For over twenty years, I have worked with teens and young adults. First as a minister, now as an educator. In that time, I have told you things like "Don't let anyone tell you what you can't do," and "You can do anything you set your mind to, " and "You are the leaders of today- not just tomorrow." I have told you that your voice matters.
I am sorry to inform you today that I was not completely honest with you.
I believe those things- or rather, I want to believe that those things are true. But in my life, in the world YOU are trying to survive in- they are cliches. Motivational posters that look nice on a wall, but only bring disappointment because that is just not how the world works.
There are obstacles out there that cannot be overcome by sheer force of will or passion or patience. There are systems in place that simply will not allow you to reach what I had optimistically promised you. There are circumstances yet to come that I cannot foresee- nor can you or anyone else. There are issues in your life you did not create and are not to be blamed for.
But you are.
To my minority students- I am sorry that you are in an education system that seems hellbent on continuing to use your skin color as a reason for why you fail- or why you succeed. I am sorry that we collect your race so we can look at test scores and wonder why this race tends to score lower than this race- as if skin color is the reason and not a million other factors we brush aside. I am sorry that you will continue to be stopped by cops, security guards, and yes, educators because of your skin color and the geographical location you possess at the moment. I am sorry that there is a system in place that you cannot control that wants to treat you differently than other human beings- even in positive ways- because it seems to believe that you cannot, in fact, do anything you set your mind to without help. I will always strive to see you, as Martin Luther King Jr hoped, based not on the color of your skin, but on the content of your character. I am sorry that I will fail at times, but I will never stop trying to enable success for all my students.
To my female students (and my daughters)- I am sorry that society objectifies you. I am sorry that society allows men that take advantage of you to continue to succeed while you question your worth. I am sorry that school dress codes often vilify you, or put the onus of responsibility on you for boys' behavior regarding the opposite sex. I am also sorry that we seem to try to confuse you about that- we tell you you that you are more than your looks, yet we only really seem to celebrate feminine empowerment with a sexualized lens. I am sorry that we do not try to create more STEM opportunities for you from an early age- some of the greatest scientific minds of our past have been women who had to do it on their own. I will always strive defend you when needed and step out of you way when you've got this. I am sorry that I will fail at times, but I will never stop trying to enable success for all my students.
To my male students- I am sorry that my generation and those before it have behaved badly, and given you a reputation. I am sorry that we have made it ok to be the strong dumb guy because physical strength is more important to us that emotional and intellectual strength. I am sorry we gave you a system that puts you in charge without asking you to earn it and deserve it. I am sorry to the good guys out there that can't catch a break because they play by the rules and get blamed for those few that refuse to do so. I am sorry that education seems to only care about you if you are really smart or can play a sport- we just do not seem to know what to do with you. I am sorry that we have not shown you what real masculinity is all about. That is pride in being a man; respect for women in ALL ways; strength of body, mind, emotion, and character; that it is owning our mistakes and issues and not blaming others; that it is finding a passion and pursuing it. I want to show you that path by being that example. I am sorry that I will fail at times, but I will never stop trying to enable success for all my students.
To my students that are LGBTQ+- I am sorry that I have not always been understanding of your plight. You navigate a world where some people support you strongly, some disagree with you politely, some disagree violently and offensively. And each new interaction for you is stressful because you never know what you are going to face. I am sorry that those who disagree with you- who believe it is a sin or whatever- cannot do so with grace, tact, and respect. I am also sorry that we have a society that has allowed ho you want to date to define you far more than any of your other qualities and abilities. I will always strive to respect you and your journey- and seek to better understand both. I am sorry that I will fail at times, but I will never stop trying to enable success for all my students.
I am sorry that as educators we place weighty, adult expectations on you- huge assignments, tough personal and academic choices, compromises- yet often talk to you as if you were a child. And treat you as one when you do not meet those expectations. I never want you to think of me as condescending to you- and if I am, please accept my apology.
I am sorry that you have zero legal say in your public education until you are too old to benefit from it. If it makes you feel any better, we teachers have to do what a bunch of people that have never been teachers tell us to do. And we voted for them. Our bad.
To the students that tense up when a teacher talks to them- I am sorry that your interactions with teachers and administrators prior to our interactions have left you stressed. I am sorry if you feel the only interaction I have with you is correction and never congrats.
I am sorry when I forget to tell you why I corrected you or you were wrong. I am also sorry when I neglect to tell you why you were right. "Why" is the most important thing we need to understand the world we live in. I owe you 'why.'
I am sorry I take it personal sometimes. I am really good at recognizing when its a bad day, or you are in your feels so that I know it is isn't me. Even when you say its me. But sometimes, it hurts. Like how sometimes it hurts you, and you just cannot keep the emotions down.
I am sorry when an educator asks you for your side of the story then repeatedly interrupts you to say what they think is wrong with that story. You may be wrong, by the way, but you deserve to be heard out. Then we can discuss where our opinions differ.
I am sorry it is a fearful thing to come to school because of school shootings. I am almost equally as heartbroken for you to have become a pawn in the political games of the right AND the left.
I am sorry that our society is teaching you that the best way to win an argument is by being rude, dismissive, and cruel. I sound bite might win an argument, but it ultimately lose people's best interest.
I am sorry that some of you have parents that love you so much you never see them because they work three jobs. I am sorry that some of you see your parents all the time but never know if they love you.
I am sorry if the system or the world seems unfair. I feel it sometimes, too. I want to change it. But I am just a teacher. See, I want to change education, but my voice only reaches a thousand or so on Twitter, and a handful of educators that I get to interact with. I want to be an administrator, to have a bigger voice and impact on the small part of the world you call school. But I have a system to follow too. I submit a paper, meet some people and they decide if I fit. Ultimately, it does not matter how much or how well or how long I have done something, it comes down to their opinion. And I cannot change that. Sometimes it feels fair, sometimes biased. Sometimes I agree with the decision, other times not so much. But the thing is, I cannot control it. I can (and have) complained about the decision, but it does not serve to better me or the system. All I can do is continue to do my best and hope that someday I will be in a position to make a difference.
And that is true for you, too.
But I am sorry that I have doubted my potential impact, or the potency of those words I share with you. I still believe- because I HAVE TO BELIEVE- "Don't let anyone tell you what you can't do," and "You can do anything you set your mind to, " and "You are the leaders of today- not just tomorrow." I HAVE TO BELIEVE that your voice matters.
And in my own small way, fight to help you see that reality.
I am sorry that life is tough, but it is for us all. In different ways for sure. But I have hope that we can all do better. Be better.
I am sorry that I will fail at times, but I will never stop trying to enable success for all my students.
And my fellow human beings.