By Vy Nguyen
The writing below is an excerpt of a conversation between me and Lindsey Zanchettin, an English teacher at OES. I cannot guarantee that it will not offend anyone, but both of us decided that everyone needs to think about the issues we raised in this conversation.
When it comes to immigration, people have the mindset of us versus them. This is really damaging and painful because just a few generations ago, families came over here, looking for a new life and chance. People coming to the US right now are no different from these earlier forebears of ours. A hundred years ago, this country opened its arms to our ancestors, but now, when immigrants arrive, we draw the line and refuse them. That’s confusing. America is built on immigration and the idea of diversity. Unless you are a Native American and member of an indigenous tribe, nobody has the right to claim this land their own land.
OES is a bubble.
Not in the magical, childhood-beautiful way that we always associate the word with. OES is a bubble as in we are too protected from the outside world, “I burst his little bubble by showing him the actual cruelty that he is missing out on”.
Let me elaborate. There have been countless discussions between OES members about how sheltered our school can sometimes be. It’s not that we don’t engage in the outside world very often: the thing is students don’t ever really have the chance to fail at anything we try. We come to understand a B’s as a failure. If our sports team does not make it to State, that’s another failure. But the world out there is ten times bigger than the mini-sized OES we have in mind, and students get too much help. While this is not a bad thing, it will be a rude awakening when we step out into the real world.
So when I hear students disparage immigration and deny people who are fleeing war and disease and authoritarian regimes the chance to start over and live safely, I wonder if we really understand how limited our understanding of the world really is. To be frank, what do we know about failure, danger, or separation?
And yet, sometimes we are not given enough space to speak out and explore our horizons. There have been numerous efforts to keep the discussions going and raise awareness among students, one of them being Community Conversations, but the problem is that people don’t take these opportunities seriously.
Many teachers have supplemented their curriculum with materials that might help inform our understanding of the larger world. ELS AES 9, an English class for non-native English speaking students, is working on a project to interview members of the OES community who are either immigrants or people with heritages from other countries. In the post-colonial literature class last year, the final project was to profile a member of the community who is an immigrant. There is a big topic in English 11 about African American literature, and Lindsey mentioned in our conversation that in her class, they spent one week discussing the n-word in various layers, reading seminars and researching what famous African Americans thought about the word. She really encourages students to bring in topics, send videos and discuss current events, and they are given the space needed to state their personal opinions without being afraid of attacks. Yet, they need to agree to some norms of behavior: there is no room for racism or sexism of any kind, or any opinion that demeans or degrades another human being.
There is a student who recounted the day when their mother set them down and said, “Because you’re a black person, there are specific things you need to learn how to do.” That is real, and that is the world we are living in. If you are a person of darker skin color, you are probably walking through the world, feeling not very safe because someone may kill you for no specific reasons. There may be various opinions and outside voices at OES, but when someone in our own community, our own classroom, our own circle of friends says that this is their lived experience, we need to hear that truth. OES’ Black Student Union told the student body various times how painful the n-word is with the history of degradation and sheer dehumanization, and yet there are still people who exclaim “I don’t understand what the big deal is, it’s in a song”. People are choosing to not have empathy or to give credence to what everyone says, and that is the challenge that we need to overcome as a community.
People have different opinions and priorities, but we need to agree to some basic principles of decency and respect with one another. Whether we are talking about immigration to American or how the n-word impacts our immediate community, OES students need to be woke and more thoughtfully aware. And it is crucial that we do so.