“Sir, it keeps happening again and again. We don’t learn. I don’t think we’re going to get better. There doesn’t seem to be much hope.”
Three years ago a grade 12 student said this to me in my West and the World class. Every so often it echoes in my head. She was doing a research paper on Rwanda and the United Nations, and had done a significant amount of reading on the topic and she was passionately upset about how the world had allowed the Rwandan Genocide to happen. She was frustrated that, despite the Holocaust and other genocides, the world seems to let it keep happening again and again. These failures disillusioned her, and she was feeling cynical about humanity.
As a teacher, I felt that I needed to say something assuring and hopeful, but I wasn’t able to for two reasons. First, her feelings were based on a thorough reflection of what she had learned and I didn’t want to offer up an empty platitude that would ring hollow against her conviction. Second, I think I secretly agreed with her and often shared her sentiments, and I felt guilty because of it. I felt guilty because, as a teacher, I felt that I needed to be able to offer optimism and hope. For me, that’s just part of the job description. But I couldn’t. In my heart, I felt as though she was right. After reading and learning about all of the atrocities that have been committed over the decades and centuries, I harbored that fear that maybe we’re just destined to keep repeating these horrors.
What she said stayed with me for the next few days. I played it over and over in my mind. I considered if there was any hope. I didn’t want a trite belief in hope, I wanted to find a meaningful hope that I could really support. I took a look at the long record of the genocides committed throughout history and I kept coming to the same conclusion: she was right.
And then it occurred to me that she was the meaningful hope.
Not in a corny or sentimental way, but in a tangible and real way. The next day I struck up a conversation with her and some of the other students at the end of class. I reminded her of what she had said earlier and let her know that I had been thinking it over. I asked her whether - in light of all that we had studied about prejudice, discrimination, and dividing people into “us” and “them” - she would act differently? Did the learning in our classroom change the way she thought and made choices? I asked her to consider how her great grandparents might react to children marrying someone of a different religion or ethnicity, or coming out as gay. She said that they would likely be upset and would go so far as to disown a child. Then I asked her what she would do in the years to come if she became a mother and was faced with a similar situation. Would she also disown her child? She answered that she didn’t think she would. I told her that if she was capable and willing to respond differently than those in the past did, then there was a legitimate hope. I asked the rest of the group if they were ok with the idea that their children might marry someone that was different and everyone responded that it didn’t seem like a big deal and that they didn’t see any real problem with it.
The hope I was searching for was right in front of me and I was foolishly being too cynical to see it.
I think sometimes we are so fixated on the progress that we want to make that we don’t appreciate the progress that has been made. For example, whenever I hear the complaint and generalization of the poor literacy of students today, a lament I confess that I make too, I remind myself that there is a great percentage of young people that have access to education today, and with it the opportunity to become literate. And so whenever I feel cynical I remind myself that a class of students thinking critically about prejudice, discrimination and genocide probably wouldn’t have existed a generation ago. That they might choose to act differently because of it gives me hope.
What gives you hope? I'd love to hear about your experiences of struggling to find hope in your classroom. Please share below.