“The simple truth is that the truth does not exist, it all depends on a person’s point of view.” – Laura Esquivel
When I taught United States History to 11th graders in 2011, I carried this quote with me. After all, students of history are required to examine accounts of events with competing narratives—none of which capture the whole story. Was Christopher Columbus a heroic explorer, or was he a foreign invader who spread deadly diseases? Did the U.S.’ decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki end World War II and avoid future casualties, or was it a moral failing that destroyed two cities?
The classroom discussion that remains with me to this day was about President Roosevelt’s 1942 decision to sign Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment of Americans of Japanese descent. I asked my students to consider this moment in history from two perspectives: the U.S. government attempting to protect a nation during wartime, and Japanese citizens and immigrants who were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to internment camps.
I still clearly remember my students wrestling with both of these perspectives. Individuals who run a government in wartime can be in a situation where they feel they must do whatever is necessary to protect the country. But it is also critical to imagine ourselves as members of a group targeted because of their nationality. I believe one of my most important jobs in the classroom was to teach my students how to be thoughtful and empathetic when grappling with the world’s complexity—even when it shows that what we want to believe isn’t true.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen competing narratives about America once again take center stage. Are we truly a country built on ideals of equality, liberty and justice? In Charlottesville we saw an ugly display of white supremacy and division. Our southeastern states have faced horrific storms that have resulted in tragic loss, but also the beautiful unity of neighbor helping neighbor. Undocumented young people are facing an uncertain future with the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, stripping hope from thousands who did not choose to come to this country.
What has struck me most during this time is how educators have embraced their responsibility to help students reflect and respond to these situations. As I experienced in the classroom, delivering instructional content is only one part of a teacher’s job. Teachers are often the first to hear students’ reactions, thoughts and feelings when any family, local or national event takes place. This week, there are teachers who will teach, but more importantly comfort children who feel unsafe because of the color of their skin, children who have lost their homes, and children who are undocumented. Because as teachers, they know that there are many things in a child’s life—including the color their skin, the wrath of Mother Nature, or the choice of where to live—that are beyond the child’s control.
How we relate to others is more important today than it’s ever been. I cannot count the number of teachers and school leaders that are taking on challenging issues of race, identity and livelihood so that students feel safe and welcomed in their schools. Educators are some of the truest stewards of compassion. And I’m grateful to live in a country where there are so many advocating for all of our children each and every day.