Silence must be heard

Today was another of those days that remind me why I teach.

As I’ve mentioned before, I do an activism unit with my second-semester English classes in which the kids are required to choose a social cause, research it, and promote it through a series of writing assignments. This year, several students’ projects focused on bullying. One girl, not content to confine her efforts to fact sheets and letters to the editor, began encouraging her classmates to participate in Day of Silence, which is a nationwide awareness-raising campaign designed to bring attention to the verbal and physical abuse many LGBT students face every day.

As the name suggests, Day of Silence participants take a vow of silence, speaking only when required to by their teachers. If you remember yourself at 15, you can well imagine the sacrifice and commitment such a move requires.

Because speaking is so central to my job description, I had initially planned to encourage my kids from the sidelines … but last night, as I read all the excited Facebook posts by young activists preparing for their first demonstration, I decided they deserved to have at least one grownup standing in solidarity with them, so I revised my lesson plans to give my own vocal cords a day off.

What followed was utterly beautiful.

The DoS participants were, of course, delighted to find an ally standing at the front of the classroom — but more remarkable was the response from the other students. One girl fell silent after finding out about the demonstration halfway through the day. Another wrote a heartbreaking message about a friend who had been attacked on the basis of his orientation. One boy was a little skeptical about the whole thing, but since he wasn’t participating in DoS, he graciously loaned us his voice, reading my typed messages aloud in a strong, clear, expressive tone that made the lesson easier for his classmates to understand.

Meanwhile, the situation gave me an idea for a nice impromptu lesson about the role of media and technology in activism — a perfect discussion topic for an interest-based magnet school that focuses on broadcasting and digital media — and the break from our usual routine undoubtedly made my pre-EOI pep talk and review of literary terms more memorable for everyone concerned.

Best of all, my kids got to see firsthand the power of direct action. Did they eliminate homophobia from our building? Probably not. But their consciousness-raising efforts were wildly successful, prompting scores of conversations about the issue, and their infectious enthusiasm rekindled a spark of idealism in the heart of an English teacher who’d been teetering on the edge of burnout for a long, long time.

God, I love my kids.