I didn’t want to; I didn’t mean to; but I was on speed dial, and I was called to teach.
The calling first came in fourth grade. I felt uplifted when I was praised for my penmanship and got thrills from diagramming sentences and writing stories, but when mathematical percentages and improper fractions slapped me in the face, I was thrown into a state of academic disequilibrium. Why couldn’t I understand how to do it? My dad, a math major, tried to help me but his gibberish made no sense. I was academically strong but my math teachers were not reaching me. I could not understand the meaning beneath the rote mathematics I was learning. It made no sense to me. It’s said that math is logical, but I saw nouns and verbs, poetry and prose as logical. I knew I was not unreachable. I needed to construct meaning and make sense of these floating numbers. I knew there was a way to reach those like me. There was a need to replace top-down information with deep understanding and discovery-based learning. Later, I learned that this was the epitome of the progressive education movement. At its heart, it called for promoting inquiry, and weaving together critical and artistic expression through dynamic learning that was accessible and joyful. I had to answer that call. I had to teach to reach.
The calling came again in seventh grade when my social studies teacher told the class, “Slavery actually ended up being a good thing because it helped to cultivate a race of people who would have otherwise remained primitive.” What? The sting of her words pierced my reality from all angles. I quickly raised my hand, drew from my home training, refuted her “teaching” and responded, “There were strong civilizations in Africa: kings, queens, mathematics and medicine.” In this all-white school, deep in the suburbs of Pleasant Hill, California, this teacher looked at me, and looked through me, as though I were invisible. She refused to address my rebuttal and continued with her history lesson. At that point, I saw her mouth continue to move and I sat up taller as my warm gingerbread skin began to feel like bittersweet chocolate. My ears no longer heard her words. I realized at that moment that teachers have the power to hold naïve, vulnerable minds captive and fill them with the whim of their personal “truths.” This is when I decided I had to commit myself to social justice. I was called to teach truth. I had to answer.
The calls came continuously throughout high school. On one occasion, it was when the class voted to cast me as Lucy in our Charlie Brown play. My teacher called me aside to tell me, “We are putting on the play at local middle schools and it would not be believable for you to play that part since Lucy is white. I’ll have to veto the vote.” I think the stunning part of that experience is that I was not stunned. I had begun to accept the bench they continually tried to put me on. Alienated, I emotionally closed off until I physically got out. I graduated early and decided that I had to be a voice for change. I had to hone my skills to combat divisive elements of our culture. I had to teach to reach and teach to tell the truths. I had to teach to heal the wounds of years of personal and historical oppression and begin to be part of the solution. At first I didn’t want to, then I knew I had to. Life called me to teach.
A teacher for 22 years, Michelle McAfee currently teaches in Oakland, California.