When Laws Are Unfair

"I think they're both kind of wrong," one of my brightest students says as we discuss the the book Sit Down: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney.  She goes on to explain that the people are wrong for shouting things and throwing things at the kids who are simply sitting at the lunch counter, waiting to be served, but the kids are wrong, she feels, because they are breaking a law. 

Hmmm. I remember the stages of moral development and my third graders are squarely in that stage where you follow the rules because authority says to do that.  But I need to help them see, now more than ever, that unfair, mean, restrictive rules should be challenged. Like Rosa Parks did.  Like Ruby Bridges did. Like Susan B. Anthony and the suffragettes did.  Like the Opt-Out movement to stop the over-reliance on high-stakes testing, the ranking and punishment of teachers and schools based on faulty science, the efforts to privatize and put profits ahead of free public education where all are welcome to come and learn.  

I can't and don't discuss this Opt Out movement in the classroom.  Instead, I try to challenge them to see how the kids who were part of the sit-in respectfully and nonviolently challenged a law that made no sense and was inherently unfair.  I tried to help them see how they would feel if they had to sit in the back of a bus, use a different water fountain, not be able to eat in a restaurant of their choosing.  How could something like that ever happen in a country that celebrates freedom? We know it is part of our history as well as other unfair laws and policies that make separate rules for you based on your gender, your sexual orientation, your age, your race.  Things historically have only changed when brave and courageous citizens said, "Enough" and put themselves on the line. 

For the last couple of months, I have believed in democracy and citizens speaking out to their elected representatives.  I helped plan a campaign for my local teacher's union to write letters, call our representatives, and spread positive stories of teachers who've made a difference. I signed petitions. I brought petitions to State Senator Michael Venditto's office and spoke with one of his aides about my fears and concerns for Governor Cuomo's budget.  I wore red for public ed.  When a proposed law is unfair, I believe we have an obligation to speak out. And I wanted to believe that citizens speaking out would make a difference. 

But it didn't.  "With heavy hearts" the budget was passed with all the dead-wrong reforms to education along with it.  Testing and punishment, unfunded ridiculous mandates, tenure gone. I don't know how anyone can believe that innovative and joyful learning can happen when we all feel like an ax is hanging over our heads. Who does this hurt when teachers are afraid and feel they need to stick to the joyless test prep curriculum? How will students come to love learning when we all feel afraid to veer off the scripted, soul-less curriculum?

 Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo has suggested that all of us teachers with bad test scores should seek a career at McDonald's.  What will happen to the middle class when that occurs? When those of us who went to college, then graduate school, and invested time and money in becoming a certified teacher are out of a job? With Long Island being as expensive at it is, two incomes are mostly needed for a family to survive.  When test scores deem us ineffective and we lose our jobs, how will this help our New York economy? When our houses foreclose and we can't afford to live and work in our communities?  I guess Arroyo's comment just means we are, in her eyes and our government's eyes, unimportant, dismissable, inconsequential.  

Many of us have been speaking about believing democracy to be dead. Mark Naison wrote a beautiful and heart-wrenching piece about watching it die as the Assembly voted for the budget.  But I just can't believe that this wrong won't be righted.  Anne Lamott has said, "Don't ever give up, no matter how bad things look or how long it all takes.  Grace bats last."  I want so much to believe that she is right.

And so I'll teach, because that is my job and that is who I am deep down in my soul- a teacher.  Not perfect by any means, plenty of room for growth and improvement.  But a teacher, nonetheless, who believes in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words- that intelligence and character are the true goals of education. When my student proclaimed both groups wrong- the group throwing milkshakes and spitting and screaming and the calm group of teenagers just sitting at a counter, waiting to be served while making a silent statement that unfair laws can't stand, well that was my teachable moment. 

"I don't know if I agree that they were both wrong. If a law is unfair and mean and hurts people, is that a law we have to follow? We've had unfair laws in our country and they only changed when people stood up and said, 'No-I'm not following this terrible law.'  I think those students were really brave for trying to change a really mean and unfair law." 

In our disappointment, disgust, and disillusionment, may we know that bravery and keep trying to right these wrongs. 


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