Dealing with Naiveté

I had already started writing this post when three students came into my study hall asking if they could survey some of the kids in the room.  As they circulated among the class and asked their questions, it became harder and harder for me to simply sit quietly and listen.  The survey was on racism in America today, and in my eavesdropping I caught wave upon wave of the naiveté that inspired me to write this post in the first place.  These kids have good lives.  Their families are well off.  Aside from the handful of Korean exchange students, our school doesn’t have much in the way of diversity.  They’ve never seen the impact of racism in action – which led them to conclude that racism is now a non-issue.  I cringed inwardly, already mulling over ideas for bringing up the topic in class some time.

I love my job.  I love this demographic, though not always for the reasons people expect.  For the most part, my students are awesome – respectful, trustworthy, and motivated.  But man, they’re naive.

To my students, if any of you find your way to this blog, please know that I don’t mean to discredit your life experiences.  Some life problems cross the cultural, financial, and racial boundaries to touch us all.  I know that some of you face struggles and issues that others don’t understand.  This is one of the reasons I want to teach you – because you need someone to both challenge and support you as you deal with your unique circumstances.  But you don’t know how the world at large works, either.  How could you?  You haven’t seen it.

This beautiful, thriving pocket of the Midwest is not representative of the rest of the world (or even the rest of America), and so far my students haven’t had to shoulder much of life’s responsibilities. They don’t know the potential consequences of their decisions.  They don’t know when their words don’t match their intentions.

Study hall kids often complain about how they don’t like it when their parents ask about their day.  I haven’t done it yet, but I want to ask them if they’d prefer the alternative.  Would they rather have parents who don’t ask how their kids are doing and aren’t interested in their day, their grades, and (essentially) their lives?  I’ve seen those parents.  That isn’t the kind of life they want.

The picture above my desk, painted by my sister.

A group of kids in my room were making jokes about a range of birth defects, from dwarfism to cerebral palsy.  As I sat watching them, one of their classmates approached my desk shaking his head, asking how I dealt with teenagers all day.  I talked with him for a bit about the challenges of being a high school teacher, but even as he thought he was commiserating with me, he didn’t fully get it.  I told him about strategies I use to converse with teenagers, but he didn’t pick up on the fact that I was employing those same strategies with him, too.  It amused me a little.  Even those who are aware of teenage immaturity don’t always see it in themselves.  He was giving me “knowing” looks with an air of superiority.  At least I’m not like those kids, he seemed to imply.  Near the end of our conversation, I pointed to a painting hanging near my desk, showing a boy and a girl both in wheelchairs.  “That’s my brother,” I said.  He swallowed as he looked back over his classmates, still engaged in their irreverent conversation about people with physical impairments.  Then he looked back at me with wide eyes.  He’d known that what they were saying was wrong, but in that moment he realized the true impact of their words.

I hear inappropriate comments like these all day.  I could tell stories of the flippant comments I’ve heard (and addressed) about poverty, rape, and unemployment.  They lack the empathy to understand their own words.  They usually hear me out, though, as I explain why those jokes aren’t OK.  In one case, a girl took the initiative of approaching my desk and apologizing, sincerely letting me know how bad she felt for what she’d said.  They’re learning, so that’s all I can ask.  But even so, their ignorance about racism is the most overwhelming. To them, racism is a topic for history books and sociology projects, not a reality of the modern world.  Out of sight, out of mind, right?  It’s so far removed from them that they think it’s OK to laugh and make public jokes about it.  They aren’t malicious, intending to hurt others, but they are naive.  Blindly, frighteningly naive.  

They haven’t seen racism in action.  They haven’t lived in a world where it’s real and dealt with every single day.  They don’t understand that this hatred and pain isn’t gone from our country.  As I spoke to one class, I asked if any of them had ever seen racism in action.  “Oh yeah!  I have this friend who is so racist!” they called out, laughing a little.  “No,” I replied, “I mean have you ever seen the other side of it, ever seen someone who’s been hurt by racism?”  They silenced, like they hadn’t even considered the situation from that perspective.  With another class, I had to address some boys with an idea for a joke that made my stomach turn.  They hadn’t gone public with it yet, but they had plans.  The joke seemed innocent to them, but if carried out, it could have potentially cost them college admission or a job in the future.  It was that serious.  In that moment their naiveté became a serious problem.  The consequences of their actions wouldn’t go away just because they didn’t understand.  Fortunately, they listened when I admonished them, when I explained that there are some lines that you just don’t cross.  Ever.  No matter how light-hearted your intentions.  I doubt they’ll ever fully “get it” until they see reality for themselves, but they did change their minds.  They chose not to follow through with their “joke.”

