I am not sure if schools, churches, and other entities know how incredibly powerful the words they choose to put on their signs and marquees are, but they have a powerful platform. Aside from the humorous puns and hilarious grammar errors they sometimes provide, their messages are potentially life-changing.
My First Meaningful Encounter with a Church Sign
It seems like a lifetime ago now, and in a way, it was, but thirty years ago, I was in Moncks Corner visiting relatives, and saw a church sign that read:
“We Don’t See The World as it is; We See It as We Are.”
The opposite side of the sign read,
“The heart would hold no rainbow if the eyes held no tears.”
I know what the opposite side of the sign said because I insisted that my fellow traveler turn the car around so that I could write the sign’s message down. I wanted to ponder it and knew I’d forget it if I didn’t write it down. (Remember, thirty years ago, cell phone cameras were non-existent; we had to have pictures developed, so paper and pencil was always handy.)
The point, though, is that words matter. Through the years, I have used the first quote on that church sign in nearly every classroom I have had the privilege of teaching.
It is hard to determine the originator of the quote. Although Steven Covey is often given credit for it, from what I’ve been able to determine, the quote originated with Anias Nin, which is interesting because she was a French/Cuban/America essayist who wrote erotica. How her words ended up on that church sign is food for fodder, but the church’s intent was well-received. The fact that comments were selected from someone other than a Biblical scholar to promote their message is even more enlightening. Regardless, those words changed my view of the world and sent me into a mode of self-reflection that has lasted for thirty years.
Before They Understand
My classroom requires critical thinking, and discussions abound. Sources are necessary with controversial topics, and respect is a must. Sometimes I believe the kids think I’m not prepared with a lesson and just want to “talk” to pass the time. While many discussions happen organically, I almost always have a quote, artwork, news article, or novel that prompts discussion, but boy can those topics change on a dime.
The commonality of most discussions is when students disagree on any topic (currently, that list includes vaccines, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, police officers, and anything else they don’t feel safe discussing anywhere else ), but the conversation ends with a reminder from me, “We don’t see the world as it is, Class; we see it as we are.”
What They Don’t Know
Frankly many of my students have no clue who they are or who they want to become, and we have all been in that state. Further, they do not yet realize that if they are blessed with a long life, what they believe will change drastically as the world turns.
Therefore, when we hold discussions, I realize that much of what I am hearing comes from their home environment. The rest comes from their friend groups. Sooner than students know, though, what they believe will come from the very core of their being, and then they will understand what it means to see the world as they are, not necessarily as it is.
Because of my close relationships with youth in America, I often ask adults if we are sure that we are helping our children become people who can sustain America. Are we helping them become adults who see the world and various situations through compassion and empathy, or do we shelter them so that they see the world only as we do?
How I See The World
A dear friend of mine reminded me just today of how I see the world. She said, “You always consider the humanity of all viewpoints – even wrong ones – and try to love everyone and listen to everyone even if you don’t agree with them.” That’s quite an accolade. (Thank you, my friend. May I grow into that person!)
This view will be hard for me to live up to, but she is right in this: I know that people do not come to believe something without having been through experiences that cause them to feel the way they do. Perhaps more importantly, they don’t hold onto “wrong” beliefs without having reinforcements to do so.
This statement is true regardless of the topic. However, if we could ever learn empathy for the other person and communicate with genuine compassion and curiosity, we would be able to fix a lot that is wrong in America.
Where Is this Coming from, Nonnie?
I’ve been stuck in a mode of pondering since I started reading my students’ inquiry projects last week. One student chose Totalitarianism for the semester project. This student had read books like 1984 and The Girl with Seven Names that prompted this topic. Further, during the inquiry conference, my student revealed a suspected connection between America’s current race relations, cancel culture, protests, cell phone usage, cameras, and responses to protests with a turning point in America. Determining the possibility of a connection was the inquiry.
To my student, that turning point may end in Totalitarianism. This fear was not motivated by a political party or a religious belief. It was inspired by similarities found during the research portion of the project.
I did not assign that topic. I did not assign ANY topic. I gave students parameters, mainly concerning research requirements and documentation format, but they were free to choose anything they’d like to spend the semester learning more about. We spent time learning to “vet” sources and learning how to provide room for counterarguments, but the research topic was theirs to choose.
It was this student’s paper that reminded me of the church sign.
I don’t believe my student wants America to be a Totalitarian government. Quite the contrary. Instead, I see this student as an American who loves America – the good, the bad, and the indifferent — and wants it to remain free.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I came of age during the end of the Cold War. As such, I see conspiracy theories everywhere and have a healthy distrust for authority. But I cannot imagine who I would be if I came of age during this pandemic, this social unrest, and the prevalent “me mentality.” That is what concerns me most about most my students. If something doesn’t impact them personally, they see no reason to get involved.
The problem is that at some point, if we all believe that way, there will be no one left to get involved, which reminds me of Martin Niemöller, the German Protestant preacher who also spoke words that changed my life when I first read his poem, “First They Came for the Socialists.”
Niemöller, had a fascinating life and was the epitome of a “complicated character.” You can read more about why this matters in this Washington Post article, from 2016, but he is a perfect example of how life changes us – and how we see the world as WE are rather than how it is.
So, where do we go from here? It depends on where we want to end up. We cannot sustain this current environment of discounting anyone who doesn’t look like us, love like us, or believe like us – whether those beliefs are religious or political. Divided, we fall.
Surely there is something we agree on and can start building towards. If not, the forces that have always wanted to destroy America may be closer than we think.