My Turn: It's time - the silence must end

Posted: Wednesday, April 09, 2003

I 've been taught that there are times for silence. When you are in church and no audience participation is required, then big time silence is expected. When you wet your bed and your over-worked mom is giving you the what for, silence is a must. When your grandfather (pour moi mon pépre) is telling a story from his childhood that even you could recite line by line, you cherish the moment and let him tell it, mentally noting how the distances seemed to grow or the mackerel run now fills the bay.

When I am about to launch into a complex story about the life and transformation of the conic section, I need my students' undivided attention for a period of time to get them to take the mental walk with me to a really cool ah-ha experience. I want silence.

Not all students come to school ready to learn. Not all students come to school taught to respect one another and celebrate the differences they see in others. Part of the challenge in being a teacher is to cultivate a respectful learning environment where all students can learn and are free from harassment - all forms of harassment. Yesterday a student was drifting off in my class even though I was pouring on the Gervais song and dance review, I asked a nearby student to give him a little prod. Another student said he wanted to poke the little doughboy. I stopped the moment and questioned whether calling someone a "doughboy" may hurt his or her feelings. Body image is big in high school. I asked him if he would enjoy being called Gumby (though I remember some racial connection to Gumby, I used this character because the student is very wiry.) I think that taking a moment to stop and question what we say to one another, the names we use, and our motivations is part of my job; a big part, in terms of being observant, and a small part in picking teachable moments to make students think about the impressions they are making.

Many students come to school with the instructions to respect each other, but often times there is one non-spoken exception. If you are gay, hang out with gay folk, appear to be gay, stand up for anyone who is gay, or heaven forbid participate in something like the Day of Silence, then you fall into that caveat and may be in for some trouble. I will worry about the students who will take a vow of silence today, Wednesday, April 9 starting at 8 a.m.

They are brave. Though we have more than 200 students signed up to participate in some way, these students are still a minority in a school that due to the renovation process has many unprotected nooks.

I will be in the halls today watching, protecting and questioning. I hope other teachers and administrators realize that the Day of Silence is a potentially high-risk day for many students. As the numbers grow, the risk decreases, but as a teacher I know it is my job to protect all students everyday not just on the Day of Silence. Though despite the fall controversy, the organizing process appears to have gone very smoothly this year. I would like to commend the Day of Silence Committee and the JDHS Gay Straight Alliance for standing tall, being strong, and for recognizing a time when the silence must end.

More than 100 JDHS students will take a vow of silence today to recognize the silence gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people live with throughout their lives. Another hundred students will wear a ribbon of support. The silence begins at 8 a.m. and will be officially broken in the Marie Drake gym at 2:30 p.m. Participants will then march to the Capitol steps for a rally at 3 p.m. Please join us.

Mary-Lou Gervais teaches math at Juneau-Douglas High School and is an advocate for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender youth.

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