The After: Educating in Charlottesville by Sarah FitzHenry
First, there was a before. Sunshine, music, blissful ignorance. And then, they marched. Screaming, burning, ravaging, leaving blood and hysteria in their wake. And when they were finished, they left. The news cameras hovered for another week or two, littering our parks, rubbing their salt. And then, they left too. The buzz faded, the world moved on. The after began. And in this after, we were left, horrified and grieving, to watch the dust settle.
Let’s get this out of the way, and save you the Googling: I am white. I am privileged. I have spent the majority of my adult life using highbrow terms like “colorblind” and “circle of poverty.” In my six years of teaching in the Charlottesville area, I have worked in a range of schools; with thousands of students, tiny hands ranging from the darkest midnight black to smooth silky caramels to pink peachy whites. I taught them, held them, and smugly thought that I understood them. Until the after. Taylor Harris, an incredibly talented writer (and the mother of a beloved former student) wrote in a recent article, “Because when you discover racism, there is no dipping your toes in the water, no testing the temperature out. There is no great scaffolding, no good metric or measure for how to best encounter this strange American birthright of flesh-based hatred.” Once you know, you know. And there’s no going back. I thought I understood, before: But now, I know that I was wrong. Because in the after, I see.
In other words, I know enough to understand that I have no right to talk about hatred and bigotry in America. So I asked for help. I reached out to my Charlottesville network: How did the events on August 12 change you as an educator? Charlottesville’s educational force is a tapestry of colors, shapes, sizes, and cultural and political backgrounds, and I collected responses from as many as I could. I wish I could share all of their words with you, but space is limited. For the sake of their privacy, I will not be sharing names or personal details.
They were thoughtful, solemn, passionate; scared, inspired, determined. Many of the educators that I talked to mentioned feelings they were unable to shake. “Who of our community was there that day, marching with the white supremacists? How do we know?”, one of my first subjects wondered. “It seems like so many people were not aware that these groups were real. The way that we teach needs to change. It needed to change before, too. But now, it needs to change even more urgently.” Across the table, another educator slumped. “Yes, but I’m exhausted,” she said. “Tapped out. I have been since the election, but that day just put me over. I see so much more need…there is so much I want to do.” She stopped and put her head in her hands.
As my interviews continued, each educator gave a unique point of view. “We have to learn to see past the single story,” one declared adamantly. Another quietly admitted new nerves about offending parents and answering to administrators; “Are these conversations family territory? What is family territory? Is that changing now?” In a separate interview, a teacher cried, “We have a responsibility – you’ll notice that I didn’t use the word ‘right’- to take a stand. We are raising citizens.”
In a series of interviews, I noticed one common theme: Every teacher expressed a past fear, as mentors and public figures in the community, to take any sort of political stand. They had worked hard to balance teaching what they believed on one hand with staying neutral so as not to stir up trouble on the other. Now, in the after, the definition of politics has changed. Speaking out no longer feels political; it feels human. They see that the stakes are too high to stay silent. They all gave the same cry: We can no longer afford to stand neutrally on the sidelines, hoping that students absorb our subtle messages. We need to be louder, braver, more direct. We need to act.
So what does that look like? It looks like moving that controversial novel from the I wish I could teach this, but… pile to the required reading this semester pile. It looks like halting the class discussion to deal, head on, with a comment that in the past would have been ignored with gritted teeth. It is knowing that diversity is nothing without inclusion. It is reminding ourselves everyday that the questions and statements of a child do not come from a place of hatred, but from curiosity and misunderstanding; and welcoming these difficult conversations into our classrooms. It is knowing that the fear of the mistakes that we will make in our teaching – the big, messy, heart-wrenching mistakes we are so sure to make – is nothing compared to the fear of staying silent. It is learning to listen more than we speak. It is no longer resting on thoughts like he’s a kid, he doesn’t know any better; but instead looking a child in the eye and asking respectfully, why do you feel that way? and, can you tell me more about that? It is the knowledge that they are watching; constantly, diligently watching; and that even our smallest actions and words will become stones in their foundation.
As teachers, we find solace and inspiration in information. And so we are finally delving into the history of our beloved city, beginning to understand that This is not Charlottesville may not be completely true; recognizing our own privilege and bias, learning to look critically in the mirror. We did not sign on for a lifetime of working with children because we had the answers. Instead, we chose this career because we feel deeply and believe passionately in the acts of questioning, growing, evolving.
As difficult and inconceivable as it may be, we have found ourselves here, at this moment in history. We cannot change the past, and we cannot shy away from its repercussions. “Teaching, community, what we do – it was always about equality. I didn’t see it before…now I do,” a young coworker said, his words again bringing to mind the idea of a definitive, apocalyptic before and after. “There is no more time to teach them to be kind and hope they make good choices. It’s time to be direct. If they stand up, they can change things. If not, things will change in the other direction. They need to understand the power that they have. There are no longer enough reasons to stay quiet.” And so, we will do what we always do; and yet, we will do it differently than in the before. We will take our pain and fury and passion and turn it into something constructive. We will teach.
Sarah FitzHenry is passionate about creating school libraries that make every child feel welcome, confident, and safe. The K-8 Librarian at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, VA, Sarah is the voice behind library blog Fitz Between the Shelves. She writes and speaks internationally about school libraries, technology, and the joy of being a nerd. Sarah is a proud member of Books on Bikes, a robotics coach, a maker, and a lifelong learner. Follow her adventures on Instagram @fitzbetweentheshelves and Twitter @fitzbtwenshelves.