By ANTHONY MATHIEU
It’s the second week of September and the classroom thermometer reads a steamy 85 degrees Fahrenheit. I look out at a classroom of 28 young students, coming from all parts of the city of Boston. Many of these students are adolescents I had the privilege of teaching the previous academic year in World History. Many of them are in this classroom because they finally succumbed to my persistent prodding that they must in fact enroll in the Sociology elective offered to upperclassmen at Boston Latin Academy. While I am delighted to see their faces in this new year, I cannot help but examine the makeup of the room. While the racial demographics of the school are fairly diverse, only a small number of these students are white.
As the year moves forward, I begin to inquire why students chose to enroll in the Sociology elective. While many of them admit that they had not considered doing so prior to my relentless encouragement, other students express a desire to discuss difficult issues concerning identity. They divulge their interest in exploring issues of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion and many other aspects of identity typically avoided in secondary classrooms. They tell me that students fear that they won’t be guaranteed an opportunity to discuss these issues unless they enroll in this course.
Interestingly enough, it seems that the aforementioned reasons as to why students enrolled in Sociology are the same reasons why many others abstain from taking the course. After examining why many of my students have chosen this particular elective to fill their schedule, they tell me that many other students are reluctant to participate. Not only are many students nervous about “saying the wrong thing” in a classroom where such difficult topics are discussed, they are afraid of being criticized by their peers. Moreover, many white students are afraid of being chastised by their black teacher if their perception of race does not match his.
Upon this revelation, I am forced to ask myself many difficult questions: “Are my biases concerning issues like race and gender influencing how I facilitate discussions in my classroom? Am I creating a culture at my school that is not welcoming of all students, regardless of background and upbringing? What am I doing to ensure that all students, regardless of what opinions they have, feel as though they can share their beliefs and learn from their peers?”
Ultimately, I doubt I will be able to answer these questions and overcome these challenges by June of this year. However, with more professional development, self-growth and empathy, I can only hope to build a space in which all students and all opinions are welcomed and challenged. Nevertheless, I must accept that there are aspects of my identity I will never be able to change; and upon this inability is the realization that I will not be able to rid my worldview of the biases I do in fact have. And yet I must persist.
Anthony Mathieu is a history and sociology teacher at Boston Latin Academy in Dorchester.