“Currently, the economic state is…”
We were going around the room taking turns reading passages from a current events magazine. My turn would come soon, and I was terrified. I looked down at my magazine, and all I could see was a blurry image. I could not make out a single word. My choices were to stay and bring attention to the fact that I could not see or leave before it was my turn. I chose the latter. Before the person two seats ahead of me started speaking, I quickly asked for the hall pass. As I exited the room, I felt relief overcome my body. Needless to say, I took my time getting back to the classroom.
The fear, anxiety, loneliness, and disengagement that I felt at that moment became a theme for my schooling after I was diagnosed with a visual disability the summer before 8th grade. This visit led to a multitude of doctor and hospital visits across the Eastern states. My eyesight was deteriorating with no identifiable cause or treatment available. My world was rapidly changing. Activities that once seemed so simple quickly became challenging, including my experience at school. My whole life became blurry. It’s not until recently that I have realized that blurry is not broken.
The small private school I went to did not have any legal obligation nor the resources to adequately support me during this time. That’s not to say that there were not kind individuals who helped me, but that as a school, they just did not know how to. My exams were able to be enlarged, but my textbooks still were unreadable to me. While my guidance counselor, nurse, and principal were very supportive, the teachers and other students were quite the opposite– either disregarding or degrading me due to this change in my identity, which in turn, caused my grades to drop. As my grades fell, so did my self-esteem. So much so that I often doubted if I could even make it through high school.
I vividly remember the day the bullying began. Suddenly, a group of boys started calling me names. I was not even in class with many of them and had known them for at least a year before then. I was shocked. A classmate approached me and told me that our biology teacher had shown my large-print exam printed on 11" x 17” paper to the class, making it abundantly clear that I had an issue with my vision. That was the moment I lost all trust in the education system. The exposure, embarrassment, shame, and betrayal of that situation was too deep to shake off. The resulting bullying lasted for years after that, causing me to feel even more alone and alienated in school.
It was not until college that I felt like I could find some grounding in my new world. Being at a large, public university offered lots of diversity. I quickly found social justice and diversity groups to join that became like my family. The pain I experienced in feeling excluded from the education system was apparent in many of my peers who were in other marginalized groups. I was present at any opportunity to advocate for any oppressed group. I was there at the Day of Silence, any event at Hillel, and human rights marches. I threw myself into this work with the firm belief that I did not want any human being to experience the loneliness, degradation, and hurt I had experienced.
College was the time that I connected with educators who shaped and influenced my life significantly. During a funding committee that I was a part of, the advisor enlarged the text size on everyone’s funding proposals to make it accessible for me to read without drawing attention to my disability. An Assistant Director in Residence Life encouraged me to serve in a leadership position for an experiential museum on oppression and later connected me to an internship that sparked my interest in education as a career path.
After college, I transitioned directly into a career in education. My goal was clear–I wanted greater access to and equity in education. I continued the work I started in college and emphasized programs–retreats, panel discussions, workshops, Lunch ‘n Learns, professional development, and social events that promoted diversity. I wove social justice into all my work. I collaborated with other offices and created programs where none existed. I was on a mission to bring discussions of privilege and oppression to the forefront. Somewhere in the midst of all of these efforts, I realized that I was expending so much effort convincing the masses rather than honoring the internal narrative of those from marginalized groups. Some of my students of color and LGBTQIA+ students started confiding in me about their insecurities and doubt about their own abilities. It started to become abundantly clear that the message I so fervently hoped to repress from our system had already reached the psyche of my students, and no amount of workshops or panel discussions could impact that. These students felt like they needed to do more, be more. They were in a constant cycle of feeling like they were not enough, as if they were broken.
For years, education has invested in committees, courses, and professional development events to discuss diversity, inclusion, and equity in the most normal fashion. I have been to trainings, workshops, summits, retreats, and conferences covering topics from cross-cultural communication to inclusive assessment to culturally responsive practices. While these topics seem like fast and easy ways of “advocating” for diversity, inclusion, and equity, deep and lasting change will not emerge simply after a 2-hour training on diversity. Although the content of these events discusses diversity, equity, and inclusion, the actual events oftentimes fail to engage event organizers or presenters from various backgrounds or do not provide adequate accommodations for participants with disabilities. The timing of events or lack of child care often limits participation from individuals who may have other responsibilities. Because these factors can limit participation from certain groups, these events tend to leave the conversation about oppression so broad and neglect to honor the lived experiences of those who were subtly discouraged or blocked from attending.
These systems elevate the voices of the privileged and continue to silence those that do not fit into these boxes. The construction of the system in this way lends itself to continue to create opportunities for those who are privileged and limit access and participation from those who are not. In my experience, these events have propagated systems of oppression from the presenters chosen, the order of workshops, the lack of accommodations available, the timing of events, and offering rigid event structures and formats. The larger issue is less about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and much more about access and participation.
Part of the access and participation conversation has to do with encouraging those with dominant identities to be aware of their privilege, and a lot to do with unraveling internalized oppression so that those from traditionally marginalized populations can find liberation. In addition to silencing microaggressions and other acts of discrimination, we should actively work with individuals to navigate the messages they have internalized about their identities. If we don’t openly acknowledge how the education system is broken, students are left thinking they are.
We are all responsible within a system. As Freire states in Pedagogy of the Oppressed “Here, no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught. People teach each other, mediated by the world…” when we see individuals silenced, ignored, degraded, and marginalized, we can take those opportunities to offer a kind word or gesture. As Dr. Samira Rjabai states “Maybe my pain did not need to be my own so maybe I didn’t need to hide in it.” That pain of feeling like you are not worth it or don’t know where to go from here does not need to belong to a single person, but rather is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that all students, staff, and faculty are supported. If we all took responsibility for the system, we could open doors for each other to share our stories.
Looking back to my high school experience, I wish someone had told me–verified for me, validated for me–that everything would be okay. Just the vote of confidence, a light of hope, would have been enough for me to see the path ahead. It would have been enough for me to know that a path was even there, and even though it would be challenging, I would have a place to go. As educators, we can shine that light for our students. We can let them know they have places to go and paths to travel.
I was fortunate to have educators along the way who believed in me and my abilities. They did not see me as someone with a disability, but rather a person with multiple and diverse abilities. The way they introduced me to opportunities so I could grow gave me the courage to keep going. Their encouragement, kindness, and support warmed my heart and made me want to give the same to someone else. We should all build people up, and share kind words to silence the inner critics. Mostly, we should strive to have each and every person know that they are whole, and have a place in this world. The It Gets Better Project states this sentiment beautifully in their vision: “The It Gets Better Project envisions a world where all LGBTQ+ youth are free to live equally and know their worthiness and power as individuals”. We want all students to know that even though our system has only revealed certain opportunities for specific groups of people, the world is large and the possibilities are just as diverse as we are.
I know now I am not broken. I emerged from a broken education system, but I am unbroken.