06/12/2013 05:12 EDT | Updated 08/12/2013 05:12 EDT

Am I Teacher or a Discriminator?

Recently a student of mine wrote in one of her papers that westernized countries should not judge how women are treated in countries other than their own. She went on to explore how in Afghanistan, women are treated equally to that of women in North America; however, what North American women deem to be equal and what Afghani women deem to be equal are different. While the paper was far from considerate of an intellectual and logically organized argument, it continues to sit with me even weeks after reading it.

I have taught in both the United States and now Canada. In my eleven years of teaching high school, I have witnessed heated arguments, separated fists as a result of underlying race issues and even provoked loud debates as a way to indulge some critical thinking around social issues. And yet, this one paper, this common and often neutralized topic that one of my girls brings to her writing, I am terrified of opening up to discussion.

A few weeks before I read this particular essay, another student of mine politely asked if he could be excused five minutes before the end of each class so he could pray. I said no. I also went home fearful that I could lose my job as a result of saying no, or worse, confront some angry parents due to my lack of "compassion or tolerance."

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As an experienced teacher I have always prided myself on being able to handle the situation, whatever the situation might be. I have challenged, provoked, pacified, neutralized and written about issues that unfold in classrooms, essentially smaller examples of our world at large. Still, recently, I am again muted.

The difference between being unable to use my voice when I first started, and now, is that I feel I am making a choice. I am silenced into listening. I am listening to the rants of irresponsible media outlets. I am listening to the more insightful and sophisticated comments of more reputable news sources. I watch in horror with the rest of the world at seemingly frequent terrorist threats, and actualizations. And then I sit in my classroom and listen to my increasingly divergent student body speak their minds.

I have no response. I am conflicted by my own personal, cultural, religious and even gender bias. I can't figure out if the female student who lived in Afghanistan is speaking truth or speaking from the heart of terror. I can't reconcile allowing students to leave class to pray, just as I can't reconcile others who choose to sit during the Canadian anthem because it goes against their religious beliefs. I can't seem to separate my own logical reasoning from my own judgments and prejudice and because of which, results in my own silence.

The questions at the heart of the media, governments around the world and at dinner tables in more countries than simply Canada, are the same questions being silenced in classrooms around the world, due to their very nature. And still, this begs yet even another question, a perhaps more important question: Are the very classrooms that form our Westernized educational system as a whole, still safe places to work out our differences and reach understandings and worldly insight, or have the questions themselves become too difficult to tackle for even the most astute of teachers?

If the answer is yes, what then, are we teaching our students?

By Tammy Wolinsky

The Purple Fig is a community where women share personal and relatable stories; no ego, no shame. We're about life, love and all of the stuff that makes us yearn, squirm, and giggle. These stories make up the authentic and intriguing journey of a woman.

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