Discussions like these can sometimes get stuck, or go off track, I discovered in my own teaching, as did Hall, and even when they’re as thoughtful, honest, and robust as this one turned out to be, if a teacher isn’t skilled in this sort of facilitation, they can land in bleak places. For students and their teachers, the quest is to balance the need to understand a pervasively unjust system and the need to nurture an awareness of agency. “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible,” Baldwin wrote, “is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.”
As an educator, I came to think that no mission was more important than this one, or more daunting. And in my early days of teaching, as much as I wanted to be the sort of educator Baldwin was calling on me to be, part of me wondered if I should attempt to keep my classroom as a sort of island, set apart from the often grim realities beyond it.
But the more time I spent with my students—almost all of them Black or Latino (many of whom were undocumented or came from mixed-status immigrant families), and more than 70 percent of them eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—the less possible and productive that approach seemed to me, as it did to Hall. “That’s just how it is here, Mr. Smith,” one of my students said to me, and a semicircle of matter-of-fact nods rippled across the classroom. A fellow student had just been shot and killed in a drive-by. It was not the first time a young person from the school community had been killed, and would not be the last. I had never taught the young man whose life had been taken, but I remembered the sound of his laughter—his high-spiritedness had been contagious—in the hallway between classes.
After hearing the news the night before, I had decided to scrap my original lesson plan so I could open up my classroom as a space where we could collectively mourn. Students paid tribute to their peer and expressed disgust toward the shooters. There were tears, raised voices, and monologues of grief. I had them write as we tried to find a way to heal and move forward, pushing against the fatalism so many of them justifiably felt. Indeed, within the span of the next two weeks, one student’s parents were deported, another’s family was evicted from their home, yet another student was arrested, and several revealed to me that they had been coming to school without having eaten the night before.
I had not been trained for this, but in the course of finding my way in class, trying to put the books I assigned into conversation with current events, I read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a foundational text of what is called critical pedagogy. Written in 1968 by the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire, and translated into English in 1970, it was based on his experience teaching Brazilians living in poverty, most of them adults, how to read and write. Freire emphasized that the “struggle for their liberation” required students to recognize the stratified status quo not as a “world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform.” At its best, I found as I worked with teenagers, critical pedagogy helped me appreciate that, even as students are engaged in the process of learning, they are also engaged in the project of unlearning so much of what they have been taught about society and about themselves. And it is in that unlearning that agency can be reclaimed.