Tolerance is not enough: a letter to my former students

Dear former students,

There’s quite a lot I didn’t teach you.

You knew my rules about respect. You knew not to use the word “gay” to indicate displeasure in my classroom. (You even knew not to try to say you were using “gay” as a synonym for happy because it’s culturally outdated and a loophole to continue using the word derogatorily.) You knew not to laugh at homeless people or use the term hobos around me. You knew I don’t like misogynistic “jokes” or song lyrics that degrade women. You knew that joking about rape would earn someone a referral to both the principal and the counselor. You knew I would lose my cool on anyone who created more work for our cleaning staff by intentionally making messes or littering around school. You knew how fast I would stop class if I heard any kind of attack or threat on another student, no matter how small.

But I never really taught you why those things were important to me. It’s true that you could have guessed. Maybe occasionally I offered a very brief explanation. You could have inferred what I believed based on stories we read or the way I handled certain situations. But I never taught it the way I did subordinating clauses or figurative language or sonnets.

That’s because until very recently I thought it was fine to simply teach tolerance. Respect each other. Keep offensive remarks and behavior to yourself. If you can’t, things will get ugly with me.

I taught you wrong.

In my defense, it’s easier to teach tolerance. It’s faster.
Issuing punishments and repeating mantras about respect takes far less time than sitting down and examining linguistic, cultural, and historical factors or talking about feelings. We have a lot of work to do with the curriculum alone, and sometimes it’s just faster to say, “We don’t use that word in my classroom,” or “That’s a lunch detention,” and move on.

But it can’t be the only way to teach. It makes my classroom a safe space, but it suggests that the only time to behave safely towards each other is inside that room. Coming down hard on insensitive behavior and remarks might protect the feelings of victims, but also isolates and vilifies the student who behaved in that way. Arguably, it probably also doesn’t change anything for that person, except to know that their teacher will shame them.

When I read the stories about Orlando, my heart broke wide open. I cried reading about the victims, thinking about the living nightmare the survivors must now endure. I cried for the LGBT community, here and abroad. I cried for the helpers, the first responders and the brave men and women who risked their lives to protect others.

So this coming school year, I’m going to do something different. Instead of teaching tolerance, I will teach insistence. I will insist that everyone belongs—not just the people who think, look, or act like you.

I will insist that everyone—and I mean everyone, even (and maybe especially) that classmate you just can’t stand—has value and beauty and a story that would make you cry if you knew it.

I will insist that we read books with diverse characters—LGBT, Muslim, refugee, people with mental illness, etc. I will insist on class discussions throughout the year where we talk about people groups who are marginalized because of their race, sexuality, religion, or other factors related to their identity, and I will insist that their stories matter.

I will address the students who break my rules about respect firmly and swiftly, but more importantly, I will treat them with the same kindness and compassion I’m asking from them.

I will insist that building walls is never a solution to being afraid of those who are different from you.

I will insist that no matter how loudly the world might say that it’s dangerous to be yourself, love is louder, and love will win in the end, always.

Teaching insistence will take longer. It will require more of me—more energy, more compassion, more patience. It will require more of my students, too. But so much of what we’ve seen recently, and not just in
Orlando, tells me we need it.

Former students, I’m not your current teacher anymore, but I have faith you’ll learn insistence from somewhere. In spite of everything, I believe in the good forces that are at work, and I believe that good is
insistent, too.

I care about all of this so deeply because of you. Teaching has fundamentally changed me, is changing me, and it has to, because I spend hours every week interacting directly with kids who represent a vast array of beliefs, values, and experiences. I love each of you so much that sometimes I think I’m in actual danger of my heart exploding out of my chest, and more than anything I just want all of you to live in a world where you feel safe and strong and valued, because feeling safe and strong and valued makes it easier to be brave and kind and inclusive. And in case you haven’t been paying attention, we need more of that in this world.

And we need you in it.