Reflecting on my years as a student in higher education, I realize that a strong sense of community is what I appreciate most about the two Free Methodist institutions I attended, Central Christian College and Greenville College. Based on my experiences since then, I have come to believe that community cannot be achieved if individual and collective stories are not told.
As a resident assistant during my sophomore year at Central, I heard many stories from the girls on my wing. These stories were different from mine, and the strand that ran through all of them was struggle. I heard stories of struggles with body image, stories of not being socially accepted, and stories of exclusion because of spiritual beliefs. I remember hearing these stories and making a conscious decision to really listen. This decision to listen, to pay attention to stories different from mine, has had a profound effect on my life.
In my college days, I tried to be a servant leader who followed Philippians 2:3–4: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” But I had not yet realized the kinds of messages that had seeped into my subconscious. These messages told me I was better than some people.
As I shared in a chapter I co-wrote for the book “Enduring Issues in Special Education” (fmchr.ch/eiisped), I met the Hernández family while working as a young special education teacher. All of the family’s four children at my school were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Both parents, a Hispanic father and a non-Hispanic white mother, had been in special education in school. When I saw two of the siblings on my list of students before the school year began, I assumed they were native Spanish speakers based on their last name. This assumption was made out of my ignorance, as both children were monolingual English speakers. I later learned that their father had come to the United States as a young boy and had received English-only instruction to the loss of both his Spanish development and his relationships with family members.
Between special education meetings, conferences, and other classroom and schoolwide events, Mr. and Mrs. Hernández had regular appointments at the school. At times, they were late or did not show up at all. As a result, the Hernández parents were often the topic of conversation among school personnel. Mrs. Hernández became known for taking all four children out of school when only one child needed to leave early for an appointment or illness. One colleague shook her head as she said to me, “I don’t understand why when one leaves, they all have to leave. They just don’t care about school.”
They just don’t care about school. That was a sentiment that I regrettably allowed to sink, unchallenged, into my subconscious. I hadn’t realized the bias I held about what parent involvement entails. I thought: Involved parents come to every meeting. Involved parents support teachers’ decisions. Involved parents read with their children at home. Involved parents are invested in homework. Involved parents ensure that their children are at school at all costs.
So much changed when I visited the Hernández family at home. As I drove up to the house, my two students came running out to greet me. They cheerfully led me into their house where I met their mother and brothers. Mrs. Hernández offered me lemonade, and we sat on the couch, chatting informally, with all four children chiming in. I couldn’t help but notice how clean and orderly the house was. I learned that each child had daily chores and a special place at the table to complete homework. The oldest, Maria, brought me some children’s books from her room and excitedly told me that these were books she reads to her brothers. While telling me about her husband’s work, Mrs. Hernández explained that the two of them shared one vehicle and had to plan their days so her husband could get to his job and she could take the children to and from school.
A realization came to me: “Of course, this family cares about school!” How could I have been so callous to think otherwise? Although they may not have been the kind of so-called involved parents that I had shallowly expected all parents to be, they certainly supported their children’s education. Perhaps more importantly, they were involved in supporting each other. It became clear to me that each member had a commitment to the family. Their cultural practice was to take care of one another.
This experience confronted my story about mainstream cultural expectations of parent and family involvement in schools. Under the surface, this family encountered many obstacles in the school setting, from the father’s difficulties in learning English to all six family members’ academic and social struggles. On top of that, the parents’ work demands and financial means prevented them from having flexible availability to attend meetings and events scheduled at the school’s discretion. It was unfair to assume they didn’t care about school, nor did the parents deserve the lack of respect that went along with this mistaken belief. Clearly, they cared and desired the best educational experiences possible for their children.
I soon learned that this family was not an anomaly within a dominant story that says poor families and families of color are negligent when it comes to their children’s education. Caring about school is not one set of behaviors and practices. There is hardly a parent out there who doesn’t want the best for his or her children (Matthew 7:9–11, Luke 11:11–13). Through this experience, I learned that there is always more to the story, and you don’t hear the unspoken parts of the story until you allow yourself to listen.
