I was recently discussing the symbolism of apples with my brilliant students when I had an epiphany. After reading some of Zitkála-Šá’s memoirs of her experiences at a residential school, we discussed how apples often symbolize The Fall. Temptation. Evil. And…knowledge.
Especially forbidden knowledge.
Most teachers I know could fill an orchard with the apple-themed decor students have given them over the years. Could the apple stitched on those cute smocked outfits on the first day of preschool really be the same as Eve’s forbidden fruit? Furthermore, could the current backlash against education have something to do with K-12 being a female-dominated space?
Teaching has always been seen as a low-status occupation in the United States. During the Puritan period, the education of children focused on religion, and mothers were charged with making sure their little ones could read the Bible and The New England Primer.
During the revolutionary period, many families began hiring outside help to tutor their children, and most of these tutors were men, but the task of educating the youths became feminized again with the rise of industrialization. Teaching was seen as a low-status job, the domain of young, single women who would only do this temporarily until they got married and started their own families.
It was, essentially, the “flipping burgers” of the Industrial Age–an essential job, sure, but only meant to be a temporary, and certainly not deserving of a livable wage. After all, if these young, smart, single women could support themselves, then what would motivate them to get married?
Women still far outnumber men in K-12 education. It is also still one of the most underpaid, undervalued professions in our country, even though no other professions would exist without it. Teachers were hailed as heroes during the early stages of the pandemic, especially during lockdown when parents realized just how much our jobs entail, but it seems that we’ve picked right back up where we were before COVID. The same state governments that issue our teaching certifications are now telling us that they don’t trust our professional judgment. Politicians are stoking unfounded fears to divert much needed funding from public education, and many parents are left fearful and suspicious that those left in loco parentis are leading their children astray like Eve led Adam, although in this case, the temptation is “inappropriate” and “immoral” books.
The ones who lose out the most in this twisted blame game are, unfortunately, the kids.
The books most often deemed “inappropriate” and “immoral” are texts in which marginalized students can see their reality reflected back at them and realize that they’re not alone. Furthermore, these books often teach students how to survive in a world that sometimes seems hell-bent on breaking them down, and that kind of knowledge is dangerous to the status quo.
But maintaining the status quo is dangerous to the survival of our republic. In neglecting to tell the whole story, we’re neglecting to prepare kids to face reality. We’re denying them the tools they need to tear down old, hurtful systems and build newer, better, fairer ones in which that mythological American Dream might actually be able to become a reality. We’re denying our country the ability to heal from its mistakes and grow into a more perfect union.
What’s happening in Florida right now is not new. Florida has a long history of animosity towards Black history. I recently learned about Harriette and Harry Moore, “fugitive pedagogues” who were first fired from Florida’s Brevard County school system, then assassinated by the Ku Klux Klan. The Moores are considered the first martyrs of the Civil Rights movement. The Klan bombed their home on Christmas night, which also happened to be the Moores’ twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.
I’m a product of both Florida and Alabama public schools, but I learned about the Moores from the Zinn Education Project on Instagram at 37 years old. Is this the Black history Ron DeSantis doesn’t want Florida students to learn about in their AP African American Studies classes? Wonder why?
Sometimes the truth hurts. I get that. But no problem has ever been solved by covering it up.
I teach middle and high school, and let me tell you: the kids are alright. They’re smart, and it’s not hard for them to make connections from the past to the present. You can try to hide the truth from them all you want, but they’ll find it on their own, and they’ll remember your attempts at deception when they’re old enough to vote.
Which will be soon.
Are you nervous yet?
As for me, I often feel like I’m teaching like my hair’s on fire, trying to impart this “forbidden knowledge” before Alabama follows suit. In our current political environment, Governor Kay Ivey’s pledge to focus on education in this term feels ominous, especially since the Alabama GOP recently announced that DeSantis will be the keynote speaker at a fundraiser in August.
Ivey’s recent partnership with Queen Dolly gives me hope, though, that Alabama is moving in the direction of giving its children more books, not fewer, at least for now.
I know that DeSantis’s brand of demagoguery is tempting, but I’m hoping Governor Ivey’s previous experience in the trenches as a high school teacher will prevent her from taking a bite.
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