7th grade history at my school is the first half of American history. As befits a school with as much diversity as ours, it’s the first step-by-step introduction of American history a student whose been in the school since kindergarten will experience. In 7th grade, we start with colonial settlement and go all the way to the Battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War. 8th grade starts up with the Gettysburg Address and goes through the majority of the 20th century.
Because they are 7th graders, it’s also an appropriate time for us to explore some hard truths about our national story. I love my nation and consider myself a patriot but I’m not blind and I am aware that the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights —— freedom, independence, and political equality ——— haven’t been extended to everyone in the same measure. In the gradual journey that is the American story, those principles are in the process of being extended to all of us. But it’s a slow process and a cursory look at the nation today certainly reveals the inequalities with which we continue to struggle.
My students are universally from a privileged economic class and they know this. Half are students of color, many of them multi-racial children who don’t fit neatly into a single category. They look at their immediate world and see a range of faces and experiences that they value equally, even if their nation does not. The formative president in their imagination is Barack Obama and they are about to watch a presidential race that will feature a front-runner candidate who is a woman.
In this atmosphere, they are sometimes casual about race and gender in a way that surprises me. But this is their world and their own comfort with diversity is reflected in their friendships and ambitions for one another. In the past few weeks, as we’ve explored the nuances of inequality in antebellum America, the injustice of it infuriates them. That I can’t promise a clean and perfect happy ending to the story frustrates me.