As an English teacher, I encourage students to take risks as they dive into learning and embrace failure. I encourage them to share their struggles, ideas and beliefs and to find and speak their own voices. My belief is that they are developing their communication skills while doing this work but as a person, my hope is that they learn that their voices are valid and worth listening to, that they are important simply because they are.
As I push students towards critical thinking and risk taking, I participate alongside them. When I ask them to draw their learning, or to sing their analysis, or to make a film version of their argument, or to explore and write about themselves, I push myself to take those risks, too. This most recently led to me playing the guitar and singing a song to 100-plus high school juniors, a much more terrifying audience than those bleary-eyed hipsters in the cafes on the eastside of Portland.
I want to be an example of the power of sharing our stories not to meet a certain goal, but as an end in itself. The act of finding my voice and sharing my truth is an act of power that declares that I matter regardless of anything else and this is what I hope for my students to understand as we stumble towards our voices.
Not surprisingly, many of my students take me up on my various challenges throughout the year, to varying degrees. One of the damndest things about students is their desire to believe the adults in their lives. Some of my students truly and deeply take to heart the importance of speaking truth despite the fear and the risks that go along with that. And when they do speak truth despite their fears, I do my best to show them that the world will listen, that their voices matter.
And then mostly, the world doesn’t seem to care much. Too many of my students have reached for their voices and then found that the adults around them somehow can’t hear.
Those Who Spoke
I wish I could have been those adults and responded, but all I have are these questions in my mind and one message for all those students brave enough to speak up through their fear.
Does that boy still talk about your sister? Were he and his friends spoken with or made to understand the impact of their harassment? Did they have to change anything about their lives? Does your sister still walk the long way around her life, avoiding them, planning her days around maybe running into those comments? Or are those boys just leaning against the wall, leering at other girls instead, before moving on to more menacing behavior? But you have changed, even if he hasn’t.
Did your rapist end up in jail? Did the school ever protect you from his presence at school events? Did the judge really look you in the face and tell you that because you’d started consensual sex with that boy that it wasn’t rape when you told him to stop and he didn’t listen and he forced you down? Did you notice how the guy who harassed a sea turtle and monk seal got a harsher punishment? But you have changed, even if he is the same.
Does he still live with you and your mom? Can you look her in the eyes anymore once it became clear she wouldn’t leave him? Does he still talk to you, give you advice, and try to act like your “father”? Did anyone tell you how to be safe or where to go or who to call if it happened again? Will you spend the rest of the year, your life, staying quiet and small, hoping to just avoid unwanted looks or comments or touches? But you have changed, even if your family has not.
Is that man still the coach? Does he still sit too close, whispering comments and “jokes”? Does he still connect coaching lessons back to the way you dress, to the height of your heels, to your calves? Do the students still have to change and primp and put on makeup to “look like ladies worth looking at” at the judge’s house? Can you still be loud and yourself? Or are you simply avoiding the pursuit of something once dear to you? Why is he still wandering around campus? Did anyone ever believe you even after you sat there, with him in the room, and said what he had done?
But I believe we change when we stand up and share our voices, shaky though they may be.
These children believed me, their teacher, when I told them that their voices mattered, that men don’t have the right to touch them, to make them feel ashamed. And they took the risk and stood up and said something, and even with adult allies guiding them, what? A man is still the coach, sizing up the girls around him. A man is still the stepfather, searching out his wife’s daughter. A young man walks free knowing he doesn’t really need his girlfriend's permission. And a boy is still on campus, calling out disgusting comments to whoever suits his fancy, his hands starting to reach out along with his words.
What makes us most ashamed is exactly what we need to talk about, divorced from any goal other than finding and sharing our voices. Alva Johnson, our fair president’s most recent accuser, has recently stated that “Winning my lawsuit would be ideal, but making [a] difference...and not keeping my mouth shut is my goal.” She goes on to explain that “the first step to making change is being honest about my experience and hopefully being a bit of light.”
Even though no one was punished when my students shared their stories, they shared them, and that will make the difference as we pile grain upon grain of sand until the whole dune runs down and covers the misogynistic shores of our lives.