“Let’s show how rich we are.”
“This door is for the poor people.”
I wrote these words on the board in my classroom this morning. They are words I heard students use this weekend when I was in São Paulo for a student leadership conference at another American school. The conference was centered around the idea of leadership and social responsibility. I brought six students with me from Campinas to São Paulo where we met about sixty others for discussion and activity.
While the majority of the time was spent socializing and team building (white water rafting, attending seminars, and sharing ideas about our respective schools’ student councils) we also participated in a short, but meaningful conversation about privilege and the sense of responsibility for creating a better world. One of my students told me, at the end of the weekend, that he’d read an article about Brazil in which he’d learned that only 7% of the entire population of Brazil earns more than R$1300 per month (which is the equivalent of US $750.) I am not sure the exact numbers, but another of my students today gave me similar numbers, and by looking around Campinas I can assure you the numbers are not that far off.
I will do a great injustice to the conference by not describing it entirely here, but I don’t want to write about it and I am sure you don’t want to read about it. What I will write here is how this conference affected my classroom today.
When I wrote those sentences on the board, my classroom was silent. The kids were reading as I wrote. I slowly read the sentences aloud, allowing the privilege in the words to sink into my kids’ minds. One girl, talkative by nature, piped up immediately.
“I don’t think that’s normal for our school. I think the people from the other schools probably said that. People at our school don’t talk that way.” When I assured her that wasn’t the case with these particular sentences, she fell silent.
We talked about privilege–what it means, how it looks, what effect it creates for a town or a community. We talked about the 7% having a responsibility to break down barriers, to stop ignoring the 93% and about the selective “blindness” with which our countries (for yes, this critique applies to the US, too) are afflicted.
When we began talking about favelas, those massive cities of Brazilians who live in extreme poverty (here it is called “misery”), we talked about how the 7% contributes to the system of perpetuating this extreme poverty by ignoring those who live there, or by not even acknowleging that those who live in favelas are human.
A teacher at the conference told us all that when he went to a favela to provide soap to the kids in it, the kids unwrapped the soap and started eating it because they thought it was candy. They didn’t know what soap was. I told my students this story, and although I expected them to chuckle or to snicker, their faces wore the serious tone of my voice. I was impressed by how these 7th graders were responding, were interpreting, were making room for a perhaps new idea in their social consciousness. (Or is it social consciences?) I could read their faces. They wore a variety of emotions: confusion, guilt, pensiveness. They raised their hands when they had something to contribute to our discussion; and it truly was a discussion. I was witness, at times, to students challenging each other’s opinions and beliefs. For a minute, I was transported back to New Haven where this happened about the “tough” topics often. I believe this is the first “tough” topic I have discussed with my kids here.
At the start of class, I had asked my students if “our” maids and “our” drivers have actual names. “Yes,” they all responded. “So what does it do if we choose not to call these people by their names? What does it do if we instead choose to use language that shows we “own” these people?”
One girl, whose face grew more and more concerned through the conversation, raised her hand to share a story. This story was about the woman who works in their home, and this student provided her name for us, knowing we had talked about the importance of names instead of possessive pronouns.
The story was about how this woman had lost her baby as she was giving birth because she could not afford to pay the money to the doctors for a C-section. As my student told this story, her voice started choking back tears and I could see her eyes begin to well. Her brow furrowed deeper and deeper. Other students, when they heard the trouble in her voice, moved their desks to see if this student was actually crying. When they saw she was, they became more introspective, even though I had anticipated that they would giggle or get uncomfortable. But really, really, they just sat listening to the horror of this student’s story. And I think they saw how it was affecting this student.
One other boy told a story, one that made me turn my head to the board and tell myself to calm down. He said this:
“Ms. Coggio. One time, we were playing soccer, and some boys from the favela came to play with us. And after the game, when we were shaking hands and saying ‘Good game’ to each other, I saw some of the boys on my team wash their hands after shaking the hands of the boys from the favela. And the boys from the favela saw this. And some of them were crying.”
We left the conversation with my urging students to realize that not only do they have the opportunity to change this society, I was giving them the responsibility to do it. I stood on my tiny soap box, with the four sentences on the board behind me and the story of the clean hands fresh in my mind. And I told my students this:
Every time you hear a person say “my driver,” “my maid,” “this door is for the poor people,” “let’s show how rich we are,” you have the opportunity to change. You have the responsibility to be the voice of change for the person saying this. You have the ability and the responsibility to say, even if they’re joking “Stop. Do you understand what you’re saying?” You have the responsibility to change a system of inequality and injustice.
And when I stepped down from the soapbox and began erasing the board, one of my classes actually clapped. They were quiet for a long time, and then they clapped. I thanked them, not for listening to my rant, but instead for allowing the words and the message to settle in. Maybe a permanent wrinkle formed in one person’s brain today because of this talk.
And isn’t this what teaching is all about?