Confrontation Would he come to my class? I wasn’t sure. I’d invited the V.P. of our community college to join us as we worked to find ways to deal with issues of prejudice and racism that had surfaced during our last class, just before Thanksgiving.
“Hi, Barry,” Dr. Ezell greeted me. It was 7:46 a.m. We had fourteen minutes to get ready.
“You never sent me a copy of your student’s letter,” he remarked, then indicated I should follow him. I noticed that his pleasant greeting faded; he appeared more concerned, seemed troubled. “We take such accusations seriously,” he told me, as I gave him a copy of the letter I had written my students to be handed out when class began. “There are procedures for dealing with this,” he said, gravely, then named the three or four people who were in charge of handling such matters.
I tried to assure him that I didn’t think it had reached that point, that my student had overreacted, had helped create an opportunity to teach about something important. In two minutes, the doctor had read my letter. This what I gave him:
December 2, 2011
To my Humanities 165 students-
Today our class has arduous tasks. We must answer tough questions, then create a document.
Creating that document is necessary, in large part, due to a note I received from one of you, a note that expressed a grievance that may have been justified. According to the note, comments were made that sounded racist and/or bigoted. Although I don’t tolerate such remarks in my class, I must admit that I didn’t hear what was said.
Not only did the accuser blame me for being indifferent and unresponsive to such unacceptable epithets, but also I was warned that the accuser was “thinking about taking action with the administration.”
Please know that my letter to you has been sent to the Vice President of DCC along with an invitation to attend this class. If you see Dr. Ezell, it is because he was willing to join us to help with the work we must do.
As you know, I often have you write your thoughts on paper during each class. Doing that is an important exercise that aids in developing critical thinking skills. By formulating your opinions before putting them on paper, you must clarify your thoughts and connect them with your feelings, by means of reflection, to reason and its larger perspective. In other words, instead of just shouting out emotional slurs, you make yourself transform such remarks into often provocative commentary.
That’s what your classmate’s note did.
Now it’s your turn. Before we tackle the document I mentioned above, I want each of you to write, on the back of this sheet, what you would do if you were me, about prejudicial statements made by a classmate. How would you reprimand that student? What would you say to keep such useless remarks out of our classroom?
When you finish, please turn in your paper. Then read the packet of articles I have provided until we begin working on our document. Thank you.
“We’ll divide the class into two sections,” I told him, a considerate administrator with a doctorate in sociology. “And the student who wrote to me will be with you, there” I said, as I pointed to the empty room next to mine.
Knowing that my student had complained about being called a redneck, Dr. Ezell asked whether I knew the origin of that term. “It relates to the color of scarves that brave strikers wore when they protested against brutal working conditions. That was a century ago, in the coal mines of Appalachia.”
I thanked him for letting me know. “Maybe you’ll share that with your group.”
As I handed out my letter to my students, I asked them to welcome our guest. “Some of you will be working with him today.” I noticed it was 8:05 and the student who had complained hadn’t come to class.
My auditorium style classroom divided my group neatly. “This side will join Dr. Ezell, next door,” I said, “and you,” I said, pointing to the others, then to the first three rows on the other side, “will move down here.”
That’s when the note-writing student walked in. Immediately, I handed him my letter, instructed him to follow the others in Dr. Ezell’s group. As he left the room, I motioned to the doctor that he was the student who had complained.
As a group, we earnestly shared thoughts about a purpose statement. Trying not to seem rushed, I hurried them. Dr. Ezell had a meeting and couldn’t spend a lot of time with us.
My team’s purpose statement was a good one. I told them we’d compare it to the one from the other group, then blend the two.
“Now let’s make the rules that will help us achieve our purpose.” Just as quickly, they jotted suggestions. As each read theirs aloud, we discussed its merits.
“You finished?” It was Dr. Ezell.
“Come on in,” I said, as the last person commented.
We compared purposes, the did the same with the rules each section had compiled. They were remarkably similar. Both the doctor and I were impressed. He seemed satisfied; his familiar smile had returned. “You’re a terrific class,” he said, “wish I didn’t have to leave, but there’s a meeting I have to attend.” He mentioned to me that he had told them about the origin of the term redneck. I thanked him for making the class possible.
Applause followed him as he left.
“Please get out a sheet of paper,” I instructed. “In just a sentence or two, please answer these questions. Are all people equal? If not, why not? If not, what can you do to help bring about equality?”
As they wrote, I inserted a DVD into the computer. Our class would watch the documentary about Passion Works in Athens, Ohio, a collaboration of artists and developmentally disabled people who share a passion for art and the meaning it brings to life. “After you watch this, please answer the same three questions.”
Not a word was said during the documentary. Each student seemed to be moved by witnessing the art that was being created, crafted by people of all colors and by artists with uniquely different abilities.
The student who had complained left quietly. One of the others who may have been one who had taunted him came to see me at my store later. He needed clarification about the term paper that is due in two weeks.
After answering his question, I asked how he felt about the morning’s class.
“Interesting,” he answered. “Yeh,” he said, “it was different.” He nodded his head and smiled as if he were about to say, “in a good way.”
B. Koplen 12/3/11
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