Every year we finish our year with the This I Believe assignment. Every year I am floored by their messages of hope, of figuring out right from wrong, of creating a world where kids feel accepted, engaged, and loved. While many of them are incredible, I asked one student if I could share what they wrote.
Note: I did not do a good job explaining why I asked this child to share their writing publicly. To me, hearing these words, caused immense sadness. It was a metaphorical slap to once again remember how much power we have as teachers, as adults, to confine the view that students have of themselves. While people have debated in the comments, I know what the intent of the student was. She chose to rise above the stereotypes thrust upon her, which I told her made me sad. No child should have to fight stereotypes in this way. She disagreed with me, but I still wanted to post the speech because it really made me think deeply about things I still have to do better. Thank you to those who have engaged in the debate.
Have you ever felt that because you’re different from someone, that you somehow needed to prove yourself or make someone think a certain way? That you had a stereotype that was so untrue you almost could laugh. Stereotypes. We all know them. Most of your childhoods we’ve grown up believing them. People who wear glasses are… People who are blonde are… People who are tall play… people who are popular are… Stereotypes are bad. You shouldn’t say them, use them, or even think them. We need to do something about them. At least that’s what many of you probably think. Nope, not me. I believe stereotypes are good! They make you your best self, at least from my experiences.
There is a moment I think of whenever I say my “This I believe” sentence. I remember this moment perfectly, it wasn’t the moment I realized stereotyping is real, I already had seen it and even had it happen to me. Instead, what I really realized was that people don’t mean to do this they just do it without realizing what they are doing. I was in the 5th grade and it was the first week of school. I’d barely talked to the teacher the past day and she barely knew me at the time. We were working on some project talking about how we thought our year would go. I was writing and writing until my hand hurt I was so excited about the year. I walked up to the teacher to ask if I could go to the bathroom. She was typing on her computer. I barely got the first syllable out when she turned around so fast it was like she was expecting me to do something and she needed to watch for it. She sat up in a more authoritative position and folded her arms and did that mean “what do you want” teacher face that almost all teachers do and said, “What?!”. I went ahead and asked her if I could go to the restroom, but as I was talking something weird happened. Her position became more relaxed and she started to unfold her arms and look less cross. Her eyes also became very wide and then normal and kinder. You would only notice this if you were watching closely or used to this happening. And she said in a much kinder way than before. “ Of course you can honey it’s right around there, Do you know where it is?” Well, that was weird I thought as I walked to the bathroom. I stayed in there for probably longer than I had to, just looking in the mirror and trying to figure out what just happened. “Was it what I was wearing?” “Had she heard I was bad!?”
It was as if just by hearing me talk no different than how I normally talk or how anyone else talks she thought higher of me and then after I used manners like thank you she was even more surprised. So I thought if that made her think higher of me then where was I on the scale before? But it was okay, I knew what she was thinking. She was expecting me to talk “ghetto” or say something rude or be loud because those are her experiences I guess.
The thing is, no one remembers the polite, quiet, hard working black kids.
Oh no, they remember the loud obnoxious ones who are rude, disrespectful, talk back and cuss at them. Those experiences stick in your head. Not the good ones. At first, when I realized this, I was angry. I wanted to go in there and accuse her of being mean or a bad teacher. I wanted to judge her on something, see how it made her feel. I thought about that pretty much all day. About what “thing” or stereotype I wanted to give her.
And I thought about it while sitting at lunch, Waiting for my bus. Even when I was home. And I forgave her. She probably didn’t do it on purpose and besides, I barely knew her yet anyway. But when I went back to school the next week, I made sure no one would ever have that realization again. In every class I sat up straighter, so straight it would probably be parallel to a board. I made sure without fail I always said please, thank you, May I, etc. I made sure my work is always in on time and always my best. I was kind to everyone and never scowled or looked angry. Close to the third week of school, we started to get homework which I made sure I did. When the teacher went around to collect it, she looked impressed that I had mine out and done and did that thing where you purse your lips and nod sort of. She didn’t do that to anyone else. Umm…. was I not supposed to have it done?
I didn’t miss one assignment that year. Every stereotype I made sure I proved that stereotype wrong. Such as black kids being rude. I was never mean and/or rude to anyone in my class. Or that black kid who would all talk “ghetto” and have bad English. I made sure whenever I talked it was never with much slang or used words like ain’t but with respectable english. And my tone was always quieter than most very much so. (That actually took me awhile to get out of because, I became very quiet that year and I got used to it. I had to work myself back out of my shell). Whenever you have a stereotype that is not true, you work hard to prove someone wrong. You are your best self too! And most of all you show what you want to. So that people see what you really are not just what they want.
I’m used to this now. I no longer spend hours thinking about these things. I don’t get mad or sad anymore either. But sometimes we are judged, we are judged all the time actually. And I speak from experience, it doesn’t matter if it’s the clerk’s eyes on you in a store like every single second or the way you talk. What you wear, how you look, if you wear glasses or not. Your stereotype makes you better by giving you motivation to change it or change what people think when they first see you. It’s very easy to form a stereotype. Heck, we do it all the time. So if you come across someone who has a completely untrue stereotype of you, don’t dwell on it. Make sure you change their minds. Make sure they remember how you proved them wrong. That’s why stereotypes help you. It makes you think more, It makes you present yourself the way you really want to be seen like. It makes you think about every decision more carefully and think “Is this what I really want to do?” It makes sure that you make yourself stick out from the crowd and prove your stereotype wrong and that’s what makes you your best self. I believe stereotypes make you your best self.