation and inequitable resource.

If we focus on our students’ full humanity, we can’t lose.

photo c/o