Last week Nelson Mandela died. Even though he was old and sick, his death is still a terrible tragedy for the world.
Another tragedy revealed itself to me on the same day. I went online to enter my attendance and saw the sad news about Mr. Mandela. And I gasped audibly, exclaiming something like, “Oh my gosh!”
My class, understandably, was curious.
And I told them, “Nelson Mandela has died.”
And nothing. Nada. They did not know who he was. I was appalled. Appalled by OUR failure. How could we, as educators, have allowed these young people to reach the ages of sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, and never have told them about Nelson Mandela.?
Over the weekend I had lunch with a buddy of mine who teaches AP juniors and seniors at a school about an hour south of mine. His students also reacted to the news with blank stares. Despite the fact that these students have been taking advanced classes pretty much all of their lives, they had never heard of Nelson Mandela.
It is unforgivable.
But I am a teacher. I can fix this problem. So, I spent some time this weekend devising curriculum around Mr. Mandela’s life and achievements. I put together a short overview of apartheid. I found some images. I was ready to go.
I walked into my first class this morning and had them get out their journals. I put on the board, “Who is Nelson Mandela? What have you heard about him before?” I told them it was okay to write that they did not know. I just wanted to get an idea of where they were with their prior knowledge.
One young man raised his hand, “How come you did not do anything for Paul Walker?” he asked me.
And I lost it. I told him the two deaths, while both sad, were not equally significant. That both lives, while both lived in the spotlight, were not equally impactful. I became animated. I may have shouted a bit.
And the class laughed good naturedly and did their assignment. They found facts in the reading. They asked questions. And their questions revealed the great dearth of their knowledge about so many things. Many did not understand that Africa is a continent. One asked me how a convicted felon could ever become president. One student actually asked me why black people in Africa are not called African-Americans. Another expressed amazement that someone had been a black man and been the president of a nation before Obama.
There is so much to know. The scope of the history of the world is tremendous. There are new events and new inventions, new innovations and new revolutions occurring every day, everywhere. And there is certainly no way we can address it all. And who are we to presume to know who is important and who is not? Who are we to assert that Nelson Mandela’s life was more inspirational than that of Paul Walker?
Except that is what we do. As teachers, we have to make choices about what we will teach and what we will leave out. What we will explain in depth and what we will gloss over. Even with the standards to help prescribe these choices, there is much that is left to our auspices. Often the scope and weight of these choices is daunting. However, this is the work for which we volunteered when we selected this profession. This is what we must do if we are to matter at all in the little niches we have carved out for ourselves.
Today, faced with this overwhelming task, I just told my class to ask me questions. I threw away my plan and said, “If you are confused about something, ask. If I do not know, I will find out for you or we can find out together.”
And they asked. They asked about “Obamacare,” what it is and why people hate it. They asked about the difference between Republicans and Democrats. They asked about what imperialism was. We touched on a wide variety of topics.
Too bad I cannot do that every day. In the meantime, I will just have to try to make my lesson plans as meaningful as I possibly can. And today I chose to spend my class time remembering a great man and his legacy to the world.