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We can teach our kids that they matter

This op-ed originally appeared in the News & Record on March 22, 2015.

This February, my ninth- and 10th-grade students joined their peers across the country to celebrate Black History Month.

All month long in our social studies classroom, they researched little-known figures in black history, facilitated discussions, asked insightful questions and started to unpack a history so much more complex than Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Along the way, as they learned about the struggle of the past, many began to recognize it in their own present — when a cashier squints suspiciously when they walk into a store, when they turn on the news and see another person of color lose his life to senseless violence. These lessons are anything but history.

My own path to the classroom started in Charlotte. As a kid, I went to the all-black parochial school where my mom taught various grade levels of math and science and had the privilege of never feeling inferior or “less than” while at school because of my race. When I arrived at Howard University to begin my freshman year of college, I hopped on the business track, following happily in my older siblings’ footsteps.

But during my time at Howard, things began to change. I became conscious. As the world opened up for me there, I started to think about how to open the world up to others. Over time, my conviction grew. Education is the bedrock of freedom. I switched my major, scrambled to get the credits I needed to graduate on time and joined Teach For America.

Now, as a teacher, I get to empower the next generation. Along the way, there are some difficult lessons to be learned. While the “whites only” signs of the 1960s have come down, the reality of separate and unequal endures. Alongside glaring gaps in educational, employment and economic opportunity, people of color in this nation face a variety of subtler, no less damaging assumptions. A successful black lawyer hears whispers of affirmative action. A young black boy on a corner is seen as “lurking,” while his white peers “hang out.” A black college student is asked to give “the black perspective” to a seminar full of white students who are never asked to speak on behalf of their entire race.

I want each of my students to be able to recognize injustices like these and, most importantly, to appreciate their ability to change it. In our incredibly racially and ethnically diverse classroom, we learn history from untold perspectives — studying the voices of women, African Americans, Latinos and first-generation Americans as we work our way through the curriculum. These are the figures in whom my students can see themselves reflected. They’re also precisely the kinds of pioneers I expect them to become.

We have a long way to go as a country before we truly achieve justice for all. To fix the systemic oppression that has created the gross inequality of the present will take the hard, dedicated work of countless leaders and change-makers — many who have experienced it firsthand, others who bear witness to it from farther away. We must work toward these long-term changes as well as the immediate, urgent opportunities to change the way our students view themselves and their futures.

As a community, each of us has a role to play in this. Being a teacher gives me a front-row seat. But all of us have a responsibility. We can remind our kids every day that their thoughts, ideas, identities and opinions are important. We can share our own stories so that when they look to us they see a little bit of themselves reflected back. We can remind them that they matter, that they always have and that they always will.

Jason Riley

Jason Riley is a 2014 Teach For America corps member. He teaches social studies at Page High School and is an alumnus of Howard University.