When I was about to start teaching in public schools, I went for a long walk on a drizzly day with my mom. My mom is the reason I am a teacher; she has been a teacher for her whole life, and I spent long afternoons and evenings as a child watching her drama students rehearse on the high school stage. I will write more — much more — about her, later. For now, I am writing about an invaluable gift that she gave me on that rainy day.
On our walk, we ducked into a used book store. It was dank and dim, cluttered and dusty. It was delightful. My mom went right to the poetry section, and found a slim volume by the Soviet-era Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. She skimmed the index and found a poem, flipped to it. She knew what she wanted to show me. She showed me this poem, and this poem has essentially guided my teaching since that moment in the dusty bookstore on that wet day. I think she knew it would. Here it is:
Lying to the young is wrong.
Proving to them that lies are true is wrong.
that God’s in his heaven
and all’s well with the world
They know what you mean.
They are people too.
Tell them the difficulties
can’t be counted,
and let them see
what will be
these present times.
Say obstacles exist they must encounter,
The hell with it.
Who never knew
the price of happiness
will not be happy.
Forgive no error
it will repeat itself,
will not forgive in us
what we forgave.
This poem has come as close to a credo as I have had in my 23 years in the classroom. I’ve taught it to students. I’ve xeroxed it and put it in journals as thank you gifts for student teachers. I’ve given it on bookmarks to teachers I’ve coached. They young are people. They must see, with clarity, these present times. As it was in Yevtushenko’s 1960s gulag-ridden Soviet Union, as it is today in our tangled and contested, beautiful and terrible Oakland, California.
My students are now writing their Baldwin-inspired Talk to Teachers (I describe the process here), and their messages to teachers are astounding. Many of them are talking about how they want to be treated as young human beings. Some of them are saying, in their own unique and powerful ways: lying to the young is wrong.
One student, in his letter to teachers of African American students, wants us to understand that black people, no matter their station in life, struggle with oppression that white teachers can never really know. He is using this artwork, by Moise Morancy, in his piece. He doesn’t want us to pretend that white supremacy doesn’t exist; he wants us to see with clarity these present times, and for us to realize that we must grapple with it in order to teach him well. Lying is more than just obscuring the truth; it is not understanding or acknowledging the realities he lives.
Another student, a young Xicana woman (she just taught me this spelling), is writing a letter to the Arizona board of education in protest of the banning of ethnic studies in Arizona high schools. She is chagrined that her parents deny their indigenous and African heritage, but she blames their education, and the brainwashing they went through in their native Mexico about their Spanish heritage. She does not feel that this denial is a favor; she sees the erasure of her history as a crime against her people, a crime against her future self. Do not lie to us, she is telling Arizona’s teachers. Tell us the truth. We can handle it. We must own it. Lying to us is criminal, and we will not forgive in you what you forgave.
So. I continue to try to tell the truth as I see it. And in reading these drafts, and going back to Yevtushenko, and to that dusty bookstore on that drizzly day with my beloved mother, I realize I have twenty-one versions of truth in my classroom that I also must plumb, and interrogate, and amplify. Stay tuned.