Friday, February 13, 2015

"This I Believe: Unhardened Hearts" by Kate Gillen

This December, Advanced Composition students studied, wrote, and recorded audio essays wrote and recorded their own "This I Believe" audio essays inspired by the weekly This I Believe Podcast. Herndon Writing Center Co-Directors Ms. Gillen and Ms. Jewell wrote their own essays as well. While we're publishing the text of each essay below, we strongly encourage you to listen to each the audio essay for a more intimate experience.

Ms. Gillen's essay was also featured on on December 19, 2014.

I often joke with my students that the course I teach–English 10–should be re-titled “doom and gloom literature.” We read some pretty heavy texts over the course of the year. When my students reach me, they’re young enough that they still believe that the world is neatly divided into “good” and “bad,” or “right” and “wrong.” They’re teetering at the edge of innocence and experience as they’re starting to realize that sometimes good people make awful choices, and sometimes, seemingly hopeless and hard individuals are capable of kindness. Throughout the year, I try to teach my students to always strive to do the right thing in spite of how ugly our world sometimes seems.

This year, my 10th graders began reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird the day after a grand jury decided not to indict white New York City police officer Daniel Panataleo in the death of Eric Garner, an African American man who was placed in a chokehold and died while resisting arrest in July. One week earlier, another grand jury had decided not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown, an un-armed African American teenager who’d committed a small theft in Ferguson, MO, in August.

For those of you who haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird, I’ll give you a short synopsis: the novel’s narrator, Scout, looks back on growing up in Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s. Her father Atticus is called to defend Tom Robinson, an African American man who has been accused of a crime he did not commit. Scout learns that doing the right thing isn’t necessarily always the easiest thing–but ultimately, it is our duty as humans to think about things from another person’s point of view and to stand up for what it is right, even if–and especially if–no one else will.

I teach in a majority minority school. Most of my students are African-American and Hispanic. Each year, when we begin To Kill a Mockingbird, we have a class-wide discussion about things like prejudice and stereotypes in our culture, and where we draw the line between harmless and harmful beliefs. These questions always lead to a fascinating discussion, but this year, the discussion took on a markedly different tone.

Historically, it has taken a bit of time to get to a discussion of race in our country. This year, it came up immediately. In one class, two of my African American students brought up Michael Brown and Eric Garner instantly and passionately shared their frustration with both grand jury decisions. As one boy explained to the class what had happened in both cases, my normally squirrely students became quiet and pensive. One of them asked if anyone remembered what had happened to Trayvon Martin in 2012. In another period, a shy girl gave an impassioned, extemporaneous speech about the existence and prevalence of racism in our country that I can only compare to Linus’ speech about the true meaning of Christmas in the Charlie Brown Christmas movie.

That day, I wept on my drive home, my heart impossibly heavy. Aren’t we supposed to be past these kinds of things as a society? Aren’t we supposed to be a society founded on equality, fairness, and justice? How is this still happening?

In chapter 20 of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout’s friend Dill becomes so upset by the way the prosecutor, Mr. Gilmer, treats Tom Robinson that Scout and Dill have to leave the courtroom. When they go outside, they encounter Dolphous Raymond, a white man who openly defies social expectations. Dill weeps about the way Tom Robinson is treated, and Dill and Dolphous have the following conversation:

“[Dolphous Raymond] jerked his head at Dill: ‘Things haven’t caught up with that one’s instinct yet. Let him get a little older and he won’t get sick and cry. Maybe things’ll strike him as being–not quite right, say, but he won’t cry, not when he gets a few years on him.’

‘Cry about what, Mr. Raymond?’ Dill’s maleness was beginning to assert itself.

‘Cry about the simple hell people give other people–without even thinking. Cry about the hell white folks give colored folks without even stopping to think that they’re people, too.”

I became a teacher because I believe in the power of young people to create a better world. I believe that young people possess unhardened hearts; I believe that we must do everything we can as adults to prevent our own hearts from hardening. Why is it that as we grow older, we become complacent? Why do we become indifferent to the unfairness and the injustices we witness on a daily basis? I believe that within all of us is a strong sense of right and wrong, yet oftentimes, we adults are hardened by our experiences, and we lose the empathy that we felt so easily as children.

I fully recognize how easy it is to look at our world and to become cynical and to only see the worst in people. But I get to go to work every day, where I work with 15 and 16 year old young people who are so hopeful about the future. Things haven’t quite caught up with them yet, as Dolphous Raymond says. I hope things never will.

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