At this time each January, I find myself reflecting on our Martin Luther King assembly and what I hope our students will take from the celebrations. What food for thought can we offer them? Perhaps we should begin with the overarching question: living in a world still divided into the haves and the have-nots, where religious intolerance is still the basis for most wars, what can we do to further Dr. King’s dream?
We must certainly look beyond our own borders, take on the identity of a global citizen and raise our voices against atrocities across the globe. We must take as active a role as possible to combat poverty, religious intolerance, AIDS and other health-related issues, but we also have to examine our consciences to be sure we are making our immediate environment safe and equal for all. Do we really take the time to understand people directly around us who might be different from us? So often it is misunderstanding or not taking the time to know someone who is different that leads to intolerance and even hatred.
I would suggest a series of questions to ask ourselves so we can continue working toward being a school community where everyone feels equally valued and safe.
- Are there students or faculty who feel they don’t fit in? If so, do I do everything I can to reach out, to be inclusive and welcoming?
- Is my identity dependent on hanging out with people like me? Do I take the time to sit down and talk with people who hold different views from mine; do I try to get to know people who might look or dress differently from the way I and my friends dress? Do I accept or reject people on the basis of looks, or the way they speak or where they come from? Am I open to being friends with someone who is different from me when my friends might make fun of me for hanging out with this person? Can I stand up to that kind of pressure?
- Do I allow myself to be influenced by stereotypes, perhaps without even realizing it? Does my present group of friends, both here at school and outside, represent a variety of thoughts, interests, races, cultures, ideas and abilities? Am I proud of how exclusive my group of friends is, or are we open and accepting of differences and diverse experiences?
Traveling is something that has helped me become more open-minded. In Syria a few years ago, my husband and I met a Bedouin family living in tents with their sheep and goats near the ruins of an ancient city near Aleppo, itself an ancient city on an important trading route. We took tea with the family, and I wondered about one of the children, a girl, maybe ten-years-old who wore, even by Bedouin standards, the most ill matched and somewhat bizarre clothing, and was unusually clumsy, almost surly, and so different from the open and welcoming hospitality of the rest of the family. Beginning to frame a judgment about why she might be this way–lack of education, resentment, rebellion–I suddenly realized, as she turned to face me, that she was blind. It was a moment of shock, followed by profound shame. How could I have rushed to judgment about this girl? What unconscious stereotype did I harbor? I often think of her and her family and what life is like for her, especially now, when the current situation in Syria is so dire. I certainly learned a huge lesson that day, and was humbled by the grace and beauty of that family and by the resilience of that young girl, living her life against great odds. My original impression had been so mistaken. Indeed food for thought.