Part Two by Moé Yonamine
Eager students packed the library, 138 of them seated in rows of chairs waiting for the moment Mr. Arun Gandhi’s face would appear on the screen. Excitement, anxiety, and laughter filled the room. My students would soon have the opportunity to have a face-to-face conversation with Arun, whose universal work we had studied along with that of his grandfather. Roosevelt High School is one of the most diverse schools in Oregon, and the faces of students represented peoples from across the globe and the great challenges and struggles many have encountered in their lives and street experiences.
These students entered my class in September, many outraged and frustrated with the Trayvon Martin verdict. The experience of Trayvon hit home to so many who regularly experience issues of race and violence in their own communities. Trayvon Martin’s case had become a symbol of injustices they had seen in their own lives and the verdict a reminder of what society sees as the solution. “What’s the point of even trying?” Damarté said during the first week of class. He explained that the outcome okays violence as the just solution to an injustice, so speaking up is not going to do much. My sophomore class waited for my response, many feeling the same discouragement.
We needed to take a bold look at the world and decided to use the lens of asking these two questions: What should the world know about this situation? What should the world (and people) do? We looked at many issues around the world today, discussing injustices the students saw and how they connected to them through their own lives, including issues of stop-and-frisk in New York, post-apartheid conditions in South Africa, continuing conflicts in Israel/Palestine, and the devastating genocide in Rwanda. We analyzed deeply about what should be done about the injustices they identified. “How come we don’t learn from things that have happened to other people?” said Carolina. “Why, if we all know how bad the Holocaust was, did we let something like that happen in Rwanda?” “And the Israelis who went through this in the past are now part of the same thing with the Palestinians,” Curtis said covering his face with his hands in frustration. “It just keeps repeating, Ms. Yonamine,” echoed Carolina, looking for an answer. I heard the voices of despair.
Needing a way to help my students see that they can be part of changing the world around them without repeating the same injustices done to them, I turned to Arun Gandhi, who first shared that lesson with me when I was a sophomore myself.
How can I show them that they are powerful? How can I teach them to imagine a world where change can be made through non-violence and compassion? How can I show them that fighting to make the world more just and peaceful is worthwhile? I communicated with Arun, asking him to share the same stories with my students as he did with my classmates and me in Indiana when I was a high school sophomore 20 years ago. Quickly agreeing, he consented to have a Skype conference set up.
Jesse sat quietly studying his notes, carefully preparing for the questions he would ask. Boogie paced back and forth, unable to sit still. When I encouraged him to calm down, he replied, “It’s Mr. Gandhi, Ms. Yonamine!” and continued to pace. Jenni twirled her long, island-rooted hair into a bun. And Ibrahim turned to a friend behind him, making light jokes waiting for the moment. They were the four students selected by their classmates to represent their respective classes in asking questions carefully crafted by their peers based on so much that had lingered in their minds. For a school that has often publicly been labeled a “failed” school by the education system, there was no sign of failure in any of my students; rather, they showed courage, enthusiasm, and empathy. When Arun’s face flashed on the screen, he gave a friendly “Hi, everyone!” and the sea of kids cheered, waved, and whistled.
After Arun’s introduction of himself, his continued activism around the world, and the legacy of his grandfather, the student representatives asked their questions proudly passed onto them by their peers. Boogie began, “Did you ever want revenge?” referring to the killing of Arun’s grandfather Mahatma Gandhi. The students listened attentively and scribbled notes as Arun spoke about feeling anger and finding the power of forgiveness. The questions continued, “Why do you think there is violence around the world like with genocide in Rwanda and the fighting in Israel/Palestine today even though things like this happened before?” Arun explained, “You see, violence is not just the big military machines. Violence comes from the individual person. We all must work to look within ourselves to seek out the violence within us first. Only then can there truly be non-violence.” He emphasized his grandfather’s quote, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
To be continued…
Moé Yonamine was born in Okinawa and moved with her family to the United States when she was 7. She teaches in Portland, Oregon and writes regularly for Rethinking Schools magazine. Yonamine is part of the network of Zinn Education Project teachers developing original curriculum to reflect the diversity of today’s U.S. students and to address gaps in the official curriculum. She wrote ‘But You Guys Wanted Us Here’, a film that tackles the U.S. occupation of Japan.