First Person

How a refugee father gave me hope — and a new outlook on teaching U.S. history

PHOTO: Via Flickr Creative Commons

Stephen Lazar is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan and a longtime Chalkbeat contributor. This past Monday was the last day of a class he teaches called American Stories. His students were anxious about the election and still reeling from the death of one of their classmates 10 days prior and his funeral over the weekend. Here is what he told them.

lazar

I normally don’t give speeches to end my class for the same reason I normally don’t share who I’m voting for: I don’t want you all to learn to look to authority figures for answers to big questions that matter. I want you to find those answers yourselves, alongside your peers.

But given that, this past Saturday, many of us attended the funeral of one of our students and friends, and given that tomorrow this nation could potentially elect Donald Trump president, I’m going to make an exception today.

It’s always easy to become cynical. Given Saturday, and what could happen tomorrow, it’s even easier now. But what I want to think about today, and what I hope that you all will take away from this class, is hope.

I want to share with you all two stories about why I choose to continue to have hope despite all the terrible things we experience. The first is about teaching, the second is personal.

The very first class I taught was in Providence Summer School when I was 21. Here I am, this white Ivy League guy with two other white wannabe teachers, teaching a diverse group of students about U.S. history. We decided to teach a class about all the problems of U.S. history — racism, sexism, and classism — and how some have tried to fight against those things.

Toward the end of the first week, we had a parents night, and I’ll never forget one father who asked a question. He was a refugee from El Salvador who had come to the U.S. with his family maybe 10 years earlier. After we explained our plans for the class, he asked us, “What do you plan to teach my child about liberty? What will you teach him about freedom?”

I don’t remember how we answered that question, but I do remember the conversation we had after. This man, who was very well educated and clearly knew more about U.S. history than I did, told me that he and his family had escaped civil war in El Salvador, a war that had killed much of his family. He told me how he now raised his family in this land where, despite the very real problems that he knew about and that we intended to teach about, he knew his children would have a better life here than they possibly could have dreamed of back home. Here, they had hope.

That conversation changed my outlook on how I teach U.S. history.

The second story is a personal one. As you know now, when I was 16, one of my best friends died suddenly. The night before Josh’s funeral, there was a gathering at the local Jewish Community Center to help prepare people for the funeral. Hundreds came, and the session became overwhelming for the group who were closest to Josh, and we left to go cry in another room.

Coincidentally, a very famous rabbi named Harold Kushner was speaking at the JCC that same night, and someone thought to bring him over to speak to us. Rabbi Kushner is famous for writing a book called “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.” At that time, one day after losing one of my best friends, the only thing I could imagine worse than that was losing your child, as I would later learn Rabbi Kushner had years before.

I remember the rabbi talking about how for a long time he was angry at God for taking his son. How he didn’t know how he could get out of bed, let alone be a rabbi to his community, with that knowledge and that anger.

The answer he came to, which I share not because I believe it literally but because he did, is that God wasn’t responsible for the death of his son, or war, or the Holocaust, or other terrible things. Rather, God is what allows us to find comfort in the hug of a loved one, gather the strength to get out of bed, and feel the power of community in terrible times. God is what lifts us up and makes us able to continue.

There, I realized if this guy, who had lost his son — the worst thing I could imagine at the time — could have hope, I could find it too.

So here’s what I want to say to all of you as we end our class together. My hope, more than anything, is that you all will choose to find hope of your own. In times of tragedy, I have been able to find hope in the comfort of friends, family, and my community. And even if Trump wins tomorrow, I will choose to find hope in the fact that this country is constantly changing, and still values liberty and freedom.

More than anything, I find hope in you all. I have no idea how to solve injustice, but I have hope that you, who in 20 years will have thoughts and experiences I can’t even dream of yet, will do something to make this world a better place. I have hope because we don’t know what you will do with the future, and I choose to have faith that you all will do wonderful things to this world you will inherit.

So if you take nothing else from me, I hope you will take this: that no matter what happened to our friend who is gone, that no matter what happens tomorrow, choose to find hope.

First Person

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

PHOTO: Karla Ann Cote/flickr
A white supremacist rally in Charlottesville surrounds a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Debates about monuments honoring Confederate icons and what they represent often come down to one’s view of Civil War history.

Last weekend’s violent gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one protester dead, was started as a rally against removing a statue of Robert E. Lee. It’s one of about 700 Confederate monuments scattered across the eastern half of the country, with a large cluster in Virginia.

It’s no accident that white supremacists chose the site of a Confederate monument to amplify their racial hatred. For them, the statue is a symbol of white superiority over African Americans, who were enslaved in this country until the middle of the Civil War.

In a disturbing irony, these white supremacists understand an aspect of history that I wish my peers understood from their time spent in school. But many casual onlookers don’t grasp the connection between slavery and the Civil War, and the racism rooted in America’s history.

