The six virtues in action

Guest blog by Lauren Raper

History and Spanish

East Rowan High School, NC

The first school I taught at was a small, rural high school. It was not known for racial diversity or acceptance. The racial demographics were something like 85% Caucasian, 10% African American, and 5% other. I never saw any overt racism, but there seemed to be an odd undercurrent, and race was never discussed at faculty meetings.

Out of the blue the assistant principal approached me about being the advisor of a step team. She explained that several African American students wanted to form a team to perform at pep rallies and basketball games.

I told her I needed to think about it. I was a first year teacher, swamped with schoolwork and a second job, and I knew nothing about a step team. I had seen college teams perform, but that was it.

I was also apprehensive because step dancing is an expression of African American culture. All the students who wanted to form the team were African American. Frankly, I was afraid this would not go over well in our school.

After mulling over the situation, however, I agreed to be the advisor. I agreed because I believe as many students as possible should have the opportunity to be active in their school.

Our team was small at first, totaling five students. I explained that this needed to be a student-led effort. They needed to be responsible for routines, music, and attendance. They understood and our team flourished.

I must admit I was nervous before our first pep rally performance. I wasn’t sure how the student body would react. I was joyous when the team performed a great routine and the student body stood in applause. At that moment I realized, our students had never seen this sort of performance, and they were amazed at the talents of our team.

In the following weeks the team grew, and we had one Caucasian student join. I taught this young woman in class and she raved about the performance and asked questions about when the team met and how they prepared. I encouraged her to come and give it a try. All the members of our team, now totaling eight, embraced her as a new member.

Our next performance was at a home basketball game. Again, I was nervous because I was unsure of how the community would react. The team had a great routine. They performed it well; and again, to my surprise, the crowd reacted the same as our student body. People stood and cheered. I left that night riding high and scolding myself for not having faith in our students and community.

The following week at school I noticed that our Caucasian member, who had performed with us at the game, was much quieter in class. Then she stopped coming to practice. When I conferenced with her, she explained that she had been teased for being the only white girl on the team. They said she was doing “black dancing.” Her feelings were hurt, but I encouraged her to stay on. I even learned a few steps myself, to show her that I would perform with them if it made her feel more comfortable. Several of the African American team members reached out to her as well.

I wish I could write that the young woman returned and performed with us again, but that did not happen. Team members asked about her; we discussed her feelings and everyone said they understood.

Throughout the school, however, this situation opened the door to a productive conversation about race and peer pressure. I was proud of my team and the young woman for how they handled the situation and for their willingness to speak about their feelings and experiences in an honest, productive way.

Our step team finished the year, continuing to perform at pep rallies and games. Unfortunately, there was not enough interest among students the following year. I like to think, however, that our step team went into uncharted, difficult territory, and helped educate our school and community about diversity, acceptance, self-expression, and appreciation for other people.

When I think about the six virtues in action I think about this experience. Everyone — the step team, the young woman who was teased, the student body, and our community — exhibited the virtues.

The team displayed understanding and imagination as they organized the team. They understood “stepping” and their imaginations enabled them to develop captivating routines. They also understood the value of hard work. This was something they wanted to accomplish and they worked hard to achieve it.

They also showed courage and strong character. This activity had never been tried at our school, and the team understood the possibility of backlash. They knew they had to work hard to achieve a high-quality performance, which they chose to do in front of their peers and community. These students “put themselves out there” and in the process helped open the minds of many people.

This was a beautiful gift to our school. Team members demonstrated that it is OK to express themselves, to go against the crowd, to try something different. They reached out to make themselves and our school better.

They were also humble. I never heard a single boast. After that first pep rally, however, when the students stood in applause, team members were smiling ear to ear. They also shared their enthusiasm with others. They reached out to anyone who wanted to be on the team. No step or dance experience was required, just a desire to learn.

Our student body and community also exhibited the virtues.  It is courageous to open your mind and be accepting of something new. I cannot say the entire student body or every spectator was accepting (obviously), but most people enjoyed and appreciated the team and their routines.

Their applause and appreciation also showed understanding and generosity. They gave the team their acceptance, which shows humility. Although few would recognize it, the acceptance of our students and community was also a realization that unfounded prejudices may still exist. At least this allowed the door of their minds to be cracked open.

The young woman who participated and left the team also exhibited the virtues. She showed imagination and understanding through her willingness to try something new. She showed generosity in her willingness to give her time to learn and appreciate another culture. She had no dance background, but she showed great humility in her accomplishments and was grateful to her teammates for helping her. Most of all this young woman demonstrated courage and strong character.  She extended herself and opened herself to new experiences. Even in the face of prejudice she modeled acceptance and courage to the students and community.

As an educator I am fortunate to work with young people who accept these kinds of challenges on their way to developing the six virtues of the educated person.


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