Using a Facing History lens has allowed me to create a safe space in my classroom for thoughtful reflection, respectful dialogue, and empathic listening. Together we've thought through the choices people made in history and considered the consequences of individual actions. They've learned about the importance of standing up to injustice and have come to see themselves as active participants in society. How do I know this? Consider what recently transpired in my classroom...
Two weeks ago, a student enrolled in my senior Cultural Diversity elective shared with the class her experience seeing the movie Olympus Has Fallen with her younger brother in tow. Nothing unusual there, of course, but it is also to be noted that this student and her brother are Korean and the movie Olympus Has Fallen depicts a violent takeover of the White House at the hands of North Korean terrorists. In case the actual threats of North Korean nuclear drama taking place in the real-world weren’t enough to inspire casual mistrust of Koreans for some, North Korean terrorists are shown destroying the Washington Monument in an eerily similar “re-enactment” of the World Trade Center collapsing floor by floor. My student reported that when the Americans in the movie began returning fire and the would-be hero of the film emerged, the audience began clapping. And as the “evil” North Koreans in the film became machine-gun fodder, cheering and whistling erupted in the theater. Less than 15 minutes into the film, my student and her brother sat in the crowded movie stadium horrified and afraid. She whispered to her brother, Do people think that WE do things like this? Do people in this audience want to harm US? And she had another sobering thought, Is it really this easy to whip a crowd into a frenzy against another group of people?
My student and her brother sat in silence during the movie, torn between walking out of the film and staying until the end. On one hand, they desired to witness the absurdity of it all and observe personally how “their people” were depicted in a blockbuster movie. On the other hand, my student and her younger brother felt increasingly unsafe. As the plot unfolded, the audience shouted racial slurs at the actors in the movie and enthusiastically cheered things like, “We got another Korean, YEAH!” When the situation did not improve, my student made a choice.
She explained, I’m pretty sure my brother and I were the only Asians in the whole theater, and most likely the only Koreans. I just couldn’t watch that film any more, and I really couldn’t allow my little brother to be exposed to all that hatred- I just felt this overwhelming need to protect him. As my brother and I rose to leave, I could feel everyone staring at us. I heard whispers, comments like, “Hey, look at those Koreans, they must feel guilty!” and “Why are you guys attacking our ?” This guy near the exit actually blocked my path and sneered, “Where do you think you’re going?” I was honestly scared out of my mind! But I couldn’t be afraid, I couldn’t get nervous, I had my little brother with me and I knew that in order to protect him I would have to stand up for myself. I told him, ‘You have no right to say that to me. We are not those people in the movie, NO ONE IS!’ He laughed at us and I said, ‘I don’t need to take this!’ and I grabbed my brother by the arm and we left. I kept my head held high and I stormed out of the theater, but in reality I was completely shaking inside.
When my student relayed her story, the class immediately offered their support. One student remarked, “I’m so sorry you had to experience that” and another added, “I wish I would have been there, because I would have stood up for you” and to both comments the others vigorously nodded. Through the year’s activities and daily discussions in class, we have repeatedly circled back to the idea of standing up for what is right and using one’s voice to combat injustice. The student who experienced the event first-hand has internalized the notion of personal choice and agency. She confided that she might not have said anything, but because she felt the need to protect her little brother, she knew she had to act. And her classmates have embraced that idea too. Rather than succumb to frustration with the situation and simply shake their heads, the entire group was motivated to make things right for their peer. Indeed, the class (at their suggestion, not mine) discussed their response to the incident and offered solutions such as, “We need to call the management of the theater and complain” and “we need to boycott this movie” and “we need to let people at our school know that stuff like this is happening right down the street from here!” Without my asking, without my requesting that they “look at this through a Facing History and Ourselves lens,” the kids’ go-to response was one of asking, “What can I do? How can I help? How can our class make this a learning experience so it doesn’t happen again?” My student’s comfort in sharing her story, her classmates’ authentic response of support and concern, and the desire of the entire group to widen the conversation as a way to prevent future injustice was incredibly powerful to witness.
Have you recently witnessed your students take a stand? How did his or her actions impact other students? How did it impact you?