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Breaking the Silence

December 13, 2015

Cute Baby in a Red Chair

I haven’t been writing on my blog the past nine months for several reasons. The first reason being that, inevitably, my students have found it. Internet and Facebook are sending tentacles across rural Liberia and that’s changing things, for better and for worse. I’ve always tried to write with my students and friends in mind, respectfully and honestly, but I’ve often been very frank and open. I don’t necessarily want my students to know all my personal feelings and experiences.

Like actors, teachers operate behind a fourth wall. Whatever happens: don’t break. Hold it together for the sake of the audience’s illusion. Class must go on. You are a human being, yes, but for those fifty minutes you are a teacher and, like a pilot, you are responsible for executing a successful takeoff and landing.  Students don’t necessarily need to know there was turbulence.

Thursday was different and important, however, and I feel compelled to share it here.

This is my fifth semester teaching gender and with multiple sections I’ve been through the material enough times to have it memorized. I’ve fine tuned my approach and my manner and learned to laugh. I make it clear to the students that I’m not there to tell them what is right or wrong. I am there to present the data and create a space for them to share ideas, question their beliefs and change if they want to. “You can believe whatever you want, but you should know why. You don’t have to accept things just because they’ve always been that way. It’s your right to disagree. It’s your right to ask why. I will never tell you you’re wrong as long as you can explain yourself.”

I often think of it like opening a door. I’m not making them go anywhere. I’m just creating the opportunity.

Class discussion has been animated and they’ve written beautiful response papers about gender based violence and wife beating. This week we’ve been discussing women’s education and it was time to show the Kakenya Ntaiya Ted talk (discussed in my previous post). I watched it the night before and, having taught it seven or eight times, thought I was ready. The students usually have strong responses but I was sure I could navigate it. As an outsider it isn’t appropriate for me to discuss The Society so I serve as a neutral moderator, ‘protecting’ the speaker. (That’s Liberian English for keeping it quiet and safe for someone to speak freely in a group.)

I wasn’t ready.

The class is about 70% men and 30% women. They grimaced, gasped, and yelled in unison as Kakenya told her story. Four girls wiped tears from their eyes and at the end they were silent like someone had died.

I asked for responses and, after a moment of silence, the room exploded. They were ANGRY. But not because of what happened to Kakenya—because of what she did. “Sis RB, this is an abomination. What right does she have to expose the culture to other people? White people [referring to the audience]. What are they going to think about all of us now?”

All the times I’ve taught this video I’ve never gotten that response. My stomach started to clench and somersault. I knew I was walking a very thin line and suddenly I couldn’t see the road. Other classes have praised her and been grateful to hear the story, but suddenly it was as if I was participating in the white disrespect of African culture. It didn’t matter that I’d been living here five years, that I was wearing an elaborate African suit or even that I was married to an African man. I was a white lady and I was always going to be a white lady when it came to things like this.

Should I have known better? Had I forgotten my place?

I leaned into my uncomfortableness the same way I encourage them to and bounced the question to the other side of the room. Four or five more people echoed the same feelings and it flashed through my mind to end early and send them home—had I offended them? Several other faculty members have been gossiping that I’m unqualified to teach the course because I’m American (white). What if they walked past right now?

But I hung on because this was exactly what I was trying to teach them. To think for themselves. To value their culture. To challenge things that don’t make sense. To accept what I say because it makes sense—not because I am an authority figure.

After all the bitter feelings had come out a quiet movement started. “She’s brave.” “What happened to her is wrong.” “We shouldn’t protect a culture that hurts people.” “I’m a member but I would never send my children.” “Silence hurts all of us.” “I’m so sad right now I can’t even…”

I let them grapple with it for almost an hour before our time ran out, careful to never take a side but honest about human rights laws and medical facts

A group hung around after class. “Thank you. We never get to share ideas like this.” “I have a lot more to say. I’m going to write it in my assignment.”

I drove home (yes, I have a car now) and as soon as I turned off the ignition I burst into tears. Do they realize they are teaching me more than I’m teaching them? That watching them test the limits of their boxes tests mine too?

I stayed for a fifth year because… teaching is the toughest job you’ll ever love.

“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.”
― Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2015 10:41 pm

    You have opened my eyes and heart, too. Thanks for sharing and writing so honestly. They are so blessed to have you. And you have been blessed with wisdom beyond your years.

  2. December 14, 2015 12:09 am

    Thank you…

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