My passion for teaching literature originally came from the beauty of the words and the power of the stories and emotions conveyed therein. I have always enjoyed sharing the artistry of great literature with my students. When I have compared my work to those such as scientists, mathematicians, historians, it became easy to minimize the importance of teaching literature. It was easy to devalue what I do in the big scheme of things. I teach fiction, after all.
I can tell you the exact date I underwent a complete paradigm shift. On March 15th, 2019, fifty people were murdered during Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, with numerous others gravely wounded. In this small country of 4.5 million, 50 people were killed in mere minutes by a terrorist driven by racist, xenophobic madness.
As I looked in the mirror, fastened my headscarf, and readied for the day’s Friday prayers, I was shaking inside, even though I was a whole hemisphere away from New Zealand. My mind replayed remembrances of other shootings at houses of worship in the United States: less than 5 months ago, 11 people were gunned down in a synagogue during the Sabbath. A few years ago, 9 worshippers at a historic Black church were killed.
I started thinking about the literary characters my students read about: Jade, the young Black collage artist who studies languages. Janna, the Indian-Arab-American Muslim photographer finding her voice. Othello, the magnificent African general who “loved not wisely, but too well.” Shylock, the abused moneylender who cried out, “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?…If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
I asked myself, “What would the world be like if every student grew up reading these stories?” And as I stood there the day of that shooting, eyes full and heart heavy, my back straightened. My head rose up in pride as I realized that I am doing one of the most important jobs on the planet.
Literature saves lives. It opens hearts and minds. Literature brings the glorious vibrancy of humanity to your hands and says, “Here is the heart of humanity, here is the soul of humanity, here are the pains and tears and fears of humanity. Read, feel, and understand.”
As I hold in my hands the literature, I will be teaching my students next year, I think about how my students will be inoculated against hatred through stories and characters. The tales may be fictional, but the realities behind these stories are all too real.
These stories? They are magical. Through them, I open minds. I expand horizons. I open doors of understanding and tolerance. I am a literature teacher, and I am here to change the world.
OTA Literature instructor Merium Khan will be teaching many classes next year at OTA! Her classes include: