The Great Divide

american flag painted on a wall ...
american flag painted on a wall ...

When I started teaching English, I thought the job was about the books. Don't get me wrong, I was always in it for the kids, but I thought I was going to teach them to love books. I thought I was there to instill in them a love of Literature. But more and more I realized that the books were the tools, the wrenches and pliers, and it was my job to teach my kids to use those tools to build bridges between the kids and their world.

More than anything, my students need to understand how they connect to each other and how they can communicate that connection.

Because, really, isn't that the problem we have in our world today? Watch the news. I dare you. It's awful out there. As the divide between the police and the people they protect grows, as the divide between those who have more and more, and those who have less and less grows, as the divide between the cultures we understand and those we do not grows (even as our world seems to shrink), the thing we are lacking is that basic human connection.

And so I try to teach my students to connect. It starts with connecting to me. From the first day of school, they learn my life. I talk to them about my kids. I talk to them about my beliefs. No longer do they see a teacher who keeps her ideologies silent. I am the first book they learn. And because of that, we connect. Then, they connect to each other. We have discussions and debates. We talk about the problems in the world. We talk about the possibilities in the world. We talk about books, but we focus on how they connect to our world. What they can teach us about the people around us, and how they can help us empathize and reach out.

I grew up in this town. I went to high school in this town, left for college and stayed away for another 5 years, and then I came back to this town to teach. But, this town, my town, could be anywhere in the United States right now. Every year we grow more diverse, not less. Every year it becomes more and more important to find ways to sympathize if not empathize, to reach over the divide and find the similarity, the humanity, the "us" in the "other." When I was in high school in the '90s, my school was mostly white. My classes were homogenous, and my friends were as well. The connections were implicit. Of course, there were cliques. Of course kids were different from one and other, but my high school photos show a very different group of kids, from those of today.

Looking around my English classes today, my former self would be shocked by the diversity. Just shy of half the class are minorities, and the socio economic status of the kids runs the gamut. This class is a microcosm of the larger world. Yet, in my class they work together, in our cafeteria they eat together, in our hallways they mix and match in ways my younger self wouldn't have thought possible. So, the connections can happen.

The problem comes when they leave. Because though the world looks a lot like our school, the adults in their lives, and the adults they will meet, have not grown up going to schools like theirs. They never learned to connect. They learned to categorize and separate. That is what they know.

So, perhaps my students will be strong enough to overcome instead of be overtaken. Hopefully one of the tools they will carry out of this building will build the bridge for my generation to walk over as well.

Because, right now, all I see when I turn on the news is the great divide.