Sometimes teaching is drudgery. The worksheets, the assessments, the checklists, the mountains of papers to correct and sort and file. Sometimes it seems as if the whole exercise is designed to bore everyone into submission.
But sometimes there are moments, sometimes there are days, when teaching reminds me of why I still have hope for the future.
Yesterday was one of those days.
We were doing a lesson on the “Triangle of Trade” in the mid-eighteenth century. I walked around the classroom, which had been labelled with various geographic locations, showing how goods travelled from England to the Colonies, from the Colonies to the West Indies, and from those islands to West Africa and on to England.
I showed them how the whole process worked at the same time in reverse: Africa to the West Indies, to the Colonies to England. Guns and rum to Africa, slaves to the West Indies to make the molasses to ship to New England to make the rum to send to Africa for more slaves. Its a complex economic situation for ten year old children to grasp, but as often happens, they jumped straight to the main issue.
“Why would anyone want to be a slave?”, one boy asked. I explained the issue of kidnapping and tribal conflict, describing in ten year old terms how brutal the whole thing had been.
“But why would anyone do something like that to other people?” We looked at the map, I let them talk; eventually they realized that those human beings were part of a thriving economy. They understood that in that setting, human life was worth less than some barrels of molasses or bales of tobacco.
As the discussion went on, more and more probing questions were asked. “If there were so many slaves, why didn’t they rise up and take over?” That brought a long talk about power. The conclusion that these children came to?
The white owners had the power. Power came from weapons and from education and knowledge.
“If the people in Africa had been white, do you think they would have been taken as slaves?” That talk went on for almost ten minutes, in small groups of kids. The conclusion?
White people would not have kidnapped and enslaved other white people. First because slaves had to stand out in the crowd, otherwise they could just run away and pretend to be regular citizens. And, “I think you have to make people seem really different from you if you are going to do something awful to them.”
I’m not sure how they came to be so wise and so astute at such a tender age, but they fill me with hope and with some sense that my grandchildren may grow up in a world with more gentleness and sensitivity than we see now.
Maybe I’m a crazy optimist, but some days are just like that. From the mouths of babes come moments of transcendent faith.