Dr. Gereboff's Head Notes
Who Are "We"?
It all started with the question at a Heads of School meeting: “When a teacher addresses the class with the pronoun ‘we’, who is the assumed ‘we’?” My colleagues from the eleven Bay area Jewish day schools and I decided to organize our 2016 Jewish day school conference for teachers and staff around this question. We partnered with Be’chol Lashon - an organization that builds awareness about racial diversity within the Jewish community.
Diversity has been on the agenda for Independent schools for at least the past five years. Jewish day schools rarely have addressed this topic. Most of us assumed “it wasn’t our issue.” We have all continued the dominant American Jewish narrative of white Ashkenazic (Eastern European) Jewry, even though Sephardic Jews (from Spain and Portugal) created and populated the earliest American Jewish communities, and even though about 40% of our own staff and families are not part of this narrative. Some of us have addressed diversity issues within our own schools as people of color and people of other religious origins have become part of our communities.
The conference this past Monday with 370 teachers and staff in attendance focused on questions of diversity – who are ‘we’? We explored how people within our community who do not fit the dominant Jewish narrative experience ‘otherness’. We talked about the multiple identities that we each hold, learned about demographic shifts, and experienced a very powerful documentary (The Little White Lie). At the end of the day, we all worked in our school groups to consider how to address these issues within our particular school. Some teachers and staff were ready to start working on curricula pieces and on programmatic ideas. And some shared the feeling of their colleague, who commented, “I don’t think this is such a big issue for our school since we do a really good job already in teaching empathy and perspective.”
That response reminded me of a conversation I had a few weeks earlier with two of our first grade girls. They were experiencing some “mean girl” interactions. One girl was “bossing” other girls around. And in the words of those girls who were being bossed around, “I have a right to do what I want to do.” These sorts of interactions are pretty commonplace in a school. It’s how children learn boundaries and how they learn social skills. But the “diversity” piece was also part of this conversation even though I missed that in the moment.
In our conversation, we discussed what each girl was feeling, and about respecting one another. We role-played how we should respond when our feelings are hurt. In the midst of the conversation, one girl looked at me and said, “You know, she and I are cousins.” At this point, I was a bit flummoxed. I knew both families somewhat, and I wasn’t ‘sure how these girls would be cousins. With a very puzzled look, I tentatively said, “Are your father and her mother related?” (Knowing both the children and their parents; that would have been the most likely possibility). The child looked at me as if I were clearly clueless and said “Adam and Eve! We’re all related.” Searching for the thread that would connect that statement to the problem at hand, I asked “So if we’re all related – you and me, you two girls, what does that mean?” She said, “We need to treat each other like cousins.”
At the time, I took pride in the fact that this child was carrying value lessons from school into this conversation. But since the conference, I realize now that there was likely a “diversity” piece hiding in the interaction. Perhaps she was saying “Can’t you see that as different as she and I look, we are all human beings?” This is the point I was making, but she might have been experiencing another level of wonder around identity. Maybe she was and maybe she wasn’t, but my staff and I now have another pair of lenses with which to view such discussions.
One of the teachers who initially commented about how well our school addresses diversity, stopped in the next day to say “I just realized it isn’t about how I feel that we’re addressing things or whether we’re attending to these bigger identity questions, it is about how our students are experiencing these things and my need to be more mindful of that.” That was the point of the conference, and also my take-away from my interaction with these first grade girls: Even cousins (and sometimes, maybe especially cousins) need to remember to understand the other person’s point of view.
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