I know because, in my own education in a small town near Charlottesville, teachers rarely connected slavery and racism to the root of the Civil War. In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.

Those who grew up with me mostly see states’ rights as the primary cause of the Civil War, according to a 2011 survey by Pew Research Center. The national fact tank found that two-thirds of people younger than 30 think slavery was not the impetus. Only a third of people 65 and older shared that view.

The survey suggests that today’s students and young adults do not have full knowledge about the complicated relationship between the Confederacy, states’ rights, and slavery. Teachers have a unique opportunity to give a fuller picture of a painful past so that students can counter white supremacy and its inherent racism today.

As famed black writer and social critic James Baldwin put it: “If you don’t know what happened behind you, you’ve no idea what is happening around you.”

Tim Huebner, a Civil War researcher at Rhodes College in Memphis, said his own children’s textbooks accurately describe a complex economy that relied on enslaved people for labor. But in a state like Tennessee, where more classroom resources are spent on math and reading than social studies and history, a lot can get overlooked.

“If we’re not teaching students about the history of our country and the conflicts and struggles we’ve been dealing with, we don’t have the intellectual tools or the culture tools or ethical tools we need in order to deal with the issues that are coming to the surface now,” he told me.

Meanwhile, one look at the constitution of the Confederate States, or a speech given by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens a few days after that constitution was written, would tell you states’ rights were meant to keep black people enslaved for economic gain.

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. (Thomas) Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right.”

Richard Spencer, the Charlottesville march organizer and a University of Virginia graduate, and James Alex Fields, who is charged with killing a woman by driving into a crowd of anti-Nazi demonstrators last weekend, understood too well the connection between slavery, racism and the Civil War.

Derek Weimer, a history teacher who taught the 20-year-old driver at a high school in Kentucky, said he noticed Fields’ fascination with Nazism. Even though teachers are one of several influential voices in a student’s life, he also implied educators have a role to play in shaping worldviews.

“I admit I failed. I tried my best. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country,” Weimer told The Washington Post.

Growing up in a state thick with Civil War history still left me with a misleading education, and it was years before I investigated it for myself. America’s most divisive and deadly war still has ramifications today — and students deserve better history lessons to help interpret the world around them.

Laura Faith Kebede is a reporter for Chalkbeat in Memphis.

First Person

I was a winner in an academically segregated school. Now, I’m driven to advocate for the other side

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson/Indianapolis Star

You notice many things walking the halls of your middle school: Some kids are bigger than you, some are a different gender, some have a different hair color.

At my middle school, it was as easy to notice some kids were not getting the same education as me.

I attended Hamilton Middle School in Denver for three years as a young teenager, and I was in what was known as the IPM Program, or the International Preparatory Magnet program. Essentially, it was the program for kids who were going to succeed.

But naturally, when some children are selected to succeed, others aren’t. At my school, they were the “TAP kids,” or the students in the Traditional Academic Program.

We were divided neatly, I’d even say segregated, along these program lines to the point where we had different classes on different floors. It did not take a patient observer to realize the main floor, where many eighth-grade TAP classes were held, was less resourced than the upper floor, where I had my classes.

When I compared notes years later with a friend in TAP, we realized how much more writing I did in my classes. One example: An outside program once gave every student at the school a box of energy-efficient lightbulbs and shower heads — but only the IPM kids were required to write essays about how to use them to save energy.

From grading standards to locker quality to college encouragement, IPM was clearly the part of the school the Hamilton faculty was paying attention to.

In the years since I attended, Hamilton has changed its programs. George Washington High School, where the International Baccalaureate program has been a popular destination for Hamilton’s IPM students, has opened itself up more, too.

Still, I wonder what happened to my TAP peers, many of whom were my friends, and most of whom came from poorer families.

It’s hard for me to imagine that, after being tracked into the TAP program, most of those students ended up prepared to graduate from college. I wonder how that contributes to the state’s high school graduation rate — one of the lowest in the country.

Now, as a grown man and voting citizen of the great state of Colorado, I’m asking, what can I do for those kids who have fewer resources and for years endure schools that don’t care about them?

For one, I have an electoral fellowship this summer to help lobby for better education policies and support local school board candidates. I have also been working to oppose cuts to federal student aid and rollbacks of civil rights protections for transgender students being proposed or implemented by Betsy DeVos, our U.S. Secretary of Education.

But while those federal issues really matter, it’s the local issues that first inspired me.

We need to look carefully at schools separating their students as fully as my middle school did, and encourage leaders to push for an equitable, challenging education for all, instead of being selective and pushing some students to the wayside.

Marcos Descalzi is a third-year student at the University of Denver studying public policy and a Colorado SFER Action Network summer fellow.