Thursday, December 4, 2014

Comfort and Encouragement

I have some good news to go with all the bad news. It's not enough, but it's something.

We talked about Irene Morgan, Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin this week. Our main focus was on 15 year-old Claudette. Months before Mrs. Parks made headlines, Claudette made a similar decision on a public bus. She was pulled off of the bus, insulted and humiliated before being put in a jail cell.

Phillip Hoose's book, Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice, often uses direct transcripts of his interviews with Ms. Colvin. She's endearing, quick and honest in recalling her teen years. You cannot read this book without admiring her courage and her drive. And when she's frightened and thrown in jail, you just wish you could go back in time to 1955 and tell her that help is on the way.

Students identified cause and effect relationships in the second half of chapter three and all of chapter four. Then they wrote a letter to 15 year-old Claudette to comfort and encourage her. The assignment was to imagine that their letters would be in the jail cell for her to find. This was to practice connecting word choice to tone as well as to show their understanding of what they read. was to practice empathy.

What a week it has been and continues to be. It's made me reflect on what goes on in my classroom. There are skills that I am required to teach, and there are others that are just a good idea to include. I am at a loss sometimes for understanding the widening divide in the world outside our classroom window. It's easy to feel powerless in today's climate of fear, but I need to be positive about the time I spend with kids and how I can enrich their lives while we are together.

No matter what, developing empathy is always time well spent.

During the summer that separated Claudette's and Mrs. Parks' acts of disobedience a lot transpired, but Emmett Till's murder and the head-spinning speedy trial of the two men who were very likely the ringleaders of his death took place. (I only say "very likely" because they were found innocent, but I'm confident that enough of the truth will out in the future to indicate their guilt.) I have written at length in previous posts about Till's death at 14 years-old. It's unsettling in every way imaginable.

But is it? There are people who still see humankind in a very divided way. There are people who still consider some people as "other." I'm talking about grown people, not the children in my classroom. We expect that children may need time to grow their perceptions of humanity, but we hope that adults are opening their hearts and minds more each day. Right? Some days are downright disheartening. I wonder what the national reaction would be if Till were murdered in 2014. I used to think I knew.

It's been a tonic to read these letters to young Claudette in the midst of all of the ugliness of the week. Today, a student asked if he could write Ms. I had let the children know that she is still alive. Sure. Sure you can write Ms. Colvin. If you choose to take that option, I said. I am mailing your letters. The first boy wrote something quickly and handed it in.

But I want to talk to you about the second boy.

A second boy thought about this possibility. "Do you have a Bible?" he asked. I didn't, but I said that he could use the computer to pull up what he needed. He was having trouble finding it, and I asked him what he was searching for. "The 23 Psalm," he said. "Claudette said that she was saying that to herself over and over." I pulled it up, printed it out and handed it over.

He cut it out carefully to fit at the bottom of his letter. I wanted to cry at the huge spaces in this child's heart that he keeps open for people. This kid, I know, has a heart with an expanse to stretch between two goalposts. I guarantee that's exactly what it looks like in there....never-ending game time and yards of vibrant green grass.

Teen boys often frighten people for the simple fact that they are teen boys. I wish those people could see all of these glimmers of love and goodness that flicker inside. And teen boys grow into men who still have that capacity for tenderness.

When I see these boys later in the halls of the high school, I wonder if strangers will recognize these same vulnerabilities their teachers and families see in them when they are out in the world.

Will the world welcome them as we have?

I don't think I'm the only person with that question on my mind tonight.

And I don't think I'm the only person drawing lines between causes and effects.

Teachers can model empathy as well as all of the other qualities that make a successful reader, writer, mathematician, scientist, historian, athlete, musician...the list goes on and on.

Developing empathy means that we are always a work in progress, and it's okay to share that truth with children too. Learning and growing should only stop with our last breath.

And let's hope there are many more days until that day arrives.

Let's hope that for everyone.


  1. I am ver rich, so deep, so beautiful. You are a treasure imparting what is most important to your students and writing so well about it..... I used to ask teachers, "if you could teach only one thing and know that the students would learn it, what would that one thing be?" No one ever named a content area of the curriculum. Let's teach humanity! Thank You

  2. Thank you for your encouraging words! Some days I'm more of a treasure than others, but I am thankful that the kids are understanding and forgiving. Yes! Let's teach humanity!