I’ve had Chimamanda Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” bookmarked for months now, but I finally got around to watching the 20-minute TED talk this past week. In it, Adichie describes her childhood in Nigeria, her college experience in the United States, and, as one might imagine from the title, the potency and potential danger of storytelling.
It occurred to me while I was watching the talk that my kids, and students in low-income areas and inner-city schools in general, are often double victims of the “single story.” On the one hand, most of my kids know only one story of success: that of gaining a lot of money, fame, power, or all of the above. Just as the four-year-old Adichie only read British and American children’s books and was therefore led to believe that a genuine childhood consisted of being white and blue-eyed, playing in the snow, and talking about the weather (despite never having been outside Nigeria, where it doesn’t snow and there’s no need to talk about the weather), my kids are inundated with the singular message that if they do well in high school and college, they’ll end up being rich, famous, and/or powerful. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that, but I believe that there’s much more to living a worthy life (or as the Apostle Paul puts it, fighting the good fight and finishing the race), and I desperately want my kids to be both informed and empowered so that they can choose to spend the rest of their lives in a meaningful way.
On the other hand, my kids are victims of the single story that is told about them. I’m not really talking the ubiquitous “soft bigotry of low expectations” that TFA drills us to eradicate, though it’s related. I’m talking about the universal labeling of a diverse and talented set of students as “minority low-income.” I’m talking about the portrayal (often by TFA and its CMs, albeit sometimes unintentionally) of inner-city students as helpless, hopeless, and as Adichie puts it, “unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.” Granted, there is some value to homogenizing statistics, and yes, it’s almost criminal that there is a 22 point difference between the graduation rate of high-income students and low-income students in Rhode Island, or that the average African American or Hispanic 12th grader has lower basic math and reading skills than the average white eighth grader.
At the same time, by focusing on and decrying these statistics, we tend to forget the humanity and gifts of the students themselves. I think of Z, one of my Cape Verdean students, who can switch between fluent English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Creole effortlessly. Or R, whose passion for education reform surpasses that of even some CMs, and who’s thinking about joining TFA herself after college. I think of S and his artistic ability, so impressive that a friend of mine majoring in illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design glanced at his doodles and was shocked that they were by a high schooler. I know that I can positively impact my kids’ lives by being a good math teacher. But they don’t need me in the way that newborn puppies need their mother. Rather, they need me in the way that I needed my thesis advisor to help me take my existing passions and abilities and channel them toward a worthwhile goal. They need someone who will be supportive, but also real and impartial and transparent about their strengths and weaknesses.
“I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
As I enter the final stretch of the school year, I realize more and more that my role is not one of a savior or knowledge-spouting fountain, but rather that of a guide and advocate. I pray for the wisdom to faithfully and humbly show my kids what noble goals they can aspire to and how to achieve them, and for the ability to tell their diverse stories with fidelity—thereby preserving their dignity and humanity.