Last week I said goodbye to all the students who have hung out with me for 10 months. It’s a bittersweet time of year for teachers because we develop such a strong bond with our students. I’ve graded final exams and I’ll go in this week to clean out my classroom.
But I am still reeling from what some of them wrote in their final essays about a moral or ethical dilemma they faced. After reading their exams I had to get up from my desk and walk around the building. Most high school students are exposed to dystopian plots by reading science fiction stories, but my students have lived through such things.
One essay that particularly stands out was written by an African girl whose best friend disappeared. Nobody knew what happened to her. She knocked on neighbors’ doors and searched the community. She couldn’t believe that her only friend in the world would run away. Three days later the girl was found, barely alive on the edge of town. She was naked and bruised and filthy. My student went with her to a hospital and was there when her friend’s family walked in. Her friend started screaming hysterically and pointing at her own father, saying “get him out of here!” The father was apparently part of a cult that was required to perform savage acts on virgins. He was arrested and thrown in jail, but bribed the prison guards to be released. Shortly after, my student immigrated to the U.S. and her friend moved to another country. Thank god they were able to escape such horrors!
Another boy wrote about a classmate of his, a young woman forced into marriage at age 15. The following year she had a baby but unfortunately her husband died. The village elders accused her of murdering the man, but my student did not believe his classmate was capable of such a thing and stood up for her in front of his grandfather. The elders decided that her punishment would be burying her alive up to her neck then stoning her to death. My student remembered a quote from a movie he’d seen about how all humans have rights, so he went to a priest to speak up for his friend. The priest convinced his grandfather and the elders not to kill her; the girl was exiled to another village with her baby instead. It was his courage to speak up that saved the girl’s life. It’s impossible not to feel the pain of a 15-year-old processing such a real and profound ethical dilemma.
And you thought Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery was fiction?
I’m glad I have the entire summer to recover and plan. What new dilemmas will face these students this summer? I think I will teach differently next year, and I will try to be more sensitive to the quiet students and encourage them to write about their experiences more regularly. I will be thinking about this all summer.