Today in Spanish class, one of the activities asked where one could learn Spanish in our community, and what were some reasons why one would want to study Spanish. One student, who is definitely smart, funny, and mature, answered “well, all the gardeners and cleaners are Mexican, so I can talk to them.”

The classroom erupted with laughter. Which the look on my face quickly destroyed. Within 10 seconds, you could have heard a pin drop.

I am very sensitive to issues of race…I’m not sure why, other than I think it’s the right thing to be. I’m just your average white girl with enough hint of Hawaiian blood to have been pegged for just about every ethnic group on the planet. To my delight, I am most frequently mistaken for Hispanic. Growing up, I always wanted to be Mexican and speak Spanish. When I was traveling Central America, I was told by a Spanish couple I had a Mexican accent and that it was sexy. I could have flown to the moon.

So when I hear my students in my Spanish elective (as in, they chose to take an extra year-long academically rigorous course, on top of their regular Language Arts and Latin class, which I teach) say something to this effect about wanting to know enough Spanish to communicate with the hired help, it makes me nauseous.

In that moment, with all the things I wanted to say, I felt my body go completely still and cold, and God delivered me these powerful words;

“I don’t like that at all. That’s a wrong thing to say.”

In many situations, with different people, these words will have minimal effect. But in a room full of junior highers that (mostly) adore me, these were efficient and devastating.

I asked that anyone in the room who would work hard to support their family to raise their hands. “Would you clean toilets, mop floors, rake lawns, sell oranges on street corners, make me french fries, if it meant your family would live?” Yes, yes we would.

I asked that anyone in the room whose families had been living on the continent of North America continuously and without interracial marriage for the last 1,000 years to raise their hands. No hands. “So you mean that your families are immigrant families?” Yes, yes they are. “Oh but they came here and already spoke English and had jobs lined up and were welcomed with open arms?” Silence.

A few weeks ago, I had to pull my set of “Apples to Apples” from the classroom, because I found a blank card that someone had labeled “Obama.” They described him as “racist, gun-hating, communist, lying, crying, Pinnochio, terrorist, anti-American Muslim, etc. etc.”

From the mouths of babes.

I remember being in junior high, and discovering all the words and terms that I had never known. I felt their power, but we used them casually. I remember very clearly (and oddly) learning the word “fag” and using it ALL THE TIME, with no idea what it really meant. We called things “gay” and “retarded” without thinking of the power of those words. We swore and we gossiped. We told dirty jokes. But racist ones? Maybe it’s because my best friend was black and I dreamed of being Mexican, but I could never stomach them.

I know they are young, and don’t know boundaries, or what’s appropriate, and mostly repeating what they’ve heard their parents say (shame on you, parents) or what they’ve heard on TV, movies, the internet. But it breaks my heart, and I don’t know how to explain it to them. I teach at a private school, with some very, very sheltered kids, who would get their behinds handed to them in public school for saying some of these things!

After I talked about some of that with my class. I explained how I hear them say things like “I know a joke, but it’s a little racist,” but that’s like saying someone’s “a little dead” or “a little pregnant.” It is racist, and I don’t want that poison around.

The bell rang, and the student stayed behind with tears in their eyes to apologize. I expressed my disapproval, my disappointment and sadness in the words used. This student in particular is a first generation who is fiercely proud of their heritage. So I tried to explain, “you know how proud you are of where you are from? The culture, the language, the music, the people? That’s universal. And I know you have heard stereotypes about your people, and the words hurt you. Do you see that’s the same thing that you did here? If you don’t want those things to be said about you and your family that worked their butt off to get you to this country and bless you with this life, the change has to start with people like you.”

Sometimes as teachers, the most powerful lessons we teach aren’t the Latin grammar, or the Spanish reflexive verbs, or the pre-algebra formulas, but the ones that just spring up on you and you realize you’re holding so much opportunity for young people in the words you say and the actions you model. I can only hope I handled this situation well enough to have made the impact I want.