My graduate studies led me to more previously unheard stories. One came from a Muslim classmate who cried when she told of a time when people asked if she was a terrorist based on her religious affiliation. That had not been my story as a Christian, even though the Ku Klux Klan, the Westboro Baptist Church and other groups do evil in the name of Christianity (Matthew 7:21–23). Other stories came from doctoral colleagues and friends of color. They shared about being told they would never make it to college. Some had been placed in remedial classes in school. I also heard stories of black and brown Christian mothers who struggled to find children’s Bibles with images of biblical characters, including Jesus, who look like they actually came from Eastern Africa or the Middle East, people who look similar to them.
These stories had never been my stories.
For a long time, my story had been one of colorblind mentalities, that everyone is the same and should be treated the same. This mentality had said that everyone has an equal opportunity in life regardless of differences; all one had to do was work hard and be a good citizen. Just like the Hernández family, however, plenty of people work very hard — juggling multiple jobs — and still struggle to make ends meet.
Although it may seem like our society has made great progress toward equality for all Americans, schools are now more segregated than they were in 1968 (fmchr.ch/pbs1968). White students largely benefit from more resources, better facilities (fmchr.ch/cjkozol), better teachers (fmchr.ch/ejotlt), and images and authority figures who look and sound like they do — more than 80 percent of teachers are white and female (fmchr.ch/nytteachers), a stark contrast to the ever-changing student demographics. The notion that all children in this country should speak standard English persists, even though studies have shown cognitive and social benefits of being bilingual (fmchr.ch/clbobb) and even though this means that native speakers of other languages lose one of the most important pieces of their cultural identity, their language, by focusing on English development in their school-age years. The story of equal opportunity and treatment persists despite the fact that black and Latino males are more likely to be disciplined in school for the very same behaviors as their white counterparts (fmchr.ch/hhsdiscipline), and despite the fact that students of color and English language learners are over-represented in categories of disability that require subjective judgment, and they are under-represented in gifted and talented programs (fmchr.ch/nccrest).
A story of fairness persists, even though white Americans are more likely to deal drugs, while black Americans are more likely to get arrested for doing so (fmchr.ch/brookdrugs). It persists, and a culture of violence is attributed to people of color as an intrinsic trait despite the fact that so-called black-on-black violent crime happens at a similar rate as white-on-white violent crime (fmchr.ch/fbicrr). Negative assumptions are made about people who receive public assistance, but only .2 percent of Tennessee welfare applicants tested positive for drug use (fmchr.ch/tnwbir) in a state with 8 percent drug use among the general population
(fmchr.ch/tnwhg). Tests in other states, such as Florida, Utah and Arizona, have yielded similar findings. Nearly half of the households in the United States receive public assistance in some form (fmchr.ch/492wsj), but the poorest Americans are often the targets of stereotypes and mischaracterizations.
As author and speaker Chimamanda Adichie beautifully describes in a popular TED talk (fmchr.ch/cadichie), stereotypes are not always false, but they are always incomplete. There is always more to the story. Listening to stories, whether individual stories or larger narratives about groups of people, requires
understanding how they are situated within systems and ideologies of advantage and disadvantage. It requires understanding how dominant stories neglect stories of marginalization.
In one literacy study, I examined the challenges that adults with developmental disabilities face when they are trying to access their community, a world that was not made for them. Through my research, I came across writing by education philosophers on the common misconception that community means a shared experience, characteristic or value. But considering the Latin root, -munus, which means a state of continual giving, one might instead think of community as a space in which all of the members give relentlessly according to need (Acts 2:45) and according to each one’s strengths (1 Corinthians 12). In this kind of community, diverse stories are shared, heard and valued.
Stories were paramount to Jesus’ ministry. He explained the unexplainable using stories (Matthew 13:10–13, 34–35). He sought out and listened to others’ stories (Luke 24:17, John 4:7–26). He gave voice to the voiceless (Mark 7:31–37). He came to dismantle the world’s power structures that exclude and destroy (Luke 22:25–27). Jesus exemplified what it means to truly listen. As the biblical author James (believed to be Jesus’ brother) advises: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”
Through listening, we make space for stories to be told that are not our own, stories we thought we had already heard and understood. Importantly, through listening, we learn how to give continually and thus strengthen our community.
Amy Boelé, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of special education at the University of Colorado Denver. She is a graduate of two Free Methodist colleges, Central Christian College of Kansas and Greenville College. This article is adapted from a speech Boelé gave last fall when she was honored as Central’s Outstanding Young Alumnus.