Like I said, my students are good kids.  Privileged, yes.  Oblivious to certain real-world issues, clearly.  But did you notice?  When I spoke to them and explained things, they responded well.  The problem is naiveté, not bad intentions.  And while I don’t condone their ignorance, I understand how it happened.  The contrast of this Midwestern suburbia to cities like Washington DC, Boston, and Miami is a bit staggering sometimes, so maybe I would notice the problem less if I hadn’t spent all those years seeing the various corners of our country.  My students haven’t had that chance.

Let me end on this.  While I see the differences, I don’t want to go down the path of saying “these kids don’t know how good they have it.”  While there is an element of truth to that statement, there’s also an element of belittlement.  Yes, they are naive to the rest of the world, but they also encounter struggles that the world doesn’t see.  I’ve been immersed in the private school environment for a long time, and I’ve seen it from a lot of different angles.  I’ve seen the messes that get swept under the rug in an effort to keep up appearances.  I blend in well enough with this environment that they’ll listen to me, but I’ve seen enough of the rest of the world to know where we fall short.  This is why I want to teach this demographic – not because of their affluence or polite manners, but my desire to reach through all that and meet them where they are, not where people assume they should be.  There is so much more to them than their nice lives and naiveté.

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17 thoughts on “Dealing with Naiveté

  1. Will the school let you introduce some books that deal with racism and/or prejudice? I’m thinking Summer Of My German Soldier by Bette Greene, The Diary of Anne Frank or To Kill A Mockingbird. It could start off some interesting class discussions, especially if you relate them to present-day events. Just a thought.

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    • I would love to do that. The relating to the present-day would be key. They understand the historical aspect of racism, but they don’t see it as a current problem anymore. The curriculum’s pretty set for this year, but I might be able to bring it in down the road. I don’t see this issue going away any time soon.

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  2. Great post! I teach in a Christian school, and we are very racially diverse, but many of the kids come from privileged families. Some of them do have messy lives that are swept under the rug, like you said. And some just are clueless, as you have said. We have a big job as educators…bringing these kinds of things to light in a way where they really THINK. Many students I see are too lazy or distracted to really think or care about these big issues.

    But you are doing a great job in your corner of the world!

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  3. This is an interesting post. I have a question and then two different reactions, based on the answer. Does the failure to see racism as a problem come from having racism so ingrained they can’t see it, or because it isn’t much of a problem in their world? If it is because of the former, YES it needs to be addressed so that attitudes can change.

    But if it is because it isn’t much of a problem, isn’t that attitude a sign that (at least in that corner of the world) racism is beginning to die a natural death? Oh, it is far from completely dead, I know; but isn’t moving past it what the ultimate goal is?

    Just food for thought.

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    • That’s hard for me to answer simply because there’s a huge lack of diversity here. This is a predominantly white community. My students have very little exposure to those of other races, and so there isn’t much opportunity to see either positive or negative race relations. I think they have a deeply-ingrained lack of empathy for those in different social and cultural situations, but I also don’t think they’d ever intentionally hurt someone just because of their race. So, a mix of both? Does that work?

      Also, I don’t know if it’s possible to “move past” racism to a point that it’s OK to joke about it. We don’t joke about the antisemitism of Nazi Germany or the anguish caused by the Trail of Tears for Native Americans. How would this be different?

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  4. I love this. I want my kids to read this and almost wish you’d given exames of the conversations and the jokes. Because I think they would recognize them and it would hit home better. Great blog. You give us a unique perspective into the world our teens live. Thank you. Cheers!

