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Forward to School

“As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.”

For many students across the commonwealth, yesterday marked the first day of the new school year. Sleepy-eyed teens and bouncing kindergarteners made their way to their desks with freshly sharpened pencils, and the aim of sparking a few new synapses, and hopefully, making a few new friends. The mind of a human being is truly a marvel. Starting out smooth and small, it grows to such an extent that it must fold in on itself, forming gyri and sulci, ridges and valleys, to accommodate that epic expanse we call imagination. The minds of the young in particular are powerhouses of plasticity and possibility. Each new connection within, each new story, skill or fact, can be linked weblike to form an understanding of the greater world without, but what happens when voices are absent or silenced? What happens when some stories are not told?

In some states around the country, notably in Florida with what has been dubbed “Don’t Say Gay,” or in Tennessee where critical race theory is banned, there is an obvious effort by some to restrict or entirely remove some perspectives, histories and realities from education. Here in Virginia, Governor Younkin has set up an email tip line for parents to report school employees who teach “divisive” subjects, a category so broad as to mean nothing and everything at the same time, and in Spotsylvania county, a school board literally wanted to burn some of its library’s books. These attacks on free speech, these limitations on what or how subjects can be taught, cut short and diminish the greatest resource this country has, the utter infinite that is the mind of a child. We cannot cut the roots of a tree and expect it to grow tall. We cannot lay a foundation filled with holes and expect a stable home to stand. With every library deletion, every historical event deemed too messy, every category of human being labeled unspeakable, we set this generation’s future atop a sinkhole, just waiting for the shock that will send it plummeting. The scrubbing of stains and these erasures will not create something “perfect,” but instead something very very fragile. Every mistake is a teachable moment, and as cliche as it has become, some seem to have forgotten that those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Perhaps, that is the point, to keep the same people downtrodden and underfoot that have historically been exploited, abused and pushed to the margins. It certainly would seem so. In Hanover county, the unelected school board has done everything in its power to make transgender youth feel unsafe and unwelcome in even attending school, which obviously inhibits the learning potential for those students, but also denies their peers of the perspectives they could gain from being in class together.

As this new year begins, whether you have school-age children or not, you have a stake in their development. You have a stake in their budding compassion or its extinguishing. You have a stake in their ability to see connections between one event and another and cross-disciplinary links between what may have happened in history and how that pertains to current scientific findings, the math in music and the music in math, every thread that can be seen as a rich tapestry of existence. You have a stake in all of this, because our lives are not singular. They are not separate. We share our world, a world with many wonders and many problems yet to solve. I want these children to have as many puzzle pieces as they can get to put the bigger picture together. I want them to see themselves as whole, complicated beings, each with lineages and histories filled with people that exhibited bravery and cowardice, greed and generosity, connection and isolation, passion and ambivalence, and to see what happened next in those tales. I want all of this to inform who they become in the fullness of time. I want their understanding to grow. I want their choices to not be between merely column a or column b, but an explosion of pathways that you or I may have never even thought of.

This question from a nationally recognized standardized test recognizes only answer B as correct, though answer C using the singular “they” should also be recognized as correct, as this grammar has a long and rich tradition of respected usage going as far back as 1375 in English. This question both ignores that reality, and the preferred and appropriate pronoun usage for many current students in the American school system.

If you have school-age kids in your life, read to them. Find as many different authors and perspectives as you can. When teachers are doing the same, let them know how much you appreciate them. They need your support. Push back when narratives are flattened, when voices are absent. Find supplemental information if half a story is being told. Get involved at your local school, your local library or parks department. Get to know who is making decisions about what stays and what goes, and pay attention to those local elections. They often touch our lives in profound ways. If there is a policy that you can’t stand for, then don’t. Call the school board. Write to the governor. Tell your representatives and senators, both statewide and federally, what you think, and make connections with your neighbors. There are often organizations out there that are already doing work you may care about. Reach out to them. You’re not alone. Having kids can be overwhelming to say the least, but many of these things don’t take a lot of time or resources to accomplish, especially considering the consequences of inaction. Every one of these wondrous beings has a universe inside them. May we all help to make those places of possibility, inclusion and connection, so the light that is already there can burn bright and light the way again.

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