Humans in Every Corner

“Allah has punished the Jews. They deserved this…”

A quiet boy, no more than fourteen.

The walls peel inward while classmates eyeball the boy, in the corner, and me, in the front. Dry October leaves pile in the corners of the school’s courtyard. Our reading of Elie Wiesel’s Night is complete and the boy’s proclamation precedes any question from me.

It is the latter part of the 1990s and this public high school sits within a blended northwest side neighborhood of Chicago. As a “lottery” school, this school abides by a consent decree between the school system and a federal judge that, in effect, mandates the school’s population approximate one quarter each Hispanic, Asian-American, Black, and White. Religion does not figure into the quota, however: Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Christians, among others, sit side-by-side. The struggles of immigrant parents direct the ambitions of at least a fifth of the students. The richness of the school’s environment has a profound influence on me. I do not share the histories of most of my students. I was raised Catholic, and white suburban.

“…In this story, Allah punishes the Jews for all that they have done to Muslims in the Middle East.” His voice angers the silence.

Throughout our exploration of Night, the boy has offered little. Today, he offers much, and I must decide what to do next.

In that moment, I understand that the narrative truth of the boy, the tenacious veracity of his personal story in this world, is fortified by the histories and beliefs of his parents and grandparents, by their religious and social communities, even by their ideas on love for neighbor. His own history emerges within those contexts, and, as a freshman, he guards his understanding of that history.

For me, the moment feels quintessentially American, perhaps not possible anywhere else in the world in the same way. A complex mix of races, ethnicities, socioeconomic levels, religions, languages, and, certainly, histories. Although anger sharpens the room, it is also limned by curiosity and tolerance, not by the violence of closed minds.

The curricular aim is to honor each student’s humanity, through the reading of provocative literature, the writing of relevant pieces across genres, and a constant Socratic-style dialogue with one another. And, my hope is to expand each student’s humanity through a wider understanding of others’. Of course, skill-based curriculum and instruction (like grammar skills, such as using relative pronouns correctly) and the assessment of those skills are embedded within this larger humanist construct.

The hands of several Jewish students, some Orthodox and many with ties to the Holocaust and Israel, shoot into the air.

It’s funny how that moment, their hands erect and dutiful, sits so prominently in my memory. A moment like this — unannounced and unforgiving — emerges in every teaching life, searing its artifacts into our memory. Every classroom has moments of colliding narratives, where the truth of one student negates that of another, turning the moment’s setting into a potential coliseum.

The performance of those narratives can glue the corners of a classroom together, binding the humanity of one young person to the other.

Or unglue.

One thing is certain: the moment defines all subsequent moments in that classroom. For me, colliding narratives of race and socioeconomic status are more tangible, more easily negotiated; students tend to more easily articulate causes and effects. Collisions of Yahweh, Allah, and God are murkier.

Gathering the room, I risk upon a student to respond, a Muslim student.

Later, as spring arrives, the corners of the room seem to round toward a center. Narratives continue to emerge while curiosity and tolerance deepen.