In my first months of teaching, I asked my students to explain integrity. Visualize an intersection, said Alex, a tenth grade English Language Arts student. In each lane, from each direction, there are drivers, passengers, and cars; each driver is going somewhere different, but each vehicle momentarily shares the same intersection. Integrity is standing in the middle of the intersection when all the lights turn green. If you can find a point from which to dodge the cars yet see who is driving them, well then you probably have integrity.
Alex suggests that to be integrated with a seemingly chaotic world, one must take the time to know it. This fifteen-year-old with failing grades and an impressive aptitude for sarcasm hasn't read Aaron Ausland's Staying for Tea, but seems to understand it. On that fall day when I had so often thought my teaching inadequate and my students disengaged, I was reminded what it meant to stay for tea-to see the cars from the middle of the intersection-and how incredibly difficult that can be.
When the academic year first began, my passions for learning about race relations, poverty, and gang violence were subdued by my inadequate comparative experience. How could I discuss race as the only white male in the room? How could I discuss poverty as a private university graduate? How could I discuss gang violence as a lifelong suburbanite? What I have learned, and what Staying for Tea reminds us, is that accompaniment begins not with shared experience but with sharing experience. Accompaniment does not require common ground, just the recognition of common humanity.
It is not an easy feat - I didn't know what it meant to have a father in jail; I didn't know why college wasn't their priority; I didn't know what it meant to have parents work four jobs. They didn't know what it meant to never think of race; they didn't know what it was like to leave your front door unlocked; they didn't know how it felt to have too much food. Yet together we have learned that understanding is important, but is not essential. We have learned acceptance - a surprisingly simple notion that requires only the recognition of ourselves in others and others in ourselves. That we have loved and been loved, lost and been lost, disappointed and been disappointed. We share in our humanity. That is enough.
When the death of Trayvon Martin first began to circulate in the news, some students were angry, others indifferent, others disappointed, but all were affected. My students ‘got' Trayvon Martin -- racially, culturally, experientially - and expressed a deeper empathy driven passionately by the absence of acceptance, the absence of Trayvon Martin's human recognition. My students saw a young man who wasn't understood, wasn't accepted, and was so very much like them. And as my students saw themselves in Trayvon Martin, so too did I.
Before George Zimmerman was acquitted, I had asked my students, for what reasons do you believe George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin? Was racial inequity the presumptive catalyst for Trayvon's death? Was Mr. Zimmerman's access to a deadly weapon to blame for his actions? Was it legislative inadequacy that justified Mr. Zimmerman's rationale? Yes, yes, and yes, depending on which student you asked.
Of course, neither I nor my students know George Zimmerman. I do not know why he called Trayvon Martin "suspicious;" why he chose to exit his vehicle despite being instructed not to do so; why he uttered racial slurs; why he felt it absolutely necessarily to pull that trigger; and of course, why his determination to do so will slowly fade from mainstream media, mindsets, and memories. Yet these incomprehensible occurrences, events, and people, are what Staying for Tea is all about. We are called to stay when staying seems so undesirable, when it seems there is no one, no thing, no experience to stay for.
But we often don't. I too often stand beside the intersection watching the cars pass , not wanting to immerse myself in a disruptive reality I know too little or too much about. Why should I see, accept, understand, accompany, or love George Zimmerman? Why should my students? They see themselves in Trayvon's life , I see them in Trayvon's life , and together we see George Zimmerman as the figure who brought that life to end. Yet what Alex unknowingly suggests, what Staying for Tea necessitates, is that just as I have stayed for my students, just as they have stayed for me, so too must we stay for George Zimmerman. We need not understand or accept his choices. We need only accept that one man shares in the life we too have lived -- that he has loved and been loved, lost and been lost, hurt and been hurt. Should that alone not be enough?
To stand in the midst of an intersection and see the drivers, the passengers, the figures that pass seems daunting. I do not know that I can do what Alex demands ; if I can accept, understand, and accompany all those I encounter. Yet what Staying for Tea implores of us is that we are called to stay for one another, to truly see each other, despite the many reasons we have to do otherwise. If we can do so, if my students can do so, if we can stand in that intersection and recognize the humanity that intersects our own experience, we will have made one another better, we will be persons of great integrity, we will be persons of great, unquestionable love. That, in and of itself, is undoubtedly and without question, enough.
Tyler Hobbs is a 2012 Krista Colleague and served at Cathedral High School in Los Angeles as a part of PLACE Corps (Partners in Los Angeles Catholic Education) teaching junior history. He will continue service for one more year.