In the Secret Life of Bees book, Zach says to Lily, “We can’t think of changing our skin…change the world, that’s how we gotta think.”
My partner teacher paused after she read this line and had the students bookmark the quote with a sticky note and write it down. She then asked, “do you think it would be easier for Lily to wake up with a different skin color like she wished?”
Majority of our seventh grade students nodded, because they thought had Lily been born black instead, she and Zach would not experience the disapproval from the world around them; or had Zach been born white, he would not experience the discouragement of becoming a lawyer. My partner teacher then asked the students to reflect on the quote they had just written down, and asked them what Zach meant.
Apprehensively at first, students slowly raised hands after things began to click in their thoughts. My partner teacher waited until most students looked back up in her direction, giving everyone a chance to re-read and ponder. She chose a very observant student, one who is very sharp and quick-witted, one who she might have presumed would have a very insightful opinion to begin the discussion in class.
“He doesn’t think that her changing her color will really fix it, like fix everything,” she starts.
“What do you mean by everything?” my partner teacher prompts.
The student tapped her finger on her desk, trying to choose the right words to express herself and answer the question.
“I think if Lily was black, or Zach was white, it could fix their problems but I think Zach doesn’t want to just fix their problems,” she responds.
“What do you think the problem is?” I chime in.
“Like, racism, but with everyone else in the book and everyone else in the world,” she looks back at her sticky note with the quote written in her own handwriting. “He says they gotta change the world, like have people understand that not liking someone because they’re black or white isn’t okay.”
My partner teacher always looks at me and smiles when she feels like a student has recognized what she wishes for them to begin to understand.
“Do you think this quote is relevant today?” she asks.
The class nods, some make inappropriate President Trump jokes, to which she usually encourages them to clarify what they mean by their statements. It’s this approach shared by my partner teacher and I that I value a lot while serving in her classroom. She is consistently challenging the children to reflect, planting seeds little by little that allows me to keep the conversation going on more intimate levels and with each other.
The class was hooked on the Secret Life of Bees, for two months they asked every day, “we’re reading today right?” The students read about the irrationality of racism, feminism, and the importance of story telling, alongside a main character that is overcoming her own racism; something our teacher finds unfortunately too familiar within our own students. It entertained them, surprised them, confused them and challenged them, in many ways and more than their teacher expected and hoped for. I’m very thankful to have her to ignite my student’s minds and hearts to reflect on social justice, a goal she holds very important as part of her teaching. I’ve already used this quote independently with the students to relate it back to the immigration crisis, but I hope they’ll never forget it in more ways than one.