A Lesson in Love
For math teacher Vanessa Cohen Gibbons, creating a supportive, inclusive environment for all Milton students is both challenging and gratifying.
Nearly every stranger who engages me in small talk expresses alarm when I tell them my profession. “You teach high school math AND live in a dorm?” is a typical reaction — often accompanied by a horrified facial expression. I answer in the affirmative, without describing the dozen or so other roles I have on campus. I then follow up with a question about why they are so shocked.
By and large, the people I meet cannot see themselves returning to a high school environment, because they remember feeling alienated as students, both from the subject matter they were asked to learn and from their peers and teachers. It is hard for these acquaintances to understand that the toughest challenge I face — fostering connection — is also the best part of my job. For me, every day at Milton presents an opportunity to help students feel loved by their school.
I know how it feels to go to a school that is not a loving environment. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, a biracial black girl in an otherwise all-white neighborhood. St. Louis is a typical American city in that it affords vastly different opportunities to people depending on their race and socioeconomic status. In middle school, I was no longer one of just a few black kids because my district participated in a busing program. Black students were bundled up and transported in the wee hours of the morning to “better” schools in St. Louis County.
Our “better” school certainly did not love these students. In fact, I remember one white teacher who told me as much. She confided that my relatively light skin and suburban upbringing made me “one of the good ones.” With a long sigh, she complained that none of the teachers knew how to deal with “those black kids from the city.” As horrific as this was, I knew, even as a child, that this teacher meant to pay me a compliment. That interaction served as one of my first lessons about the insidious nature of racism.
In high school, the lack of a loving school environment began to affect my work. I was the only out gay kid in a school of 2,000 and the only black kid in my honors classes. After my middle-school experience, I wondered about the gatekeepers who put me in honors classes. Did they give me these opportunities because I was “one of the good ones”? A few months into freshman year, my locker was graffitied with a homophobic slur, and I was hauled into the principal’s office to explain what I had done to provoke the other students. The principal seemed genuinely concerned as he offered me this advice: “You should try to be normal; then no one would bother you.” I felt hopelessly lost. I could ignore people who obviously meant me harm, but I had no framework for understanding the behavior of adults who made hateful statements without even knowing it. My grades plummeted. By the end of the year I had decided that I would do my learning elsewhere, and ultimately lobbied to fulfill my high school requirements at a community college.
I still think about what would have happened to me had I been more vulnerable to the racist and homophobic messages I received from my schools. What if I had internalized those messages rather than decided that the people delivering them were wrong? What if I hadn’t had the privilege of taking my learning into my own hands? I would probably not have been able to endure my undergraduate physics program, where I was the only black student and one of a handful of women. I would not have earned a Ph.D., nor would I teach at a school like Milton Academy. How many people are denied these opportunities? And what can I do with this access now that I have it?
These questions helped shape my professional motivation. My primary goal is to help Milton become a school that gives all its students access and opportunity by, first and foremost, knowing and loving each child.
Loving our students is a prerequisite for expanding opportunity, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how a school would demonstrate that if it truly loves its students. A loving school affirms marginalized identities, roots out bias, and helps community members learn to mitigate the effects of their bias — regardless of their intentions. A school that loves its students ensures that advanced classes have students from all backgrounds, and that no demographics are underrepresented. A loving school has an adult population that reflects the students’ identities, from faculty and staff to the highest levels of the administration and the board. A school that loves its students holds them to high expectations while also treating them with the tender care that all children crave. In a loving school, students are listened to, cheered for, disciplined, and respected. These ideals drive my personal work as an educator, and I see them as imperative to our continued success as an institution. At Milton, with our resources, credentials, and reputation, our priority must always be to love our students.