Facing History and Ourselves…The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Posted by Brian Gibbs on February 3, 2016

If we do it correctly, Facing History and Ourselves can be a life-long gift to our students. The "Ourselves" part is always the most difficult. It’s the part that students struggle with. Sure they can parrot it in the moment, but it is the part we hope students actually engage with for the rest of their lives. Not often enough, but from time to time we get hints that they are actually doing just that.

A student asked me, “What do I do?”

Like all questions worth asking, worth the trouble, it had no clear answer. She had been my high school student for two years, surviving both my World and United States History courses. As happens to many Facing History teachers, my Facing History and Ourselves unit had extended itself from a 10-day examination of the Holocaust in 10th grade World History during my first year of implementation to…well…everything. Examining complex history and using it as a lens to examine ourselves had become a staple, a habit, just automatically what we do.

She was seeking advice and looking for clear and clean answers.

The mentoring part of teaching has always been the most difficult part for me, especially the out-of-school, outside the academic realm kind that always arrives at your classroom doorstep at an inconvenient hour (first thing in the morning, last thing in the afternoon, the middle of the night email you for some reason just had to check in bed on your smart phone). These are times when there are no clear and clean answers but the results can have devastating consequences.

This student was a mid-twenties college student, through fits and starts. She had attended three junior colleges in three years, worked two jobs and managed to help raise her three brothers and sisters. She had landed in a rural, well-regarded university in northern California and a thousand miles outside of her comfort zone. She said she enjoyed the difference, the peace, the calm, the relative tranquility as compared to city life, and the difference of opinion.

It was the opinion that was the initial shocker. It seemed she had traded one sameness, one relative homogeneity for another. Mostly Latino and urban, for mostly white and as she says, “country”.

As a high school student in my East LA classroom, she had held particular points of view on white people. Not negative necessarily but not quite complimentary. I, and most of her other teachers, got a pass. We taught at her school, wore our hair long, read Sandra Cisneros, were somehow outliers from the rest. But in her college classes at this university, living in the dorms, the Northern California “country” town, she was surrounded.

I used to think…you know, that all people were good ya know…the world is beautiful, but white people with their…you know privilege and all…

There was a pause.

this is going to sound so obvious and totally stupid…but they’re humans man.”

It seems that her facing of herself had continued, perhaps picking up speed after high school.

And they’re different, all over the political spectrum, like all kinds of music…I guess what I’m saying is they don’t fit into my stereotype anymore. I know you taught us all this but it wasn’t until I saw it. I mean I learned it and all, but not till I lived it. I had these flashbacks from that blue book…you know the light blue one? The Facing History one right. I remembered it all. I was all twisted up for weeks when I first got here. I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then one night I was on the top bunk (yeah we got bunks, it’s totally cool), and it all came rushing in. I’m the problem. Well…not the problem, but I wasn’t seeing right.

So I started talking, and talking, and talking…in class, out of class, everywhere. I’ve had some great conversations. Especially with folks different from me, not like ethnically, because like everyone is different from me, but politically, it’s been crazy. Hot tempers and all, the conversations have been intense. But it’s like only the insane ones are on TV you know? Different opinions and all but they want to talk you know?

So here’s the thing. I’ve got this one friend…we were raised so different. I say I’m left he says he’s absolutely on the right. But we agree on so much! And I don’t just mean like racism is bad, you know on the surface, but ways to get rid of poverty, how to end war…I mean it’s been freaky! We’ve started taking the same classes have been reading the same books and are convinced that they back up our points of view!!

So…what do I do?”

“About what?” I asked.

He wants to go out with me.”

“Yeah…” I responded weakly.

Yeah! So do I go?”

“You remember what Cesar Chavez said? ‘Anyone who comes in with the idea that farm workers are free of sin and that the growers are all bastards either has never dealt with the situation or is an idealist of the first order. Things don’t work that way.’ Same is true in other situations.”

So is that a yes?”

It was. And they have recently become engaged to marry and are headed to law school, making me come to understand that Mary Matalin and James Carville aren’t the only ones.

Topics: Critical Thinking, A View from the Classroom

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