Building Empathy

The events of the past week (or let’s really be honest, the rhetoric spewed since 2015 when the Presidential election race began) have left me at a loss for words. I know that racism never really went away; it just became fashionable (or politically correct) to not share racist beliefs publicly. However, we, as a society, can find plenty of examples where (institutional) racism exists—whether through the literary canon taught or the films watched. As educators and scholars, we discuss how to include a more accurate picture of our society in the texts we teach and the books available in our classroom libraries. I’ve found, with the exception of balancing male and female protagonists, we haven’t really moved beyond discussion. Over the course of this week, as my husband and I watch the news, we’ve had conversations about what can be done to combat racism if it is what is taught at home. How much of an impact does one person have, does one text have, does pedagogy have, or does one class have?

And I’m left without answers. It is my hope that the inquiry stance I take in my classroom and the inquiry stance I ask my students to take have an impact on the way they view the world. It is my hope that as my students learn to read the world, they also learn to question the world. But that is only hope. I don’t have a definitive outcome or answer such as teach x and y will happen.

This feeling of helplessness causes me to soothe my soul in the pages of novels. Fiction for escape. Of course my escape is found in the pages of YA books. The last few YA books I’ve read have also given me a cause to pause. Focusing on the last three or four books I’ve read, while gender is fairly equitable, the authors are white, the characters are white, and for the most part the characters are from middle-class American families.

Suffice it to say even these “mainstream” books can then take a turn. In Kids of Appetite by David Arnold, the protagonist, Vic, has Moebius Syndrome, which leaves him unable to smile (or make any facial expressions) or close his eyes. There will be more about this novel in a later post. As a result people stare at him, people think he is below average intelligence, people bully him. Vic develops a persona to shield him from others. He tries to be invisible. He sees himself as invisible, thus making it difficult for people to truly see him for who he is. After the reader begins to gain an understanding of Vic, Arnold switches POV, and the reader not only experiences the world through Vic’s eyes and through Vic’s friend Mad’s eyes. Mad has her own persona too, but that is a story for another day. As Mad gets to know Vic, she has to confront her assumptions about him based on his appearance. In fact, Arnold even writes a harsh scene at the beginning of the novel when Mad and the other KOAs meet Vic in Foodville. Their interaction is typical of those Vic has experienced before but made all the more heartbreaking because he has a crush on Mad. Seeing Vic through Mad’s eyes forces the reader to break down his persona, and I would venture to say also force the reader to explore how they would react to Vic.

Additionally, I read Holding Smoke by Elle Cosimano I found myself confronting my construct of the prison system. John “Smoke” Conlan is in a juvenile facility, convicted of killing his English teacher. Like Vic and Mad, Smoke is a deeply complex character. The book opens with Smoke causing a fight in the exercise yard, which lands him in solitary confinement. The opening pages of the book confirmed my views and understanding of juvenile offenders. However, as the novel unfolds, I realize the characters view Smoke based on the story they have constructed about him. To survive in prison, he constructs a persona so he is left alone by the others; however, this persona simply reaffirms what the guards believe about all offenders. But the reader is put in the position the warden finds himself in—this persona is exactly that, a persona and not the person Smoke is. Ultimately, as I read more and more, I find myself realizing that Smoke is not all good nor is he all bad. His experience cannot be blamed on his upbringing and family situation, even though his experience also is part of his upbringing and family situation.

Well-developed, complex characters act as a mirror to our world. We, as a society, are not all one thing or all another. Our lives are not dichotomies. Instead we function on a spectrum. For example, who I am in my classroom is simply a slice of who I am. My students leave my class knowing that I am passionate about three things: literacy, my dog, and my cat. If I am teaching them to question the world, is it appropriate for them to know my political views or my religious views? No. Is it appropriate for me to present as much of any given story as possible and guide them to an answer? Yes. This is one of the reasons we use multiple texts when teaching a novel or teaching a unit on argument.

This leads me to a renewed understanding about being a life-long reader and points me to the studies about readers being more empathetic. One year in my classroom may not be enough to fully grasp how to read the word and the world. However, helping my students become lifelong readers, helping my students learn to read widely (and deeply), helping my students to find text as a mirror as well as a window may just make them realize the world is far more complex than the dichotomy people want it to be. It may just help them learn to embrace those who may appear different from the way they look.

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