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    • I went back and forth a lot about what comments to include and what to refer to in more general terms. I didn’t want to embarrass my students or cause problems if any of them (or their parents) happen to read this. Even though I’ve left off names, I still felt I owed some discretion to them. 🙂 But thank you for the kind comment!

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  5. There are some things one should not say and I have had my share of stepping in it. I was teaching a seventh grade class and discussing current events. There were three brothers in Florida that contracted AIDS. The kids put me to the wall and finally I opened my big mouth. I said something to the effect that since they had AIDS and would die soon, this is before there were pills to keep these poor people alive, that they should be exempt from school if they wished. They should be allowed to go fishing or what ever to enjoy what life they had left. The chaos ensued and I wished I never went there. Five years later all three were dead but the students I had were not ready to understand the situation and I should have realized that. Dumb teacher, oh that was me.

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  6. I’m also a high school teacher and this line really hit home to me: “the consequences of their actions wouldn’t go away just because they didn’t understand.” The reality of that fact frustrates me day after day.

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  7. This idea that teenagers can be oblivious to their own ignorance is more than a small point here because it relates to all people, not just those going through adolescence: “Even those who are aware of teenage immaturity don’t always see it in themselves. He was giving me ‘knowing’ looks with an air of superiority. ‘At least I’m not like those kids.'” I’m an American living and doing research in Mozambique and I can tell you that racism is alive and well here – people are still more politically correct upon entrance but after first impressions, the subtle verbal abuses start to appear. It is very disheartening, but an ugly truth. If you are interested in knowing what it is like you may want to read what I have witnessed here: http://wp.me/p4e2Bz-6l
    While I would not presume to say that racism in the U.S. is less dramatic it certainly has the potential here to create some serious violence in conflict within countries and in regional conflicts so the fears caused by racism have harmful consequences.

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  8. A very good friend of mine is Indian and she is smart, pretty and fluent in English and I can’t stand some of the ‘jokes’ I hear about Indian people. We do a subject called learning for life and work here and I think a lot of people would benefit if thinks like the consequences of racism, sectarianism, sexism etc were taught instead of just facts and figures

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  9. Hi, I just wanted to say thank you for all your brilliant thoughts and for sharing them with the world! You have a great perspective on life, and to me personally are inspiring. I’m a teacher in the making and just from the few blogposts I’ve read so far, find the way you go about teaching amazing! I hope you know you’re making a difference in the lives of those teens that surround you physically, but also people like me, listening to what you have to say on here. So once again, thank you and God bless! 🙂

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  10. “This beautiful, thriving pocket of the Midwest is not representative of the rest of the world (or even the rest of America), and so far my students haven’t had to shoulder much of life’s responsibilities. They don’t know the potential consequences of their decisions. They don’t know when their words don’t match their intentions”

    My compliments to you Mrs. Roberson. Your words above are true and expressed nicely!

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  11. Beautifully written and expressed. I can very much relate to the feeling of ignorance due to circumstance. I went to a very culturally diverse high school, so I encountered a bit of culture shock when I began college in north Idaho, a primarily white college town. I am now working in a non-profit organization in Quito, Ecuador with kids who are the target of many racist paradigms. The indigenous people of Ecuador are discriminated against on many levels and the families I work with are poor to boot, which of course doesn’t help their voices be heard.
    Being a blonde, blue eyed “gringa”, I know even I myself have much to learn about how to be culturally aware and respectful as I work among these people as the minority. It is so hard to teach culture and respect when all your students know is whats in the history books….

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  12. Great post! Have you considered bringing real examples from the social media in teaching about racism? We are in the social media era. Kids understand social media and relate better to current situations rather than a story from a book written years ago. I just read about racist comments made to Tamera Mowri regarding her interracial marriage with Adam Hously. That would bring a good discussion on racism and how it affects us all as a progressive society. Your students might be secluded from a more diverse population but nowadays we have social media, which opens all kind of social issues, domestics and internationals, to the whole world. Every time I want to talk to my daughter, 10, about topics like racism I look for current situations in the Internet (YouTube, FB posts, tweets, etc.-There are plenty of them) and invite her to think about it. The most awesome conversations with my daughter have started with a social media post.

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