Teacher for a Day – Cambridge, MA

The doors of the classroom swing open and thirty middle school kids tumble in, talking, giggling, tugging at each other, bouncing with energy.I am nervous. Divided We Fall has never been shown to junior high school students – we had aimed the film for colleges and high schools, but when the Fayerweather Street School invited me to teach their seventh and eighth grade class for a day, I was curious.

I’ve planned to show the movie in the morning and discuss in the afternoon. Now, standing in the back next to Scot Oxholm the mathematics teacher (pictured in action above), watching the students noisily find their seats, I wonder if their attention spans will even hold the film.

I couldn’t have been more mistaken.The kids sit still the moment the film begins and watch the entire movie in riveted silence. (Pictured from right to left: Scot the teacher, Oriana, Leo, and Gabe). By the end, there are kids with tears in their eyes. As they file out of the classroom for lunch, they smile at me and say, “I really like your movie.”

While the class eats lunch, Scot and I make plans for our afternoon discussion, and then before I know it, they pour back in. Scot introduces them to a silent webbing activity that has them respond to three questions: (1) What parts of the film resonate with you? (2) How do you connect the film with other things you’ve studied? and (3) How do you respond? What’s next?

The students take colored markers, silently write their responses on three gigantic sheets of paper on the whiteboard, and reach each other’s responses. (Pictured from right to left: Kelsie and Ayanna).

I sit in the back and watch the students fill the white pages with their own images and reactions. The film lives in each student’s head, imprints each with different images, and inspires a thousand different outcomes. My throat closes as I realize that I will never know how the film lives inside each person who experiences it.

The discussion opens and everyone wants to speak! The students are eager and the energy is palpable, eyes sparkling, wheels turning, each comment inspiring another. (Pictured from right to left: Daniel, Caleb, Jeffrey, Tucker, Sam, and Grace).

What parts of the film resonate with them?An endless stream of film images: “When Daman cried about missing his uncle – when Amrik finds the plane tire and gets chased – when Rachael apologizes for trying to forget about Sher – when the little boy is called names during recess – when the man in prison wouldn’t talk to you – when the men in the train station told you to ‘go home’ – when the US congressman said that racist thing – when the man had to take off his turban at the airport – when you and your cousin talked about what the turban means to you – when the widow forgives everyone – when the memorial at the end makes you realize that not all people are prejudiced.”

The conversation turns to simple profound reactions: “You know you hear news about all the hate in the world – war in Iraq, genocide in Darfur – but when it’s close to you, it feels more powerful,” says Corie.“Even the Sikh doctor who worked at Ground Zero got yelled at! How can someone have that much hate?”

“The terrorists wanted this to happen – they wanted us to single out people.When we hate each other, we’re letting them win,” says John.

“Samir was called bin Laden after 9/11 and now he’s called Sadam,” says Pauly.“It’s a change but not really a change at all. Even though 9/11 is over, there’s still discrimination.”

“Yeah, even the kids are feeling it,” says Abby. It suddenly strikes me that the kids in the movie are their age – 13 and 14.

Out of curiosity, I ask, “How many of you knew about Sikhs?” Three hands go up. “How many of you have seen men with turbans walk around Boston?” Nearly all the hands go up.

“I didn’t know anything about the Sikh religion before watching the movie,” says Tucker.

Charlotte raises her hand: “Yeah, aft
er 9/11, when people thought of terrorists, they thought of people with turbans and beards. And the media made all of us think that way.Even I thought that way.And now – I don’t.”

I’m speechless for a moment.It’s that simple.

“If Rachael in the movie can change, then I feel that anybody can change – any of us can change,” Daniel adds.

Adrian boldly declares, “This is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. Well, I’ve only seen like ten, but it’s still the best.”

I can’t help but laugh – I love the simple insights, profound truths, and honest claims that come from minds not yet held back by rules and assumptions about the world.

At the end of the day, my fellow teacher Scot turns to me and says, “This was one of my proudest moments with them. People ask me why I teach middle school math, and sometimes it’s hard but – this is why I do what I do.This is a highlight in my career.”

As I head home to finish finals, holding rolls of the students’ colorful webbing under my arm, I realize that this is why I do what I do too.For days like this – that make all the headache and heartache of ongoing injustices worth facing and changing.

Thank you to the Fayerweather Street School for hosting the film last night and bringing the discussion into the classroom today! And thank you to my wonderful fellow teacher for a day Scot Oxholm.