It was not a hard assignment. Eight to ten sentences of the seventh grade version of an argumentative thesis. Decide whether the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond should stay or should go. An article to read and a video to watch. Both sides clearly presented. I listen to my son and his friends debate this as they attempt to formulate their arguments (something my son dreads, because he hates the conflict of it all). My son’s friends are all smart and articulate seventh graders. They meet the challenge well.
Most of them have decided that the stature should stay, and they can clearly articulate reasons why. Robert E. Lee got all A’s at West Point. He built an iron ship. He was the grandson of Washington’s favorite general. There is some debate among the boys as to whether Lee was a general for the Union or for the Confederacy. But they talk it out and get it right — he was a Confederate General. At this point, I ask one question — not because I am looking for a debate, but because I generally want to hear what these boys think. I ask, “If he was Confederate, that means he lost the war. Why do people want to put up statues of the ones who lost the war — would you put up a statue of bin Laden or Hitler or Mussolini?”
Of course, my thirteen year old shuts me down. He is worried that I want to argue, which I don’t. I just want to get them thinking expansively. And I love that his friends will talk to me about this, so I am always willing to engage. But he hates the conflict of it all, and has said a million times in the past month, “I don’t want to think about any of this! I just want to play baseball!” But the assignment is due tomorrow, and so, he thinks about it. After much angst, here is the thesis he comes up with:
“Why do we need a month to show that our lives matter? But why do we need to kill to show that slavery is not the right thing? Why do we build statues for people who lose war? But does the statue affect you personally and if so, how? Is there a way to resolve conflict without violence and war? Who is right? Morgan Freeman says that Black history is American history… is it? Slaves were looked at as 3/5th human, but how can anyone look at me and not see 100%? These are the questions that make me think, that make my brain go TikTok. I think that the statue should stay up, with all the graffiti still on it, to show how complicated our history really is.”
What I realize in reading this is that while the rest of the class is creating a thesis about a statue’s worth, my kid — the one who lives in brown skin — is creating a thesis about his own worth — about whether or not his life matters.
And while I love this teacher fiercely for giving these kids critical thinking skills and tools to know how to think (not “what” to think) and for teaching them to debate well, I also hate that my child still has to argue as to whether he is seen as fully human.
And that the burden of proof falls solely on him, and how well he can craft his argumentative thesis.
Especially when he is thirteen, and just wants to go play baseball.