Commentary
By Trevor Barton 8-12-2018

At a stoplight, I saw a bumper sticker on a car.

Dear God,
Why do you allow so much violence in our schools?
Signed,
A Concerned Student

Dear Concerned Student,
I’m not allowed in schools.
God
 

I’ve been reflecting on that bumper sticker as I’ve been preparing to start my 12th year as a public school elementary teacher.

Before I became a teacher, I was an inner-city minister and a missionary in west Africa.

I still see myself as a missionary and a teacher. I am a missionary teacher.

This is what I mean.

Whether I am on an inner-city street, or a remote village, or in a Title I public school classroom, I try to live out my life as Gustavo Gutiérrez describes life among the poor in his book A Theology of Liberation.

  • Real poverty is an evil – something God does not want. I must struggle against it and attempt to end it in the world around me. As I live among people who are seeking food, shelter, clothing, work, health care, and education but not finding these basic needs, I see they are wounded in a way that breaks their hearts and breaks the heart of God. Unless my heart is broken, unless I pour out myself to help them meet these needs, then I am wounded in a way that keeps their hearts broken and that keeps the heart of God broken, too. I see they don’t want to be poor, but that poverty is a part of certain broken systems that can be repaired if we put our hearts and minds, our commitments and communities, to fixing them. I see I can work side by side with my neighbors around me, especially with my poor neighbors around me, to make the world a better, more human place for everybody.
     
  • Spiritual poverty is a good – something God does want. It is the sense of having a readiness to do God’s will. When I live among my neighbors, we listen together to life around us and work and play and hear God’s voice in the quiet places among the quiet people where we are. “You have two ears and only one mouth,” my Grandpa used to say to me, “So you better listen twice as much as you speak.” I do ‘lots of listening. I do ‘lots of doing. That is my mantra every day.
     
  • Solidarity with the poor, and protesting against the conditions under which they suffer, is the way to live. I am not where I am to treat people like objects, like things. No, I am where I am to treat people as they are — human beings with infinite worth.

Here is a small story of how I tried to live out a theology of liberation in my classroom.

Shenice was a fourth grade student with whom I worked in one of my reading intervention classes. She had a round face, chubby cheeks, sparkling brown eyes, braided hair with colorful ribbons, and a beautiful smile.

On some days, her mood was sunny. On others, it was stormy. On the sunny days, she worked hard to become a better reader and writer, pouring herself into our books and stories. On the stormy days, she challenged me to become a more committed, creative, and compassionate teacher.

I remembered one of her sunny days, she jumped up and down and threw her hands in the air after successfully completing a vocabulary matching puzzle I had made for the day. I also remembered a stormy day when she jumped at another fourth-grader and pounded her unmercifully with a loud voice and unkind words.

I sat down with her on that stormy day and raised an “umbrella” over our heads. I often used this imaginary umbrella when I talked with children in crisis. The umbrella was designed to remind me that, more than anything else, the child needs someone to listen and to understand.

I knew some important things about Shenice. Her mom and grandma struggled mightily to keep food in their bellies, a roof over their heads, and clothes on their backs. I knew part of her anger came from fear, the fear that often accompanies economic poverty. I knew her mom and grandma were her fierce advocates. Shenice had dreams. "I want to be the first woman to coach a high school football team," she told me one day. Her mom and grandma aimed to help her.

I asked Shenice why she did it. "Well, she said something mean about me,” Shenice said. “She started it, but I finished it!" We talked about seeing things through other people's eyes and feeling things through their hearts and finding ways to build them up instead of tear them down, ways to heal them instead of hurt them. We discovered that the other fourth-grader had been evicted from her house and was angry, confused, and afraid because of it. "Wow," Shenice said, "I would have started something, too, if that had happened to me." She apologized to the other student, hugged her and they walked away as friends.

I learned the importance of supporting and listening to students from reading Alex Kotlowitz’s book, There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America. It's the story of Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, 11- and 9-year-old brothers growing up in the Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex in the inner city of Chicago. Kotlowitz calls his work "the journalism of empathy" because he tries to stand in the shoes of his subjects as he is writing about them and he writes to help his readers stand in his subjects' shoes, too.

I also try to stand in the shoes of my students and I help my students stand in each other’s shoes, too. So, I might call my work "the teaching of empathy."

I am an empathetic teacher who tries to stand in my students' shoes. I try to teach my students to stand in each other’s shoes. I practice the teaching of empathy. This is my greatest achievement, my greatest contribution to public education and to my world.

This is how I am a missionary teacher.

This is how I believe God is allowed in my school.

Trevor Scott Barton is an elementary school teacher in Greenville, S.C. He is a blogger for the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

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