Teaching is an optimistic act. A great teacher believes in the limitless capacity of young people to grow and change, to become both good and great. An educator trusts that the shy, teary 4-year-old will one day become a wise, well-adjusted 17-year-old, and this confidence, along with a healthy dose of guidance and nurturing, makes it so.
A profoundly optimistic view of young people is at the heart of Georgetown Day School. We trust in students’ capacity to learn, evolve, and master increasingly complex material. More than anything, though, we believe in the capacity of children to love, understand, and know one another, regardless of their differing backgrounds or identities. Just as a capacity to appreciate difference can be nurtured, however, it can also be starved through neglect and fear. Context matters.
On June 16, 2017, for our final faculty meeting of the 2016-17 school year, the entire GDS faculty and staff traveled by school bus to the recently opened National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Nearly 200 GDS educators made their way collectively through this remarkable institution, making eye contact across a room, offering observations at a poignant display, and sharing together in a powerful learning experience.
It was my first visit to the museum, and while many of the exhibits moved me, I was particularly struck by a section containing “African Americana.” Glass cases housed a range of objects featuring stereotypical depictions of African-Americans. “Mammy and Chef” salt and pepper shakers, images of “Black Sambo,” and toys featuring 19th century minstrels were displayed as examples of objects that perpetuate insidious stereotypes, portraying African-Americans as lazy or unintelligent.
Seeing racist toys and games in a museum brought to mind for me Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel. In that museum, early 20th century board games like “Juden Raus,” in which Jews are depicted as vermin needing to be expelled or chased away, are displayed alongside anti-Semitic children’s books like, The Poison Mushroom.
The artifacts at both museums remind us that dehumanizing the other doesn’t happen by itself. It is a learned practice, cultivated with intent from childhood.
On August 12, 2017, President Barack Obama sent a tweet in the aftermath of a white supremacist march and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia that became the most “liked” (nearly five million) in the (shockingly short) history of Twitter. The tweet did not offer the former President’s own words, but rather those of another world leader:
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. (Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom)
At GDS, we know that just as students learn algebra and Chinese, poetry and physics, they also learn how to see and value others whose physical appearance, belief systems, and background are different from their own. Each and every day, we are teaching our students to love.
We teach love at the Free-to-Be-Me assembly, when Lower School students cheer for classmates with all different kinds of families. We teach love with the Sixth Grade Box project, when students are given the opportunity to marvel at and celebrate their classmates’ family histories, as well as their own. We teach love at Monday Morning Meeting in the High School, when students applaud the accomplishments of the soccer team as well as the math team, and hear announcements from a few of the nearly 100 high school clubs, each of which reflects the broad range of passions, interests, and identities manifested in our High School student body.
I recognize the inherent risk in claiming that we “teach love.” We risk being caricatured as either 1960s idealists or hopelessly naive, but the School’s belief that love and acceptance are primary virtues dates from its founding in the aftermath of WWII. It is a recognition that humans thrive when they are seen, known, and valued—and when they learn to see, know, and value those life experiences that are different from their own. The alternative leads to the insidious stereotypes captured in the objects on display at the African-American Museum and Yad Vashem. And those stereotypes lead to the diminishment of children and adults.
Our goal is to elevate children. This we believe is the way that we can partner with families in raising hopeful children—children who can see possibility amidst the world’s many challenges and have the vision to build a better world.