Note: this is a cross-post from my teaching blog Cassondrapuls.com.
The other day I taught a fifth-grade lesson. As usual when I enter a new classroom, a torrent of questions flooded out: Where are you from? Do you know Turkish? Do you know Obama? And this time: “Are you Christian?” asked repeatedly and energetically by a boy in the front of the room.
That one gave me pause. There were realistically only two possible ways I could have answered: ”That’s not important right now” or “Yes I am.”
Each option had its advantages. “That’s not important right now” is a stock phrase to remind students what is urgent (learning) compared to what is not urgent (randomly blurted out questions). But on the other hand, “Yes I am” happened to be true, and I believe in being honest with kids. (Whether or not I believe or practice the religion is irrelevant. By this society’s standards of religious identification, I am Christian by virtue of being American, ethnically European, and celebrating Christmas on December 25.)
But each option had its drawbacks as well. The former –”It’s not important”–seemed like avoidance, given the obviousness of the answer. The latter–acknowledging it openly–I recoiled from instinctively. Religion is both intensively public and a taboo here. One politician recently called religious practice a “knife’s edge” in her speech, a precarious balance between freedom and oppression. And I just heard an interview with a Turkish author where she warned about the harshness of identity politics in this country. Should I acknowledge such a risky topic? If I say something, will it get back to the kid’s parents, or to my boss? What’s the policy about talking about religion in a secular school? I had to deal with a touchy subject once before with students, when a Turkish tutee brought up race in one of our private lessons. It occurs to me that my discomfort with these situations is not vis-a-vis the students themselves, but rather the parents whose ideologies I might unintentionally conflict with.
But something flashed into my mind. Educator Vivian Paley wrote a book, White Teacher, about her experience in a multicultural and multiethnic preschool in Chicago. In the book, she vividly describes the situation when she started teaching: bullying, teasing, self-doubt, the classroom gradually becoming more and more acrid. Paley eventually confronts the elephant in the room: all of the students were acting out the racial stereotypes that they saw played out around them in daily life. Only when Paley leads her children to open, safe dialogue about the taboo subject she was avoiding, race, did the classroom become harmonious.
So I just said, “Yes, I am. That’s why I’m excited for Christmas!” The boy responded by pumping his fist and exclaiming, “Yes, I’m Christian too!” as if he had won something.
After that, I refocused the class and everything went smoothly. In the end, whether or not I answered one boy’s question probably did not have a major effect on the outcomes of that one lesson. But children sense taboos as well. If the student was eager enough to ignore the taboos and bring it up, then it was probably important to him, and worth acknowledging.
How do you deal with taboo subjects when they come up in the classroom–particularly when there isn’t enough time to address them in detail?
Photo: Fresco inside of a cave church in Cappodochia, defaced by later Iconoclasts or Muslim invaders