Racism was on students' minds Monday, during a "Race Day" symposium by and for International Community School fifth and sixth graders. Parents, teachers, and kids talked about their experiences of prejudice, and the crowd watched a video clip about the 1963 Children's Crusade,
in which teenagers in Birmingham, Alabama braved dogs, fire hoses, and arrest to march for their civil rights. Then, assistant principal Tahisha Edwards rose to speak.
Tahisha is a force. Kids want to please her, and they really don't want to mess with her. She is smart, funny, stylish, and the kind of teacher in whose presence even adults sit up a little straighter. On this day, she was standing before the students with tears in her eyes.
"Good morning," she said.
"Good morning, Ms. Tahisha," the kids chorused.
"OK, I had a whole lot of things that I was gonna say, but after I watched all of this, it kinda changed what I was gonna talk about. After watching this clip, it made me think," she said, "and I started looking at the audience and said: This reminds me of when I was your age, and I'd look at myself - I'd look at my skin, and I'd look at my nose, and I'd look at my hair - and I wouldn't see beauty. I didn't. I didn't see anything wonderful about myself. When I saw myself, I said:
"And as I went through school - because this topic is about racism, and racism in education is what I'm talking about - I still didn't feel good about myself. My teachers didn't necessarily look like me, and they didn't really embrace me. They didn't make me feel loved."
In the audience, fidgeting had come to a standstill.
"So my parents said: You know what? I think it would be a great idea for you to go to a historically black college. All right? So you can see people that look like you that are doing great things.' "
"And that's when I started to do a lot, a lot, a lot of reading. And reading is very empowering; that's why it's important for you all to read and to pay attention. I didn't know why I didn't feel good about myself until I started to read, and I realized that the education that I was receiving had nothing to do with me. OK? When I opened up a textbook, I didn't see faces that looked like me. I didn't see faces that looked like Amirah. I didn't see faces that looked like Maryan. I didn't see faces that looked like Fartuna, Demorea. So how could I possibly feel good, if I didn't see anything that looked like myself? So I had to dig deep and see the beauty within myself."
She pointed to each student in turn. The crowd listened raptly.
"So I said: You know what? What do you think I could do, in order to change things? Become a teacher.' So I could begin to change the minds of not only myself, but of all the students that I touch, and all the students that I work with. OK? It was important for me to make you all feel good about yourselves. I wanted you all to smile when you saw each other, when you saw yourselves.
"So I studied and I studied, and I learned more and I learned more. And I found out that it's important to not only read and to learn, but it's important to embrace and understand each other and where we're coming from. It's really, really important.
"And that's why coming to ICS has been such a wonderful experience for me. Because I see all of you all together. Some of you all look just the same, and some of you all look totally different. And that is amazing that you are all able to be here together, and learn from, for, and by each other. OK?
"Racism in education is real. It's not a joke," she said.
All eyes were on Ms. Tahisha.
"And that's why I love this school so much. Because your teachers get to do more than just what's in the textbook. It's not just about the textbook, and the paper, and the standards, and the tests. They let you love each other. And they let you love what it's like to be who you are. You get to wear your native garb and be proud of that. You get to wear someone else's native garb and be proud of that as well. And that's so culturally liberating. OK?
"Looking on that screen, that's what people had to deal with on a day-to-day basis. And it hasn't changed yet, and there's still a whole lot more changing that needs to take place.
"But the changes are now up to you all. Fifth, sixth grade, it's time for you all to make some changes. So when you look in the mirror in the morning, you say: I demand, and I have a right, to a quality education.' Say that: I demand ..."
"I demand ..." the kids said.
"... and I have a right ..."
"... and I have a right ..."
"...to a quality education."
"...to a quality education."
"OK, now it's not just about the words. You have to live that. So when you walk through these doors, you need to do what it is that your teachers are asking of you and truly learn. OK? Because only by learning can you really empower yourself. If you don't learn anything, how are you going to grow? Can you grow if you don't learn?"
"No," said the kids.
"It's not even possible, OK?" she said, pacing back and forth. "Teachers - I'm one of them as well - it's our job to make sure that they're challenged. And that's why once again I'm so thankful that we're here at ICS. Because we're constantly pushing the children - and sometimes they push back, so we gotta push them a little bit more - to keep that going. And as a parent myself, and all the parents in the audience, it is our job as well to enlighten these minds, to stir them up, to get them excited about what this world has in store for them.
"Things haven't changed yet; there's still a long way to go. But starting right here, we can begin to make some real, some real changes. So that when you get up in the morning and you look at yourself, you see nothing but beauty, you see nothing but greatness, you see nothing but potential that's out of this world. OK?
"So what I want you to take from Ms. Tahisha is that yes, there is racism in education. No, things are not perfect yet. No, everyone doesn't embrace us. But we can begin to make change, right here. Right here at this school. So I want my students to stand up. Quickly, one-two-three, stand up."
They did, scraping their chairs, but otherwise rapt.
"This is an exercise that I've learned to do as I got older. You put your hand out like this...." she demonstrated, her palm facing her face.
"... and this is your mirror, OK? This is your mirror. And you look into this mirror and you say: I am great.' "
They repeated what she said with gusto: "I am great. I am beautiful. I have so much to offer. And I can change not only ICS, but I can change the entire world around me."
"I love you guys," Tahisha finished. As she walked back to her seat, the applause was deafening.
"And the award goes to ..." joked assistant principal Mary Santiago, squeezing her hand.
"Oh, stop," said Tahisha, suddenly shy.