Stephen Lazar is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan and a longtime Chalkbeat contributor. This past Monday was the last day of a class he teaches called American Stories. His students were anxious about the election and still reeling from the death of one of their classmates 10 days prior and his funeral over the weekend. Here is what he told them.
I normally don’t give speeches to end my class for the same reason I normally don’t share who I’m voting for: I don’t want you all to learn to look to authority figures for answers to big questions that matter. I want you to find those answers yourselves, alongside your peers.
But given that, this past Saturday, many of us attended the funeral of one of our students and friends, and given that tomorrow this nation could potentially elect Donald Trump president, I’m going to make an exception today.
It’s always easy to become cynical. Given Saturday, and what could happen tomorrow, it’s even easier now. But what I want to think about today, and what I hope that you all will take away from this class, is hope.
I want to share with you all two stories about why I choose to continue to have hope despite all the terrible things we experience. The first is about teaching, the second is personal.
The very first class I taught was in Providence Summer School when I was 21. Here I am, this white Ivy League guy with two other white wannabe teachers, teaching a diverse group of students about U.S. history. We decided to teach a class about all the problems of U.S. history — racism, sexism, and classism — and how some have tried to fight against those things.
Toward the end of the first week, we had a parents night, and I’ll never forget one father who asked a question. He was a refugee from El Salvador who had come to the U.S. with his family maybe 10 years earlier. After we explained our plans for the class, he asked us, “What do you plan to teach my child about liberty? What will you teach him about freedom?”
I don’t remember how we answered that question, but I do remember the conversation we had after. This man, who was very well educated and clearly knew more about U.S. history than I did, told me that he and his family had escaped civil war in El Salvador, a war that had killed much of his family. He told me how he now raised his family in this land where, despite the very real problems that he knew about and that we intended to teach about, he knew his children would have a better life here than they possibly could have dreamed of back home. Here, they had hope.
That conversation changed my outlook on how I teach U.S. history.
The second story is a personal one. As you know now, when I was 16, one of my best friends died suddenly. The night before Josh’s funeral, there was a gathering at the local Jewish Community Center to help prepare people for the funeral. Hundreds came, and the session became overwhelming for the group who were closest to Josh, and we left to go cry in another room.
Coincidentally, a very famous rabbi named Harold Kushner was speaking at the JCC that same night, and someone thought to bring him over to speak to us. Rabbi Kushner is famous for writing a book called “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.” At that time, one day after losing one of my best friends, the only thing I could imagine worse than that was losing your child, as I would later learn Rabbi Kushner had years before.
I remember the rabbi talking about how for a long time he was angry at God for taking his son. How he didn’t know how he could get out of bed, let alone be a rabbi to his community, with that knowledge and that anger.
The answer he came to, which I share not because I believe it literally but because he did, is that God wasn’t responsible for the death of his son, or war, or the Holocaust, or other terrible things. Rather, God is what allows us to find comfort in the hug of a loved one, gather the strength to get out of bed, and feel the power of community in terrible times. God is what lifts us up and makes us able to continue.
There, I realized if this guy, who had lost his son — the worst thing I could imagine at the time — could have hope, I could find it too.
So here’s what I want to say to all of you as we end our class together. My hope, more than anything, is that you all will choose to find hope of your own. In times of tragedy, I have been able to find hope in the comfort of friends, family, and my community. And even if Trump wins tomorrow, I will choose to find hope in the fact that this country is constantly changing, and still values liberty and freedom.
More than anything, I find hope in you all. I have no idea how to solve injustice, but I have hope that you, who in 20 years will have thoughts and experiences I can’t even dream of yet, will do something to make this world a better place. I have hope because we don’t know what you will do with the future, and I choose to have faith that you all will do wonderful things to this world you will inherit.
So if you take nothing else from me, I hope you will take this: that no matter what happened to our friend who is gone, that no matter what happens tomorrow, choose to find hope.