A weeke ago, I substituted at an elementary school. In the morning, while the students were eating breakfast in the classroom, I noticed they were absolutely quiet, so quiet, I could hear my breath. I proceeded to say, you all are so quiet. To which a student responded, “Thank you.” I was taken a back as I hadn’t made the comment as a compliment, but rather as a disapproving observation. Breakfast time after all, should be an opportunity for students to build relationships and comradery, and other than teaching students to pay attention and focus during direct instruction and projects, it goes against all child development theory to expect children to be completely quiet all the time, especially during social activities.
And then it hit me. From the time our students are children, their voice begins to be hushed, quieted, until it completely disappears, leaving them with some distant echo of it when they become adults. It is our ability to speak that makes us human; it is the word that affirms to ourselves and the world that we exist. Language is power – it is our power to assert that we are here, that we matter, that we are significant. Paulo Freire states, “To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection.” It is our ability to dialogue that allows us to reflect, and it is through refelction that we mediate the world and act upon it.
Many of the lessons we have learned from our parents, grandparents, and ancestors have been passed down from generation to generation. It is language and the ability to speak it that allowed them to tell stories and pass them down through history, so we can learn who we are and where we come from. Like roots, these lessons and stories hold us firm in our humanity and our completeness. Without our voice, there would be no books, no songs, no film, no theater, and no concrete thoughts and ideas. Through our voice we discover who we are, how we fit in this vast, complicated world, and how we hold steadfast to our authentic selves. “It is in speaking their word that people, by naming the world, transform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which they achieve significance as human beings” (Paulo Freire). Dialogue is an existential necessity. At birth, we enter this world with a powerful cry; the first time we get to exert our right to say, “Hey World! I am here!”
Education must be the practice of freedom, as opposed to the practice of domination. Children must be taught that their voice, beyond being perceived as a disruption in the class, is a powerful right for self-realization and liberation. Overwhelming control, oppression, is a slow death of the soul. As children’s voices are controlled, so are their thoughts and actions, inhibiting their full potential as human beings. When the self-realization of another is hindered, even in the most subtle manner, it is an act of violence. “Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry (dialogue, critical thinking, reflection) is one of violence” (Paulo Freire). When we teach our children to accept this violence, we are inherently teaching them to subjugate themselves to all other forms of violence, leading them to a tortuous journey of dehumanization.
“We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for the final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us . . . The transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation and that always seems fraught with danger. We fear the very visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which is also the source of our greatest strength” (Audre Lorde)
We are conditioned to stay silent, and then we spend the rest of our adult lives learning how to speak again. This idea of moving from self-censorship to self-expression to self-awareness to self-determination and ultimately to liberation has become such a powerful theme in all that I’ve been reading, experiencing, and learning lately. From the writings of Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou to the philosophies and work of Paulo Freire, Augusto Boal, and Myles Horton. And it all starts with the courage to tell our stories and make the space for others to tell theirs.