The backstory: 7th grade history curriculum covers the first half of U.S. history, from colonial settlement to the Battle of Gettysburg, which is the turning point of the Civil War. 8th grade starts with the Gettysburg Address, finishes out the Civil War and explores into the 20th century. The 8th grade teacher and I planned our courses together so that mine informs what follows. We identified a handful of central themes for the courses; race in the United States is central to our studies..
The period I teach is fully involved with slavery and though we will end just after the Emancipation Proclamation, that’s in May and it’s a very long time for 12 and 13 year olds to wait for some kind of happy ending to a pretty unpleasant story. Moreover, the arc of the slavery story isn’t one that is always headed to the light. From the moment I introduce the topic to the point where we explore the outbreak of the Civil War I remind my classes that, “slavery gets worse before it gets better.”
We’re currently studying the early Industrial Revolution (1820s or so) and the widespread use of the cotton gin. That’s the point where both the institution of slavery and the rhetoric in support of it get a lot more hateful; the “worse” part of the story. 7th graders are notoriously self-absorbed and nearly all of their emotions are intense. But they are also capable of stepping outside themselves to understand the world and because of this they are well-poised to spend some time with some very uncomfortable realities of our American story. Last week, we were looking at the growth of slavery in the United States. During this period, the population of enslaved people grew from 750,000 in 1789 to nearly 4 million by 1860 and this at a time when foreign importation of enslaved people had stopped. Enter uncomfortable realities and my explanation, including the fact that children born to enslaved women were automatically considered slaves themselves. And then I issued my usual reminder….
Me: Remember, slavery gets worse before it gets better.
Student E (with annoyance in her voice): You know, I’m just getting really tired of that phrase.
We all paused and smiled; E had spoken our collective mind. Upon reflection I realized that E’s mixed race family, including a younger sister who is a different race than E, makes her especially aware of the nuances of race, birth, and identity. Her honesty informed all of us and provided a much-needed moment of levity as we explored a painful topic. But for me, it’s also a reminder that 12 and 13 year olds are looking for signs of hope. They’ve yet to fully realize that they are the people who will get to write many of those hopeful and happy endings. But I realize it and with young people like E in charge of our destiny, I know we’re going to be just fine.