Last week, I wrote about the remarkable work Jeanne Bohannon is doing to help her often deeply conservative students reach beyond their own boundaries and engage with differences. I’m writing today about another remarkable teacher, Maria Roberts, whom I’ve known for a very long time from the Bread Loaf School of English but who also responded to my call to survey students about what they thought helped—and hurt—their ability to engage with people who held differing views than they did. And Maria was gracious enough to speak with me, at length, about her experiences (as a potentially vulnerable but also fearless and indomitable part-time instructor), her students (80% white with small percentages of African American, Hispanic, and international students), and her school (small, and in a rural area of Colorado). The students of color and international students tend to live on one side of campus; the white students on the other side. And last year at Halloween, some white students came in Klan robes and one faculty member in blackface.
In this atmosphere, Maria says, being able to speak is “all about courage.” In her classrooms, she strives to create a safe space where such courage can be seen and engaged and rewarded. She says that if she provides a place that is understood to be a safe place to talk, they do talk, open up, and are honest with one another. But doing so requires constant work and vigilance on her part—she must be aware of where everyone is, literally and metaphorically, all the time.
For Maria, the connection between teacher and students is key and it takes time to establish the trust that will allow that connection to grow and solidify. Clearly, she and many of her students have such relationships—and she is always reaching out, opening doors, and hoping to reach others. After our conversation, Maria shared a message she had from a former student who was reflecting on her experiences engaging with difference. Here are some of her extraordinary remarks:
I’d say in general I was uncomfortable talking to people who “looked” different from me (i.e. minorities) because I really had just never done it before. Our school is pretty homogeneous and a lack of exposure to other cultures puts people at a disadvantage. Mostly, though, I was afraid of saying something wrong or coming off as racist. Now [that] I’ve moved to one of the most diverse areas of the country, it’s gotten easier. I still catch myself being intolerant of other people’s experiences because I don’t understand: like a person of color talking about being treated unfairly, I might think “that doesn’t happen now.” BUT I then try to think from the other person’s perspective and recognize my blatant white privilege. When it is to politics or religion, I absolutely don’t feel comfortable talking about those things to people I don’t know and often not even people I do know. There’s too much hate and intolerance of differing opinions today. I would love to have productive conversations about these topics, but it seems impossible to do so.
For me, it’s a little more complicated because as a journalist I’m supposed to portray a façade of neutrality. I recently was assigned to write a story about comments some parents made during a public meeting essentially saying that Black and Hispanic students couldn’t perform at the same level as whites. Since that story was published, some people said it sparked important conversations and changes, but other people were hurt and offended and mad. Without having these conversations, I don’t think people can understand these are real issues in today’s society. Rather, they assume the issues are just legends and they don’t “happen here.”
In fact, Maria said, the backlash against this young journalist was severe, requiring her to have protection. This former student shows the kind of courage Maria described earlier, courage that often or always comes with a cost. But this student knew one safe haven she could always turn to: her former teacher. Hence a lengthy conversation, back and forth, as Maria listens, encourages, and most of all understands.
I think of Maria and teachers like her every single day who are slowly but inexorably making a difference in students’ lives. Yes, it is all about courage. But before that, it is all about listening and all about trust. About building a place that is safe.
Image Credit: Pixabay Image 3488861 by congerdesign, used under the Pixabay License