Mizzou. Kenya. Japan. Paris. Mexico. Baghdad.
Syria. Beirut. Sinai. Nigeria. Yale.
If you’ve recently turned on the news or opened a newspaper, you’ve likely heard or read a story on the above countries and countless others. In one week, nearly 600 people were killed due to terrorist attacks—and those are just the ones covered by the media. So, who decides what makes front page news or gets its own temporary Facebook profile picture filter? Do those filters mean that some lives are more valuable than others? And does any of it really matter? These are some of the questions that sparked a forty-five minute conversation with my high school sophomores, and it was a conversation I’d suggest everyone have.
Now if I’m being honest, I’d describe the majority of my students as well-read and intelligent teenagers, so when I heard them asking the same questions I’d seen posed on both my Facebook newsfeed and in OpEds from the most reputable news sites, I realized there were still questions to be answered. From “How should I feel when my friends support only Paris, but I’m both Lebanese and French?” and “Why should we care about the bombings in the Middle East when it’s not our war?” to “Why do people care more about what happened in Paris than what happened in [insert country here], especially when people are murdered everyday in America?,” my students asked some pretty complex questions.
And as I listened to them share personal experiences, ask tough questions, and respond thoughtfully and honestly to one another, I couldn’t help but wonder “how often do children and teenagers get the opportunity to have such insightful, fruitful, and meaningful conversations about issues that really matter.” Take a moment to think about how often you’ve had difficult discussions, especially after moments of crisis and chaos. As students who are taking standardized tests or learning Common Core curriculum, I’d imagine that doesn’t leave much time for building empathy and awareness. But whether you’re a teacher, administrator, parent, or student, you have to make time.
I understand it can be pretty overwhelming talking about politics, race, gender, religion, etc. Maybe you don’t want to offend someone, or maybe you feel like you’re just not well-versed on an issue, or perhaps you’re just so desensitized, complacent, and cynical that this type of violence doesn’t cause you to act.
From my conversation with my 15 and 16 year-old students, I challenge you all to change that, and I encourage you to:
Do your research. Don’t let ignorance be an excuse to not engage.
Live your life (but not in fear). Don’t let fear of another violent attack control you or change the way you look at others. Remember, living in fear is not living at all and one act by some individuals is not representative of the entire group.
Be open. Find a safe space and discuss these complicated and emotionally-charged issues. Be a good listener. Don’t shut down. Yes, you will feel uncomfortable, but it’s in moments of discomfort that real change occurs.
Don’t give up. Peace, love, equality, justice and all of those other ideals may not come to pass in my lifetime or yours, but does that mean you stop fighting, stop marching, or stop believing? When tensions are high and people are both emotional and afraid to live in a world filled with so much hatred, violence, and sadness, how can we remain hopeful? Let the voice that tells you we can do this be louder than the voice that tells you we can’t. You can’t give up. Never give up.
Handling such complex issues and entertaining challenging conversations is not only brave, but also beneficial. When you step outside of your comfort zone and into intense discussions, you gain better insight and various perspectives on issues, learn empathy, build confidence, and develop leadership skills. Overall, you have a higher chance of leaving the conversation changed for the better. Now isn’t that worth a few minutes of discomfort?