Countee Cullen’s poem The Incident describes the excitement of a young boy entering a new place—a new adventure.
“Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me…”
Unfortunately, what the boy ends up experiencing is a disdainful look and a slur of racism. The poem goes on to describe the “incident” in brief detail but ends with:
“I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December:
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.”
The poem is not really about a place in America’s geography, but rather about the potential soul-searing impact of one “incident”. Conversely, one might assume, the soul-soaring power a positive “incident” can have
It is likely that most young children begin their school experiences with hearts and heads filled with glee. They pack their lunches and may even lay out their clothes the night before. They learn their way to school or where to board the bus. They simultaneously hope to be called on and to be allowed to blend into the woodwork. They might feel vulnerable as excitement and fear mingle in their minds. If they are particularly fortunate, they have a sibling or friend or parent to begin the journey with them.
Pre-school through high school kids anxiously anticipate how their new experience will unfold. Who will they eat lunch with? Where will they sit in the classroom? Will they make friends? Will they like their teachers and will their teachers like them?
Their lived experiences begin with the first look, first word, and the implied expectations their classmates and teachers have for them. Many people in our society have long endured discrimination for a variety of reasons ranging from the color of their skin to who they choose to love. Our culture has deeply rooted biases about wealth and weight and work and mental and physical encumbrances or abilities.
Acceptance or rejection of differences begins at birth. Studies show that children exhibit implicit racial bias by the time they are three years old and notice differences in treatment based on race by the time they are four years old. (Perszyk, Lei, Bodenhausen, Richeson Easman, 2019 referenced in CEHD Connect, Leah Fulton, PhD student, OLPD University of Minnesota Fall 2020)
It is not a stretch to assert that biases are also perceived early in relation to ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, mental and physical capabilities, even how a student looks or how a student learns.
In his book, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela writes, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, then they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
“Ernst Poppel, a German phychologist and neuroscientist, has shown through his research that our minds are only in present time for about three seconds at a time Other than that, our brains are thinking forward and backward, filling in ideas about present time based on what we’ve experienced in the past and anticipating what is to come.” (Think Like a Monk, Jay Shetty, 2020)
Experiences from the past, perceptions of the present, and expectations for the future are everything for a child at the mercy of peers, parents, and professionals. The histories of both those teaching and those taught, regardless of how obscure they may seem, influence student and teacher relationships, as well as the likelihood of their shared success. Life is a journey of experiences, attitudes and histories that from birth have served as directional road signs for every person. It is time to shine some light on those road signs to determine if they have led us to who we are and if they will lead us to who we want to be.
Every child that walks through your school doors deserves to know that they are entering a place of possibilities, opportunities and respect. Each child should feel cared for by school adults as those adults would care for their own children—tenderly, fairly, and firmly. This is the moment for educators to shine their lights to enrich students’ perceptions of themselves and others.
The signals are overwhelming that this time—this year—is particularly ripe for new understandings, new attitudes and new beginnings. While all discrimination is fundamentally ugly; the happenings of the past year have given notice that disparities in our schools—never right—are unacceptable, unsustainable, and will create unstable circumstances for all of us.
As the Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman shared at the presidential inauguration,
“There is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.”