Saturday, February 16, 2013

E Pluribus Unum?

  I am a career changer. I made the decision to move away from my many years of experience in retail work and private security and use my knowledge and love of history to become a teacher of history and civics (government). I knew what I was getting into. I have no illusions about the difficulty teachers face today. You see, aside from having many friends who are teachers, my wife has been teaching for 34 years. I hear her/their stories about the problems they face with poorly behaved students, who don't care about school/learning, the parents who only think of the school as a daytime baby-sitter that is supposed to just "pass the kids along" to the next level, and the administrators, who will not support the classroom teachers and, in fact, will throw them under the bus the first chance they get. Yeah, call me crazy, I know all of this and yet I still feel the need to try. To try and reach these kids and hopefully encourage a desire to learn in some of them, if only a very few.

  While I have put in my application for a local school system to teach at the high school level, I am working as a substitute for middle and high school in the meantime. Even as a substitute there are occasions when I have the opportunity to reach the kids with a message. A chance to challenge them to think and consider other possibilities. One such occasion occurred yesterday at a local high school in a world history class. Now, you should know that one of the things that I bring to a class is my frankness/honesty about the topics in discussion (At least I like to think I do). I don't play the PC game or sugar-coat things that I believe are important and need to be said. These are high school kids, in this case 10th and 11th graders, and they are capable of processing certain ideas/concepts, if someone has the nerve to present them. I talk to them like they are indeed young adults, who need to be challenged to think and not just memorize.

  On this particular occasion the subject of Black History Month came up. I'm not sure why the group of 6-7 students sitting together started in on that subject, but having overheard them I made my way over to them. As you might imagine, when a substitute is in the room the kids can be a bit, shall we say....chatty! I recognize this and usually don't make a big issue of it, as long as they are working on their assignments (One must learn to pick one's battles carefully). As I approached them they looked up at me, as if wondering if I were going to fuss at them and tell them to get back to work or not. I just stood there, looking at them, and said, "Please, continue with the discussion." They obviously weren't expecting that. One of the young lads, a black student, asked me, "So, Mr. Bayne, what do you think about Black History Month?" Here was one of those opportunities that can either prove beneficial to the students, if they are receptive, or can shake a hornet's nest. Well, you guys know me well enough by now to know that I don't mind taking the chance of shaking that hornet's nest, and so I took this opportunity to answer his question.

  I looked right at him and said, "I do not like the fact that we have a Black History Month and don't think it should exist." The gasp was audible from that group, and the rest of the class, heretofore engaged in their own conversations, got real quiet and looked my way. I did not give him a chance to respond to me, but instead moved right into my reasons why I was against it. "I am a history teacher," I said, "History is what happened, not what we wish had happened. History should be taught comprehensively, not piecemeal and by picking and choosing only certain aspects of it." Now the entire class was sitting up and looking my way. No one was talking, just listening. I told them that I understood why BHM had come about. It came about because the contributions of black citizens, in the building of America, were not being taught in most schools curriculum. Going back to the very founding of our nation black men and women had contributed to building this country, as had the Chinese, the Irish, the Scots, Europeans of all stripes, and those of multiple religious backgrounds.  I went on to say that if history were taught as it should be, by citing the contributions of ALL of our citizens, then there would have been no need for a BHM or any other kind of special month.

  By now some heads were nodding in apparent agreement. But I wasn't through yet. Oh no, one cannot waste an opportunity such as this. "I'll you something else I don't like about it," I continued. "It only serves to separate us into groups and I would rather see us coming together as one common culture, as Americans. There are too many people today trying to drive wedges between us and keep us apart, rather than bringing us together as Americans." I asked them, "Do you know what our national motto is?" I was not surprised that no one knew. "It is E Pluribus Unum, 'from many, one,'" I told them. I went on to explain what that meant. I asked if they had ever heard of Ellis Island and many replied that it was that place in New York that immigrants went through when they came to America, so at least they knew what it was. I related to them how immigrants to this country for many years came here to assimilate and become AMERICANS, not to create their old country here, on a new continent. Being proud of one's heritage and culture/ancestry is a good thing, but recognize that the country you have chosen to move to has its own culture and heritage and becoming one with that makes us stronger.

  One of the students spoke up and said, "Yeah, if we can have a BHM then why can't we have a white history month or any other kind of month?" I agreed with him and said that is exactly the kind of problem this presents when you start dividing people rather than bringing them together. America's history is a vast unfinished canvas that continues to be painted. Many people of many races, colors, religions, and background have contributed and our history curriculum should reflect that. When we start to create special "months" for one group or another we give the impression that one group is more special or more deserving than another. This does not create a sense of "being one nation," but only further divides us. I explained to them that this is the reason I do not use hyphenated American names like, African-American or, in my case, Scottish-American. We are ALL Americans. You may be an American who just happens to be black, I may just happen to be white, but we were both born here and we are both Americans, and when we allow people to sort us into groups like that it destroys our common American culture.

 Throughout my entire "lesson" the students all sat there, very quiet, listening, occasionally offering their own interpretation of what I was saying, but in all cases being in agreement with the point I was making. When I had finished there was a moment of silence. I simply ended by stating, "That's how I feel about it, but you guys might think otherwise." Eventually the young lad who had precipitated this lesson spoke up. He looked around the class at his friends and then back to me and said, with a noticeable passion and a big smile on his face, "Mr. Bayne, you need to tell this to all the other classes!" You see, folks, there is hope.......there is hope.