I have a confession: my favorite movie, ever, is the 2000 Disney film, "Remember the Titans," starring Denzel Washington. It centered on the true story of a newly appointed African-American coach and his high school team on their first season as a racially integrated unit in 1971.
And, it so happens that I too attended that same school in Alexandria, Virginia in 2005, and played football for T.C. Williams High School Titans.
It's a sports film, and hometown experience, whose lessons on tackling racial division with young people through practicing empathy and resilience, are what I've tried to embed in my teaching; especially as a black male educator teaching history in a diversely populated high school.
So, when the first two weeks at a new job at Cambridge Rindge and Latin Public High School in Cambridge, MA began, in the midst of an ongoing divisiveness nationwide, that famed Disney film came through in the best way.
The first two weeks of school was centered on students reading, watching, and discussing the current debate on contesting American symbols: national anthem protest with NFL and pop warner football players, historic statues of the past, and a banner on racism shown at a Boston Red Sox game. With such confusion, questions naturally arose among these students on why it was happening, and how to progress through it all.
"If this has always been going on, and there are systems in place that protects such division, it's defeating to think it's possible to see the light at the end of all of this," shared one student.
I remember looking at an entire class of many identities, seated in groups of similar and different connections. And, internally, I remembered a scene from that Disney film, of Coach Boone (played by Washington) jogging with his players in the middle of the night, and having them stop in a field in Gettysburg, and saying this to them:
"This is where they fought...fighting the same fight that we are still fighting among ourselves today...Hatred destroyed my family. You listen, and you take a lesson...If we don't come together right now...we too will be destroyed, just like they were...you will respect each other. And maybe... we'll learn to play this game..."
So I told them to look at each other; look at me; there was a time where this classroom wouldn't have looked like this decades ago. There was a time where division was accepted, and for many, it still is today. But, this diverse classroom is proof of how cracking such foundation is possible: that when we learn, early on, about who we are, what symbols mean to different people, and how we should try to learn from each other to be better, then that will be the norm we can embrace together, despite and in spite of everything. Especially in this country.
"Yeah, you're right," said a student.
As cliche as it may sound, it's important for teachers, coaches, athletes, and students to remember that we all are a part of the same team. And each year, there are challenges that happen among, and outside, of us, that causes doubt, obstacles, mistakes, and frustration.
When they happen, it's key for us to try and remember that it is possible to push through it all, bettering ourselves along the way. When lessons that connect the past with the present; shared real experiences are allowed; and a focused goal to how to inch towards common resolution are presented in a classroom...history shows that there's a winning track record of success in any setting (sports, schools, communities, a country).
It's important for teachers, coaches, athletes, and students to remember that we all are a part of the same team.
And hopefully, maybe others will too use our playbook on how to learn, and play better, also.
And for anyone wondering: those (Falcons, and not Titans) students of mine at Cambridge Rindge and Latin have been, thus far, undefeated in learning and winning together as a unit this school year.