A Critical Incident

Last night’s discussion in 427 reminded me of something I wrote in my educational autobiography: the “critical incident” when I realized that my public education had not been multicultural, diverse, or very critically engaging. I thought I would post that part here, and also suggest that one easy way of making our curriculum multicultural is to make sure what we teach is inclusive of diverse peoples and cultures. Why shouldn’t we tell students from the get-go that the Mayans invented zero? I didn’t learn that until I read it in Delpit’s chapter from To Become a Teacher! Why not talk about Malcolm X in conjunction with MLK Jr, even if he is a more “controversial” figure of the Civil Rights Movement? And as Annie Johnston writes in “Out Front” in ROC Vol. 2, “Gay has to be integrated into our picture of current events, historical reality, literary themes, and scientific exploration. We need curriculum in which ‘gay’ is not relegated to the ‘Sexuality and Sexually Transmitted Diseases’ discussion in health and social living classes” (197). In just the same way, race and culture shouldn’t be relegated to specific months (Black History Month) or shallow “culture fairs” where kids choose a country and talk about the food eaten there. We should be “integrating” heroes, historical figures, previously marginalized viewpoints, artists, authors, and so on, into our curriculum so students see and feel how diverse experiences are truly ingrained in the larger American culture and experience.

The first time I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I was shocked–shocked by its visceral language and the emotional reactions it incited in me with every page. But mostly, I was shocked that I had never heard of Toni Morrison. I was surprised because judging by the accolades this author and scholar and her novels had earned, I should have at least heard mention of her name. Yet here I was, a relatively educated individual who considered herself somewhat “well-read” in the classics of American literature, ignorant to the genius and prolific work of one of America’s most respected writers. In the context of the course, with the help of great material and a great instructor, I began to question Morrison’s conspicuous absence from my education. As I began to question, I began to decide: it was absolutely not okay that in the course of twelve years of public education and four years in high school honors and AP English classes for me to have never read Toni Morrison

This “critical incident” was the gateway to my pursuing teaching as a career. I realized how sheltered my education had been, how I had been taught only the prevailing, mainstream viewpoint of history and even though I had been lucky enough to have many great teachers, none of them had prepared for me for the intellectual challenge I faced in college. Why was I getting the feeling that everything I learned was wrong? I realized it felt “wrong” because it left out so many views: views of the oppressed, views of the minority, views of the marginalized. I ran across this quote by Morrison a few years ago and it has stuck with me ever since: “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’” My family and I have been given certain privileges we did not necessarily earn. When I realized this and came to terms with what it meant about me, that is when I made the conscious choice to get into teaching.

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