Joanna Daniel is a 2012 corps member in Washington.
The first month in the classroom was the hardest. There was an awkward tension that I couldn’t break. My students are a mix of third and fourth graders, a mix of ages and racial backgrounds. At the ages of 7, 8 and 9 years old, they were already making assumptions about each other based on skin color. Bullying quickly became a problem, both inside and outside the classroom. It wasn’t until one of my fourth graders announced out loud to the class, “Well I won’t ever get these math problems right because I’m Mexican. Mexicans are dumb!,” that something changed.
After a long pause I announced, “I am so inspired by the fact that you are proud of who you are and that you are proud to be Mexican.” The class, for the first time in weeks, went dead silent. I pushed aside the math lesson for the day to let everyone think about what had just happened. In that moment, I realized exactly what was missing in our classroom. What my students needed to learn most was that embracing who you are is one of the most important parts of being a life-long learner.
This was the first of many conversations surrounding diversity that occurred in my class. I realized that my students needed to have a safe place to talk about being Mexican, Hispanic, African American, Black, Pacific Islander, Asian, or white. They needed a place to share their stories about what it meant to be of that particular race or background. They needed to share what it feels like to have someone follow you in a store because they think you might steal, why there aren’t nice stores around their homes, why they know so many people in jail, or how these stereotypes hurt their feelings.