I was sitting in the top row of bleachers, my assigned seat in the supervision chart that never seems to change. Several mothers and their children walked out on the gym floor. The moms were all breast cancer survivors, part of our school’s Think Pink Week celebration. As I shushed a group of girls who laughed during this solemn moment, I wished I wasn’t stuck up there with kids who showed how little they cared by the distance they set between themselves and the action. Hadn’t several of them raised their hands a few minutes ago to indicate someone they loved had battled cancer?
As the students around me plugged in their ear buds and turned down the brightness on their screens, I guiltily breathed a sigh of relief. I should have asked them to put their electronics away, but I didn’t see the point. Instead, I turned back to the assembly and took a good look at the cancer-surviving moms and their children.
As usual, they all appeared to be white, unlike the students I was sitting with.
At Liberty High School, located in Hillsboro, a suburb of Portland, Oregon, almost half of our students are students of color (45.2 percent). We teach the children of Intel employees living in fancy digs around Orenco Station, the offspring of Helvetia farmers who count their relationship with the land in generations, the denizens of suburban sprawl, and the sons and daughters of recent immigrants.
But you wouldn’t know this by coming to our assemblies.
Teachers wonder why so many of our Latina/o students (33 percent of the student body) choose not to get involved during assemblies. But often something is wrong in the way we ask. We accuse our Latina/o students of being lazy (Why won’t they stand up?) or apathetic (Don’t they want to feel included?) when we should be questioning what’s unfolding right before our eyes.
I leaned over and whispered to a colleague, “How come only white moms get cancer?”
He laughed, but I hadn’t meant it as a joke. For some time I’d been wondering about the hidden messages we send students through assemblies, messages of belonging to kids who are regularly given a voice, and messages of exclusion to everyone else.
Whether we like them or not, assemblies are often the only opportunity to gather as an entire school community. That’s why it is imperative for all of our students to see themselves reflected in our assemblies. When we distill our community gathering time into yet another opportunity to parade privileged and traditionally recognized students across the gym floor, we send our student body a dangerous message: The world is run by white guys and you should probably get used to it.
At least at our school, there is a lack of diversity in leadership programs. If a diverse group of students isn’t planning assemblies, how can we expect these events to feature the faces or concerns of our diverse population? Another issue is how students are chosen to be part of the assemblies; if no one is thoughtfully regulating who gets behind the microphone, then the same students (in our case, white males) will be featured all the time.
That’s why it’s crucial for us as educators to pay more attention to assemblies.