70: Preconceived Notions

70: Preconceived Notions

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Preconceived Notions

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

As I walked into the school, I was worried. I was definitely out of my element on this one. What had possessed me to move to a small town where the nearest movie theatre was an hour away? What in the world had I been thinking to take a job in a town where I was the only visible minority?

I guess being desperate for a job will do that to you.

My home city was Toronto, and it was not easy finding work there. I had heard of teachers working for years on the supply list because there was nothing else available. Landing a teaching contract as a first-year teacher, I should have been grateful, right? Well, I certainly didn’t feel that way when I walked through the halls of this high school about two hours from Toronto. I stuck out like a sore thumb. Everywhere I walked, eyes turned toward me. As the principal gave me a tour of the school, I heard students whisper as I walked past: “Is that a new teacher? No, she can’t possibly be. She isn’t from around here.”

Standing before my first class, I saw a sea of faces of one colour — a completely different colour from my own. I reminded myself that I was there to help students not only learn the curriculum, but to effect change in a new generation. I was there to inspire, not allow myself to be limited by racial divides. Summoning up my courage, my rollercoaster of a year began.

I sat through moments in science class when I gave lectures on how vast and black space is, and students responded with “Miss! That’s racist!” and “How can she be racist, idiot, when it’s her own race? Duh!” I sat through moments in chemistry class when we discussed drugs and narcotics, and I had students ask me if I had done drugs in the past or if I had ever been in jail. Of course, my favourite genre of music was rap and hip hop, right?

I had to decide whether I should be offended or amused by their stereotypical thinking. I decided I would use those opportunities as teachable moments. I could either avoid the elephant in the room or I could teach these students that what they’d seen on TV was not quite the reality. Not every black male ends up in jail and has a bunch of baby mamas. Not all Latinos try to smuggle drugs into the country. Not all people from India eat curry morning, noon, and night. Not all Asian women work in nail salons. Everyone has dreams and aspirations, no matter their skin colour or background.

I asked each of my students what part of the world they would visit if given the opportunity. Their responses were revealing. Many of my students had never been outside their own town, never mind Canada. And yet the world called to them and they were eager to learn about different countries and cultures.

I’d arrived with preconceived ideas about my students being narrow-minded or intolerant, but they were just like any other kids. They hadn’t had many opportunities to interact with other people, so all they knew was what they’d learned from television. And my students were not only eager to learn otherwise, but to see otherwise. They wanted to travel the world and learn more. And with a little hard work, I told them, the world would be their oyster.

By the end of the school year, I was walking through the halls of the high school feeling spry, with my shoulders back and my head held high, no longer wishing to hide in the corner or fade into the background. I was different from the rest of the students and teachers, but I was happy to be so. My students knew that Ms. Duval was different, and yet she was just like everyone else. They learned that you cannot define people by their skin colour or by what you see on TV, but by their character. Not only did my students learn a valuable lesson, but I did too. I learned not only to be more confident in my own skin, but that people can be very accepting of you if you just open yourself up and give them the chance.

~J. Duval

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