I had the privilege of attending the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast, an event sponsored by our town’s No Place for Hate chapter. I was joined by five teachers and eight students from Falmouth Academy, and together we took in an inspirational morning that offered us the opportunity to hear from some powerful speakers, enjoy a little music and song, and break bread in fellowship with 300+ of our neighbors. While we may have differed in race, religion, class, age, orientation, and political affiliation, we shared a commitment not only to honoring Dr. King’s legacy in the moment but more importantly to living into and enacting his dream.
As I looked around the room, I found myself examining why it was that I was surprised to be among such a diverse group of people. What assumptions had I been making about my new community? Which narratives, which stories had I not been listening to and which had I been writing myself, superimposing onto other groups or individuals without really knowing them?
Last spring, I came upon a church in Nashville with this message in its display case: “Your story matters.” It stopped me in my tracks and reminded me of what Chimamanda Adichie refers to as “the danger of a single story,” the very understandable but ultimately misguided tendency we have to make assumptions about people based on whatever groups with which we may affiliate them. I contend that the inequities and injustices that Dr. King gave voice to are, in part, rooted in our reductive tendency to categorize people, and subsequently to our extending preferences to those whose stories we think mirror our own.
But what do we really know about one another’s stories? Or more importantly, how do we know it? Look at me, for example, and you would be correct to assume that I occupy a position of privilege in every one of the 8-12 so-called “social identifiers.” But how would you ever know that represented in my family, my social network, are people of different races, sexual orientations, religions, and socioeconomic classes? Well, you’d have to ask, and you’d have to listen.
When Dr. King urged us to judge one another not by the color of our skin but on the content of our character, I don’t believe he was suggesting that we should be color-blind, that we should treat everyone the same, but rather that we should see each person for who they are, to include race, religion, class, sexual orientation, ability, ethnicity, and gender identity, to name but a few, and to treat them as individuals, nonetheless. And that is one of our many charges at Falmouth Academy: To resist the temptation of imposing easy narratives on one another and to fully embrace the affirming practice of really knowing one another. If we do, I think we will find, as I did this morning, that we are a more diverse community than we may have thought, and that diversity can be a source of great strength.
But telling (and listening to) one another’s stories can be hard. Some of us can tire of being asked to shoulder responsibility for the actions of our ancestors or neighbors. Others of us can tire of being asked to be the voice of a demographic. Some of us are paralyzed by the prospects of saying the wrong thing. Others are paralyzed by a fatalistic belief that things will never change. The temptation to retreat within the comfortable confines of people who think like we do is strong, but it’s certainly not the path Dr. King advocated.
This week in all-school meeting, I suggested that perhaps we should ask ourselves four questions (which I first heard posed by Rosetta Lee) about our own classrooms and common spaces. Do you see me? Do you hear me? Will you treat me fairly? Will you protect me? The more the answer is yes, for all of our students to each of these questions, the more we honor the man whose dream we celebrate, and the closer we are to attaining it.