Malcolm Little, known by most as Malcom X, was raised in Harlem. I was raised in the suburbs of Vancouver, WA. Little was often hailed as a “model schoolboy” throughout his early academic years, displaying a wonderful joy and enthusiasm for life. I was a carefree, easygoing troublemaker in my early years. Little was told by a junior high school teacher that he had no chance of becoming a lawyer—a dream of his at the time—because he was black, and black people supposedly “had to be realistic” (49) about their occupational possibilities. I was told that I could one day become an incredible teacher. Little responded to his news—his unfortunate, new knowledge about the realities of life for a young black child—with a tragic plunge into a life ruled by drugs, hustling, gangs, and crime. I responded to the supportive encouragement I received by working tirelessly to improve my intellectual self. Little went to prison; I continued to go to school. While in prison, Little discovered a passionate love for learning and leadership. This new knowledge led to his being freed from prison and eventual rise to prominence among the African American population of the day. One early morning I was frantically woken by my mother and told to pack my things, as we were moving out of our house because my dad had lost it by gambling away all of our money. A couple days later, my mother and father filed for a divorce. This knowledge led me down a path of frustration and self-doubt. Little continued to rise in influence, power, and fame. I began a long period of avoiding my schoolwork, slacking off, and breaking any relational bonds I had at the time. Shortly before his death, Little traveled to Mecca and was immediately touched by a peaceful, humble way of life. In a series of several experiences throughout early high school, I was forever changed by the love and affection of my Savior, Jesus Christ. Little’s anger diminished; my self-confidence returned.
In no way, shape or form, am I suggesting my life should be seen in the same light as the legend of Malcolm X. He was simply a genius, I am but a simple man. He was intellectually gifted, passionate, influential, and a brilliant leader of his people. I have yet to do anything of any real circumstance in this world. My point in the above paragraph is not to advocate for my comparison to the great Malcolm X, but rather to point out how everyone—no matter their background, upbringing, or experiences—undergoes a series of transformations. Jane Roland Martin, author of Educational Metamorphoses: Philosophical Reflections on Identity and Culture, argues these transformations, these small or large educational experiences, are the foundation of our personal, social, and intellectual development. She asserts, “Throughout history and across cultures education… has changed the way we humans walk, talk, dress, behave, view the world, and live our lives. In other words, it has utterly transformed us” (1). Malcolm X experienced four of these transformations; one in his development into a model schoolboy, one as he fell into a criminal life on the streets of Harlem, one in rise to a infamous, influential leader, and finally one in his discovery of a humble, beneficent faith. I experienced several as well, including my life as a young troublemaker, development into a driven student bent on becoming a teacher, fall into shame during my parent’s divorce, and rise to a passionate, confident follower of Christ. According to Martin, education serves as a “powerful maker and shaper of human lives” (2).
As part of Martin’s exploration into how educational metamophoses “make and shape” our lives, she discovers that we must abandon two common assumptions: education resides only within the confines of a school and education necessitates improvement (48). Personally, this first thought is rather significant. Although I am ashamed to admit it, when I used to imagine education, my mind immediately leads to school. However, lately my ignorance on this issue has become quite apparent. My first few weeks in the classroom have served as a constant bombardment as to how my students are not simply blank sheets of paper when they arrive at school each day. Each student comes to school with backpacks filled with cultural backgrounds, identity issues, past experiences (good and bad), personal bias, unique personalities, relational concerns, painful memories, happy memories, emotional inconstancies, and varying socio-economic backgrounds. To assume that these students are only going to learn from what YOU teach them that day is simply ignorant. We as teachers must respect the significant educational experiences that occur outside our classroom. On the second day of my internship, a young female student announced her homosexuality to me during passing time. She then went on to describe how her ex-girlfriend had attempted to commit suicide the previous evening, and how she was leaving school to be with her partner at the hospital. Clearly, this student was learning much more about life from what was occurring outside of my classroom, than inside of it. Citing argues, “Schools can make people dependent on school without really educating Somehow my lesson on Sophocles’ character development in Oedipus Rex did not hold a candle next to the raging fire of fear, regret, relationship issues, and identity complexes burning within that student. I walked her down to the counselor’s office to then be picked up and taken to the hospital, and have never regretted my choice. I know that if I had simply understood education as schooling—if I had ignored the true, applicable learning experiences life presents everyday outside of the classroom—I would have failed that student.
The second assumption about education Martin argues must be torn down is that education necessitates improvement. As Malcolm X’s experiences in junior high school with the “realistic” teacher clearly portray, education does not necessarily lead to improvement. By being told he should give up on his dream of becoming a lawyer, by experiencing that painful bout of education, Malcolm X’s life was immediately led down a road paved with pain, crime, and prison. Martin explains it much more clearly: “Malcolm’s metamorphosis into a hustler was not brought about by a wave of a wand or the administration of a drug… it was due to education in the broadest sense of that term… that acknowledges that education can be either educative or miseducative” (49). In similar fashion, learning of my parent’s divorce lead me to a dark place of shame and frustration. Simply put, education cannot only lead to a life enriched, but also a life worsened.
So what does this information mean for teachers? Should these broken assumptions and new ways of thinking undermine our passion and commitment to teach? No. Never. By reflecting on Martin’s ideas, along with our own experiences in the classroom, we must never forget that teaching is a fragile, sacred art. As sculptors carefully, painstakingly form beautiful statues from rocks, so to must teachers sculpt. We, like the sculptors before us, must see our students for the potential they possess. We must see them filled with a potent power to transform, and be willing—in insatiable courage—to support their transformations. With love, affection, understanding, and patience, we must see to it that the transformations we encourage be ones of improvement. With a continually widening perspective, we must see to it that we support our students’ education outside of the classroom. With constant reflection and refined thought on the complexity of students’ identity formation—from gender to ethnicity—we as teachers must always respect our students as individuals, and treat them as such. In all that we do, we must always remember that life is simply made up of a series of educational metamorphoses, and that the decisions we make as educators will undoubtedly affect the lives of our students for years to come.
Martin, Jane R. Educational Metamorphoses: Philosophical Reflections on Identity and Culture. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. Print.