#IAmForChange-Words Matter

Words Matter

By C.R. Yannick, student

Walking into school on your first day of middle school is a critical moment in a student’s life. The fresh smell in the hallways; the first time meeting many of your classmates; and of course, the classic first day picture in front of the house with your backpack on that you begrudgingly smile for. No matter one’s retrospective opinion on middle school, I think we can all agree that change is exciting, and the excitement on the first day of middle school was a mix of grown-up confidence and child-like nervousness. We all had a desire to fit in. Throughout the day, we would see our old friends, the so-called “new kid”, and everyone in between.

The desire to be accepted marked my journey in middle school. Many of you reading this may share this with me. I remember how important it was for me to feel as if I wasn’t ostracized, and the lengths I would go to to ensure that never happened, even if it meant shedding parts of my personality and identity–what made me, me. This is why I was especially saddened to read that a student at a school I go to felt the need to, according to an anonymous testimonial collected by NA for Change, “cover up their ‘spinach paratha’ with their right hand while using their left to eat it as fast as they could–in fear that the kids whom they sat in the cafeteria with would laugh at their lunch, which looked different from their turkey sandwiches.” 

Experiences like that are all too common for kids growing up in an area whose predominant culture is different than their own. The feeling of needless embarrassment–of feeling the need to change yourself to fit what others expect–and then of resolve, is seared into my brain. It is incredible how even passing experiences can be so influential–so dominant in affecting the way you conduct yourself for years in the future. I know that this feeling is not constrained to the boundaries of race and culture–I’m sure that everyone has an experience in mind of an interaction with others, whether a conversation or just a certain glance, that led to a long term insecurity.

We all know the feeling, which is why we all know how important it is to prevent any student from having to hide their lunch in fear of ridicule or nitpick their appearance just to fit an arbitrary standard over which they have no control.

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These experiences often result from simple misunderstandings, differences in cultures and identities that–when introduced by students in some of their most vulnerable and formative years and left unaddressed by educators–spiral into conflicts and traumatic experiences for students, and especially BIPOC students. Cultural differences end up becoming barriers, when in reality, they should be uplifted, talked about, and celebrated. 

This is a telltale question educators face: how do we ensure that we can eliminate these unneeded obstacles in schools and in our communities–how can we build bridges rather than walls, shepherding growth and understanding for students as they prepare to enter the world?

Schools serve as microcosms of a world woven through with countless identities, appearances, and stories to tell–an awesome blend of wonderfully unique individuals. We should form our schools to be models of what our society should look like–diverse, kind, inclusive, and cognizant of our common goals and needs while leaving no one behind.

On the front lines of this effort to foster a more equitable and accepting environment are educators. Teachers have the power to shape a child’s worldview, to bolster their self confidence by openly accepting every identity and educating students who are being insensitive–or, to put it bluntly, racist. Or ableist. Or sexist. Or homophobic.

I am an optimist, and I believe that people who make rude comments or show their biases are victims of their environments and consumptions–especially middle school students. But children just entering their teenage years cannot be expected to succeed in shedding prejudices on their own. As students enter into a formative period of their lives when they are coming to terms with their own identity and being, educators need to be cognizant of how impactful seemingly small interactions are, of how a single word mocking someone’s lunch can create long lasting insecurities. 

Words matter.

Imagine how the interaction I explained earlier–of a student hiding their lunch to avoid anticipated mockery–could have played out differently.

What if a teacher had recognized their concern and talked to them about their fears?

What if we had more teachers of different ethnicities, cultures, and races who understand that very instance–who remember it from their own childhood–and could share a special teaching moment?

What if that student never had to experience that fear of humiliation, if kids had been taught through past interactions that bullying along cultural or racial lines would not be accepted?

How much would a small change, a short conversation, even a split second in a pivotal instance impact a student for the rest of their life?

There is great responsibility in witnessing a moment like this–in having the ability to intervene–and this responsibility to create positive change cannot fall on teachers alone. Parents also play an incredibly significant role in teaching their children to be upstanding human beings, and their participation is crucial. However, this should not serve as an excuse for schools to do less. Rather, it should be a reminder that parents and schools–entire communities–must work together to foster an environment where all students feel accepted and are accepting of each other.

#IAmForChange because I am an optimist at heart, and I believe in the inherent good of people.

I believe that if we provide our teachers with the training to handle sensitive situations with compassion, courage, and the encouragement to intervene; if we trust in the ability of students to grow from their mistakes and shed prejudices; if we all take it upon ourselves to take action in the name of positive change, we can build a future that all of us agree is worth striving for.


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