When a community gets caught in a storm — be it weather or human — and its images dominate media worldwide, no one on that ground can escape the real and symbolic narrative of the story. When your own community is caught in such a heartbreaking event, the harsh realities of knowing the corner store, the streetscapes, the steps rising into the park, the statues, and even some of the people in that storm creates a context of emotional response that is at least all encompassing, and at most suffocating.
Charlottesville is America. I’ve loved being a community member here and have worked in public schools for almost my entire career in the 726 square mile county that surrounds the 10 square mile city that sits at its center. You can’t separate the two because they are inextricably linked in a narrative that dates back to the beginnings of the nation. The ideals of America were birthed in this community by a white man who in his time was progressive in so many ways. It’s difficult to go through any meeting or gathering in this community without him being quoted. My favorite is this one:
Monticello Jan. 6. 16.
“… if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be. the functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty & property of their constituents. there is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”
But his narrative is not as pure as portrayed in the history books for he was a slaveholder and a man who established a relationship grounded in power and control over a woman held captive in his home. His DNA resides in descendants both white and black. The University he envisioned, and of which he was so proud that it was listed as one of his top three life accomplishments on his tombstone, was built by slaves. He believed in education for all — as long as the all didn’t include girls or people of color.
The communities of Charlottesville and Albemarle represent a long history of prejudice, bigotry, and even violence from early slave holding days to massive resistance to the recent event of August 12.
Today, Charlottesville and its surrounding county routinely land on top ten lists and magazine covers for best of everything from destination weddings to healthiest cities to raising families or as a great place to retire. The recent horrific images and the stories they tell are ones that tourists, university students’ families, and community members reject as being representative of this beautiful city and county that sit at the foot of the Blue Ridge mountains.
Yet, the juxtaposition of our past and present, actions of love and hate, and images of peace and conflict come together in the narrative that this week made #Charlottesville a series of viral stories and images around the world.
Perhaps if there is any lesson learned from this recent tragic story, it is that we must double down on learning that leads our children to question negativity towards others because they simply are not just like them, to reject violence and hate as solutions, and to be willing to stand up for what’s right.
As an educator, I have often publicly written and spoken to the importance that we all affirm core values of our school community: respect, community, excellence, and that our young people get the very best we have to offer. This week I’ve added that we must all recommit to ensuring that we coach, model, and teach learners the difference between right and wrong.
We must stand together as educators against words, actions, and dispositions of bigotry and racial hatred. We must build community strength through teaching for empathy, care for others, and the willingness to stand up for what’s right even when faced with hate.
This must become the high ground we hold as educators. Of course, we must stand apart from making our own political positions personal with students. That’s policy. However, we must model and practice our core values and stand together against challenges to those values from any front. That’s philosophy. We must believe that we can make a difference as educators so that our young people take these values into their adult lives. That’s passion.
We do this work when we set the stage for courageous conversations among students that are respectful and reflective about differences of opinions and the credible sources that support those. We do that when we teach children to use mediating words not their fists to resolve conflicts on the playground and in halls, cafeterias, gyms, classrooms, and even school buses. We do that when we teach the functional social-emotional competencies so what our children learn today will be the success skills of life for them in homes, communities, and the workplace when they become adults.
As Ira Socol asks, “how do teachers bring light not just content to the children they serve?”
For too long, the end in mind for our children often has been to pass high stakes content tests. Those tests haven’t result in a citizenry that learns from history. In fact, those tests have worked against young people taking essential lessons from history forward into life. History offers teachable moments. History gives insight into empathy and culture. History prepares us all to stand up for doing what’s right.
We have to have an end in mind beyond simply giving kids a score on how well they knew history content for not much longer than a moment sitting somewhere in time. Kids needs to learn for life so that they don’t find themselves standing one day with Nazi flags in hand or KKK symbols tattooed on their backs.
Our nation must study its history and learn that the images of Charlottesville recently splashed in living color on periscope, twitter, in blog posts, and on mainstream media may be free speech but those images and words are not representative of free speech that honors the best of America and those who have died fighting against that kind of hatred and to protect the words of imperfect white men who centuries ago gave voice to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
As educators, it’s our passion and life’s work to make sure a bright future is secured through the generations we educate. There is no time in my career that I have felt more strongly that educating young people to ask questions, study history, engage in civil dialogue and debate, build social competencies, demonstrate courage, and feel empathy are all essential to sustaining our democracy.
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Pam Moran is a member of the Central Virginia Writing Project and one of the educators facilitating “Let ’Em Shine”, a 2017 LRNG Innovators grantee project in Charlottesville, Virginia which invites students to help unite the community by creating a symbolic “monument” that tells a broader story of the community and honors its rich cultural history.