This morning, one of my students came in to tell me she’d finished reading Angie Thomas’ important and beautiful book, The Hate U Give.
When I asked her what she thought, she paused. “I liked it,” she began, and that’s when I thought, Oh, no, there’s a “but…” coming. I braced myself.
“It makes me want to do more.”
I display books around my room in the hopes that as students’ eyes—and attention—wander from me, they’ll see a book that catches their interest, perhaps just enough to get them to pick it up and read. The Hate U Give was sitting on my window shelf for less than a day when one student asked to borrow it, read it, and then recommend it to a friend a few days later. A week later, now two of my students finished the book while a third is on her way.
As I talked with my student today, I could understand exactly where she was coming from. The book does make you want to do more. It makes you wanna to holler, to scream. “Do you think that it’s a book that kids here can relate to?” I asked. She shook her head; she wasn’t sure. Our school is in an affluent, high achieving suburban district. Students boast, rightfully, that it’s better than most private schools in the area. As a story of a black teenage girl who witnesses the police shooting of her childhood friend—what does The Hate U Give have to offer to kids at a place at this?
“It makes me want to do more.”
That. That’s what a book like The Hate U Give has to offer. Its power to build empathy—to move, to transform, to shift our inner selves so that our outer actions might follow. That’s what I think my student was getting at.
We only talked for a few minutes before class had to start, but her words stayed with me all day. In the moment, I didn’t have a good answer for her. How could she do more? What more could she or I or any of us do? And students do want to do more.
Leading up to, and especially since the election, I’d never seen so many students interested in what was happening in the world, who were genuinely concerned about what was happening to society beyond their school walls—and they want to do something about it. I’ve never read so many student essays on politics and civic engagement. Another student (same class) wrote in one essay that she’d never been someone who was interested in politics, that she often tuned out when she heard her parents or peers talking politics. But because of the election, she could no longer look away. She began to listen, read, and wade into conversations she had always before avoided.
Like many teachers, I’ve struggled with how to best help students navigate this time, especially since teaching is often a landmine for controversy. At a recent writing project meeting, one teacher became visibly agitated as the conversation turned toward being advocates for our students. She opposed the suggestion to purposefully include diverse texts, texts like the new documentary novel, Loving v. Virginia. To her, these texts were too controversial.
The wonderful Rebecca Solnit reminds us: “The past guides us. The future needs us.”
“We should let students form their own opinions,” she insisted, as if our job as teachers was ever completely neutral. If anything, I think a neutral teacher is a dangerous one. As educators, it’s our responsibility to point out injustice when we see it, to extend basic decency and kindness to our fellow human beings. There is no way to be neutral about that. As King once wrote, we should be extremists for that kind of love and compassion, built on universal acceptance and equality. And although I could understand why some teachers might avoid any issues even tangentially related to politics, racism, or sexism, I don’t think we can.
Because doing nothing isn’t really doing nothing. Silence is a choice—a choice to perpetuate the status quo. And let’s be honest, the status quo means that historically powerful groups stay powerful, and historically marginalized groups stay marginalized. If we aren’t doing something to challenge the status quo, we are complicit and we are responsible. We teach students not to be bystanders, but how are we bystanders in the decisions we make (or fail to make) every day? Students notice what we don’t say, the conversations we avoid. They’re listening, and our silence speaks volumes.
So with that in mind, I think to this morning’s conversation with my student, to her words: “It makes me want to do more.” I didn’t have a good response in the moment, but here’s what I’d say to her now:
What can she (we) do?
1. Recommend the book to others.
If it changed and challenged your thinking, it will hopefully do the same for others. Reading may be an inherently individual experience, but books are meant to be shared. Books and the stories they tell are still the most powerful way to develop empathy. At the ILA conference last summer, keynote speaker Adora Svitak asked the crowd, “What is literacy for?” Despite what employers and colleges and some teachers might tell you, the answer has nothing to do with having a successful career. Literacy is single most powerful tool to develop empathy and to guard against tyranny. Put books like The Hate U Give in the hands of your friends, family, and anyone who could benefit from its insight.
2. Read more books.
We are fortunate to live at a time when more books written by and for people of color are being published. Follow #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Read to learn about all experiences. Study history, politics, culture. Immerse yourself in the liberal arts. Study ethics and psychology. Most of the injustices examined in The Hate U Give and other texts like it aren’t bound to the pages between its covers. Those injustices have been the result of centuries of systemic and institutional inequities. By understanding the complexities of these issues, you’ll be in a better position to discuss them in an open-minded and reasonable way the next time you engage in conversation with someone who might not agree with you. Educate yourself and others.
3. Speak up.
Many of us choose to be silent because we might feel like we don’t have a full understanding of the issues. Or we might convince ourselves that it’s none of our business. But real change begins at the individual level, when one person talks to another, when one person speaks up for another. If there’s injustice in our presence, we have an obligation to do something about it. Be mindful of things people say that might seem harmless or “in good fun”—those are the most dangerous types of comments. Don’t let the fear of being labeled “politically correct” prevent you from speaking up on behalf of another person’s dignity. Listen for what people mean versus what they say and ask questions.
4. Think globally. Act locally.
The problems of the world today seem so big that we feel may feel helpless do anything. But the problems of the world have always been big. Find ways to effect small and deliberate change on the local level. Sometimes that means just getting involved in local government by attending school board meetings or volunteering for a local politician’s campaign or knocking on doors to canvas for a cause. Hold those with power accountable by asking questions. That said, taking action doesn’t have to be political, per se. Ask yourself: what is something I can to make my community stronger or to help others? Even seemingly small things today can have big impacts later. As Rebecca Solnit wrote, “the doing is the crucial thing.”
5. Exercise humility; practice empathy.
Perhaps the most important thing we can do, even as we become passionately impassioned about our beliefs and values, is to constantly check our own biases and to acknowledge our own limitations, our own blind spots. In practicing this humility, we put ourselves in a better position to empathize with others. It’s hard not to blame the other side, but if we ask ourselves why others feels the way they feel, if we start from a position of seeking to understand rather than seeking to blame, we might be able to listen a little bit better.
And that little bit can make a lot of difference sometimes.
This post is part of the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, who have created a space for writers and teachers of writers to come together. To learn more about this challenge, click here.