Life is a book with many pages. But many children are told, by everything they see around them, that they aren’t a vital part of the world’s story. Some are victims of racism and hate. Others are refugees, seen as aliens in their new homes. Many suffer from economic deprivation. Whatever makes a child seem like an outsider, whether it is their sexuality, gender identity, neurodiversity, or physical disability, has the potential to rob them of the opportunity to be main characters in their own narrative.
When a child’s very identity is displaced from their culture and educational system, how can they find their place in the world? When I was a child, I faced a similar question: How do you plan to write the story of your future when every day might be your last?
In the middle of the Bosnian genocide, my mom and my teacher both tried to persuade me to take part in a math and physics competition. The winner got a scholarship to study abroad. As a top student and unapologetic nerd, I had a good chance of winning.
“What’s the point?” I asked them. “I’m going to die anyway.” Not only was I living without normal schooling, food, or electricity—I was also dodging bombs and living in fear of the rape camp I’d be sent to if Serb forces entered my besieged city of Bihać. How could I allow myself to feel hope? There was a war in my country and another war inside me as I struggled to survive emotionally, fought for resilience. In refusing to compete for that scholarship, I effaced my own nature by denying my intellect and ambition. I succumbed to the narrative of our attackers—that I didn’t matter.
With so many teachers gone, dead, or injured—including my mom, a teacher who was deafened when a missile hit our house—someone had to step in. I was recruited to teach elementary-age kids English, a language I’d only been teaching myself since the beginning of the war. Suddenly, I mattered to someone’s survival. I knew my purpose, which is a crucial moment in a journey to resilience.
As an author and a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, I know now that my purpose in life is building our collective resilience to hatred. I work with a team of researchers on training educators to reimagine resilience. During the war, when I lived my life day by day, I couldn’t have envisioned the path that would lead me to where I am now.
For young people now who feel trapped and powerless in horrific circumstances, whether here in the United States, Ukraine, Bosnia, or anywhere, there is a purpose. As educators, we cannot define that purpose for them—students need to engage in self-discovery and exploration themselves—but we can facilitate that process.
Classroom practices can either inspire students to become their resilient selves or displace them from the classroom in the same way that a refugee is displaced from their home. For far too long, we have focused on content mastery rather than the individual resilience, belonging, dialogue, and empathy that strengthen our collective resilience to hate. The effects of that neglect are seen in the rapid rise of hate and radicalization in the United States.
When a student and their narrative are displaced from our curricula and classroom dialogues, they turn to informal and potentially radicalizing spaces where their stories can be told and their grievances can be freely expressed. If we ban talking about what matters to our students, they will find someone who will listen. Extremists are very good listeners. They secure new followers by capitalizing on students’ grievances and presenting them with “solutions” that can lead to radicalization.
Extremists are very good listeners. They secure new followers by capitalizing on students’ grievances and presenting them with “solutions” that can lead to radicalization.
Displacing diverse stories from our curricula also affects those in whose name these stories and identities are being educationally displaced. If a school population that is predominantly white, for example, doesn’t include curricula involving people of different races, the white children will find their own ways to define the “other,” including from friends, media, or online spaces that may promote prejudice. This is where the extremist groups propagate their own narratives that dehumanize and instill fear of the targeted other.
Recent research shows that even online games have been used effectively by extremists to prey on American youth. While American policymakers and parents argue about which books to ban and whose stories to displace from the curricula, extremists are growing their ranks by recruiting our youth into their hate platforms.
Critics of diverse stories have failed to recognize that diverse narratives are a method of building our collective resilience to hate. Take my story—The Cat I Never Named— as an example. It is less likely for an American Muslim girl to be a target of hate or feel displaced from the classroom if she and her classmates get to read about my life’s story: a resilient, nerdy Muslim girl who played volleyball, loved her cat, and taught herself English while surviving the Bosnian genocide. If she is heard, seen, and represented in the classroom, the Muslim student is less likely to seek an alternative place of belonging online.
But a Muslim student isn’t the only one benefiting from this story. It is also less likely for a non-Muslim student to be susceptible to extremist recruitment or to engage in bullying of a Muslim peer after reading a story like mine and realizing they are alike in their love of education, sports, music, and pets. If we sterilize textbooks and classroom conversations from genuine and diverse narratives, we are redirecting our students—all our students—to the unmonitored online spaces where extremists lurk for new recruits.
Using diverse narratives in our classrooms is not about taking power away from one group in the name of another but, rather, helping all our students become more resilient to hate in the undeniably diverse America. Our America.
A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2022 edition of Education Week as How Do You Write the Story of Your Future When Every Day Might Be Your Last?