Just How Golden is Silence?

Silence is golden. It’s so cliché and yet probably, at some point in our lives, we’ve all encountered moments when we have believed with every ounce of our being that indeed, silence is golden. When we’ve been in a noisy elementary school lunchroom, needed quiet time to study, or been surrounded by people who like to hear themselves talk. In these instances silence IS golden. However, in my efforts to be a better critical educator, I have come to the conclusion that silence is not always so ideal.

Now that I have become more mindful of how I respond when students make judgmental comments, I have realized that my silence is often misinterpreted as agreement. I have tried to be more cognizant of how I respond, especially now that I know that my silence betrays what my inner self longs to say. The trouble begins when I am caught in the moment and am unable to craft a sensible, meaningful, compassionate response. I seem to be unable to think on my feet, and I end up flustered, tripping over my words. The Lord blessed me with many gifts, but spontaneity of speech is not one of them. In fact, it usually follows that after I speak, I become worried that perhaps my silence would have been more “golden” than the inadequate words I uttered.

Let me recount a recent experience to give you an idea of how my fear of saying the wrong thing often paralyzes me into saying what amounts to virtually nothing at all. I was taking my second grade students to their computer lab class one Friday, and the class before us wasn’t quite finished yet. As we stood outside waiting to be invited in to the computer lab, my students noticed that they had a substitute teacher for computer lab time.

“Aww, Ms. Morgan isn’t here today,” I heard some students whisper to one another.

A couple of the boys in my class, however, were quite pumped to have a young male substitute teacher, and they made comments about having never had a “boy teacher” before. It seemed as though the suggestion of a male teacher in the classroom was somewhat foreign to them. In a quiet voice, I reminded them that we had plenty of “boy teachers” at our school, and I started to name off our principal, PE coaches, and others when I was rudely interrupted by one of my students who commented that the only boy (adult boy that is) at the school was the janitor.

In an attempt to help him – and his classmates – understand that we can learn from people in all kinds of positions, I asked, “Well, can a janitor be a teacher?  Can you learn something from your janitor?” To which the boy offensively replied, “Yeah, I learn something from my janitor every day. . . that I don’t want to be one!”

Of course, his classmates laughed and snickered at his comment, while I found myself aching to interject something meaningful. But I was at a complete loss for words. Why was I, a seasoned teacher, not able to say something that might cause this young boy and his classmates to re-examine their belief systems? Was I afraid I might say the wrong thing? Was I worried that it would lead to a risky discussion? I’m still mad at myself for not having the perfect “comeback” to the boy’s snide remark. My belief system was screaming at me on the inside because what he said was hurtful and judgmental, but why did I struggle so much with what to say?

In retrospect, I can think of all kinds of things I could have said to inform my students about things we can learn from our janitor: how to fix desks, how to work a walkie-talkie, how to use equipment to safely move large objects, how to keep spaces clean, how to be sanitary, how to schedule jobs, how to earn the respect of others. The list could go on and on. But that’s just it. The lessons aren’t nearly as powerful after the fact. I’ve discovered a need for myself as an educator. I need some training on how to be a more critical educator and what to do when I find myself wading through the murky waters of social justice issues. I want to prove to myself that what is golden is not silence but an ability to speak words that transform the minds of students and allow them to see situations differently. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” I couldn’t agree more.

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