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Looking Back

In the summer of 1964, I spent my days going to diving practice in the mornings, watching General Hospital in the afternoons and kind of perpetually wishing school would start again so I could revel in the power of being an 8th grader. Seventh grade had been a blur of feeling awkward and out of place, mixed with a tiny bit of confusion about the meaning of life. President Kennedy was assassinated that year, and I really knew nothing about Lyndon Johnson, except that he and his wife weren’t nearly as glamorous as Jack and Jackie. I do remember my mother being very happy when the Civil Rights Act passed that summer, but I didn’t have any idea at that point what it had been created to change.

Whether or not we are teachers—or writers or artists or parents or siblings—it is our responsibility to understand each other and what we each need.

My father was a schoolteacher and my mother was a secretary and we were very much middle class. Still, I was as privileged as a person could be. I might have longed for expensive Capezio flats from Weinstocks that my mom said we couldn’t afford, but in truth I wanted for nothing. My teachers all looked like me and taught me about other white people and their history, politics, writing, and inventions. By that summer of my 13th year, I was pretty sure I liked girls more than I liked boys, but despite the self-hatred that conjured up, I could keep it hidden until I was ready to deal with it, which would be at least another seven or eight years. By the time I did come out, my mother wept, but in the long run came to accept what we both always knew to be true. There was no renunciation, no shaming recriminations shouted my way.

The only thing that ever really stood in my way was my own lack of confidence and initiative, no doubt the result of being a woman in a man’s world. But even in spite of that, I meandered around and was granted access at nearly every door I encountered. What I have learned in more than 35 years in public education is that not everyone has shared my experience. As a community college teacher, I discovered very quickly that education is about giving people the room and the encouragement to find what they have inside of them. But I also know that it’s about creating an environment that feels safe and at least a little bit comfortable—like many of the spaces I learned in.

And whether or not we are teachers—or writers or artists or parents or siblings—it is our responsibility to understand each other and what we each need. I think we are in such a hurry always to move to the next phase that we don’t give each other the support we all need to evolve in the ways we need to. This is empathy in its purest form—putting ourselves in someone else’s place. I am learning to ask people what it feels like to be them, what scares them, what excites them, what dreams they have. As it happens, even shy people want to talk about what brings them joy, what frightens them, what makes them feel as if they can take a deep breath and just relax.

I think of these things through the lens of education, because it is the arena in which I spent the bulk of my life. But it is true regardless of the environments we share with other people. We are all different and we are all the same. It is our job as humans to know that and to take the risk to find out how. If we don’t all have the chance to push the limits, there will be no pushing them very far for any of us. One thing I know about being old is that I have so much to gaze upon when I look back. Some of it makes me feel very lucky and very proud. The way we have often treated each other as humans makes me feel the opposite. Let's not leave it that way.

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