Martha looked like a boy.
Exhibiting a small frame, buzz haircut, and a tough, sometimes standoffish demeanor, Martha was often mistaken for an undersized sophomore male student by teachers and students who did not know her personally. Consequently, there were more than a few awkward incidents when a substitute teacher would refer to Martha as “him”. Now, if someone took the time to talk to Martha and look beyond her appearance, not discounting it, mind you, as this is very much a part of her identity, that person would see that Martha was an amazingly insightful, compassionate human being. They would also be impressed by the fact that even though English is not her native language, she speaks it with lucidity and confidence.
Unfortunately, during this past year several teachers refused to acknowledge Martha’s capacity to view the world through an extremely creative and critical lens, or her ability to treat those around her with compassion and dignity. Instead, they considered Martha’s appearance “a distraction,” which, apparently, was justification enough to be combative with her during class, or, as was revealed to me earlier this year, to ask her to leave the classroom and sit in the bookroom located in the school’s basement...every day.
Martha’s experience of getting pushed to the fringes of the educational arena is not an anomaly. Recently, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the state of California (Cruz et al. v. State of California) that accuses the most disadvantaged and underfunded schools in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay area of placing black and Latino students in so-called “work” periods, where they were asked to perform menial tasks, like sorting mail and running errands for office staff, or they were given “free time” and sent home in the middle of the day.
Those representing the plaintiffs, members of Public Counsel, a non-profit law firm that specializes in delivering pro bono legal services, claim, “Learning time is the fundamental building block of education...students at these schools have been losing hours, days and even months of their education since the day they started kindergarten. The state can’t turn back the clock for these students, but it can give students the educational opportunities they deserve starting now.” The law firm anticipates that this lawsuit will be a catalyst for critical conversations and ultimately the drafting of state policy that will enforce “equal time for learning” for every student in California.
Among its many other functions, the mind is charged with filing empirical data, information that has been collected by our senses, into the “appropriate” categories, thus allowing us to grasp what something is (its definition) and how we are to feel about it (its value). The school institution is also a macrocosm of the mind, for it is obsessed with categorizing its students (GATE student, AP student, ASB student, AVID student, CP student, Special Ed. student, etc.), and based on the category each student is placed in, a corresponding set of academic/behavioral standards are brought into play (e.g. GATE student is smart, does all of his work, is very polite and courteous, and always does what he is told).
Categorizing students based upon “data,” such as standardized tests/grades, race, socio-economics, or general appearance makes a counselor’s job easier to build a student’s schedule, a teacher’s job easier to size up a class’s collective personality, and, consequently, a student’s job easier to view him/herself as being a good or a bad student. Often students such as Martha do not fit into a category with a positive connotation and ultimately the categorization process eliminates any possibility for a compassionate response to individual expression.
For years I have struggled with my role as an instructor as I am confronted by a perpetual crisis where I am asked by my superiors to put my students into these categories. When students deviate from the “color-by-the-number” state standards to ask a personal question about a personal issue or just a general concept with which they may be overwhelmed, or even worse they are “disruptive” or “out of control” as they attempt to assert their subjectivity, I am to bring them back, forcefully if necessary, from where they were.
The tendency to put students into pre-established categories, ignoring their passions, knowledge, and experiences, leaves me heartbroken not only for the state of our education system but for the state of our humanity. In its purest form, the participants of the educational experience should be led by the heart and supported by the head. The head separates and classifies, but the heart synthesizes, brings together different people, different ideas, and is inspired by the eternity that is within all of us.
We are commanded twice in the Bible to “Love the Lord your God with your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.” Leading with the heart results in the ability to “love your neighbor as yourself,” or, in other words, to demonstrate empathy. Thus, schools should encourage their students to focus on externalizing what is within themselves as it is within all of humanity, putting it on the examining table for all to see, deconstruct, and be awestruck by what they find. This practice of leading with the heart allows those within education to gain a deeper understanding of what it truly means to be human. Receiving an education should be a humanizing experience for everyone involved, and students, teachers, administrators, board members, and politicians should work to ensure that empathy is a key component to that experience.
-Cody Bema is a high school English Teacher and an occasional essayist. He lives in Bakersfield, CA where he spends his free time playing with his two children, going on epic adventures with his wife Emily, and reading anything that has the potential to challenge his paradigm - most recently the graphic novels of Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis and well as the poetically prophetic rantings of Eduardo Galeano.