I have been teaching English at Casa for nearly five years. My goal is help my students enjoy the hour and a half they are in class, so that they will stay motivated to continue improving their language skills. Sometimes when I head to Casa, I am mentally and emotionally tired from a long day at work and at home. I may have a headache and feel rushed to get my child ready for bed before I head out. But somehow my energy always returns when I enter the classroom, because I inevitably enjoy spending time with the students. There is always some insight I gain from our time together, and I often wonder if it is I who is learning more than my students during our 90-minute sessions.
One of my most memorable classes occurred during the spring of 2016. All residents at Casa had been invited to attend a special diversity training earlier that week. My lesson was centered on giving students an opportunity to reflect on what they had learned and further explore diversity in America. I was excited to talk to them about the history of immigration in America, as well as discuss the more sobering reality of racial divides in the United States.
Many times when I have intellectual conversations or discuss social issues, I do so with people who predominantly look and live like me: white Americans, generally part of the upper middle class, college educated, etc. As I discussed diversity and perceptions of race in America with my students, I realized that this was one of those extremely rare occasions when I was the only person in the room who was Caucasian. All of my students at the time were male, and all were from African countries, including Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia.
I will never forget a personal story one of my students shared that evening. He had been walking down the street one night to catch the bus and had witnessed a young (white) boy staring at him. Upon catching his eye, the boy turned and subsequently ran away from him screaming. My student said initially he had wondered why the child had reacted that way. Upon further reflection after the diversity presentation, my student realized that the child could have been running away in fear because he had been taught to be scared of black males.
I remember leaving the class deeply saddened by the story. I felt worried for my student, knowing that it was destined to be one of many instances when he would be judged based on his skin color. But I also realized that I felt ashamed. Knowing the student personally, I recognized that he posed no danger to anyone; yet, putting myself in the child’s place, I knew that I too might have felt afraid of him, specifically because he is a man with black skin. Even though I consciously reject the racist belief that black males are dangerous and to be feared, I am very much a product of my environment and my rational mind does not always dictate my subconscious feelings or first reactions.
We must all constantly challenge ourselves to rise above fear and seek to see others for who they are, not as who we might falsely judge them to be based on their physical characteristics or because of their nationality. I am lucky to have the opportunity to teach students from so many nations around the world. They inspire me to speak out against the xenophobic rhetoric I read in the news or hear from less open-minded people in my community. Casa Marianella is a uniquely welcoming and lovely place, and it has the capacity to nurture and heal all those who spend time there.
Photo credit: ESL Coordinator
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