Mrs. Kelly: Founder of American Identities
By Fatimah Alyaqoub
Imagine being a high school teacher, teaching the first year of a new class that you decided to start. Got it? Ok, now imagine that one of your students is a vegetarian but never mentions it. Next, imagine another student talking about his lunch, how he loved his burger. Then the meat-eater goes on to verbally attack vegetarians, saying that humans weren’t meant to be vegetarians, that meat is the basis of the human diet, how all vegetarians are hippies who think animals are adorable and therefore should be protected from human consumption, and how vegetarians only eat kale, occasionally a kale smoothie on the side. Keep in mind that no one knows that there is a vegetarian student in the room, and neither do you. But suddenly, that vegetarian decides to tell the class about his diet. He took pride in it and explained how all of meat-eater’s stereotypes were wrong. What would you do? Would you interfere? Or would you let the two students talk it through and better understand each other? Well, Mrs. Kelly, founder of American Identities, was once faced with this exact situation, but instead of a meat-eater and a vegetarian, it was an ignorant straight student and a gay boy.
Mrs. Kelly didn’t know how to respond. At the time, she was the only teacher in the classroom. She felt as though all her students were waiting for her to say something as the adult in the room. But she kept quite,“I could feel my face getting all red because I didn’t want the kids in the room to feel hurt and offended,” she said, “but I also knew that the boy who was talking wasn’t doing it maliciously, he really believed in the things he was saying, and before I could even say anything, one boy in the class, he was really quite he barely said anything, he just looked at him and said ‘well I’m gay so what you’re saying is completely false, I don’t fit any of those things that you’re saying.’”. She made the right choice to not interfere, she later found out that during the exchange between the two students, it was the first time the gay kid had told anyone he was gay. It was his moment, he was so calm and respectful that she didn’t find it necessary to get involved.
That boy changed everyone in the room, including Mrs. Kelly. If she did say something, that moment wouldn’t have been as powerful. That’s the thing about Mrs. Kelly, she’s a listener, she lets students have their moments, those moments where they can speak their minds without fears of being judged by her in an authoritative manner. When I asked her friend and co-worker, Mrs. Iacobucci, what trait makes Mrs. Kelly the great teacher that she is, she explained how, “she is one of the best listeners, it’s very hard for teachers to listen to their students, and she listens with respect, no matter who is speaking.”
Mrs. Kelly started American Identities with hopes of giving students who are often vulnerable to the repulsive environment in America an opportunity to be heard. It started with seven black and hispanic students who felt as though there was nowhere for them to express their thoughts and emotions. So, she spoke with the administration and set up a class with intentions of giving those students a voice. As the years went by, more and more students signed up for the class, and every year the class got more diverse. Occasionally, there’s students who sign up because “they think it’s a debate class”, as Mrs. Kelly said. That only adds to the challenge of having so many differing political views, races, ethnicities, and sexualities, all in the same room, discussing very personal topics. Mrs. Kelly described how one of the hardest parts of teaching this course is “to put most of my emotions to the side and to help kids navigate how to have conversations without being so emotional, when it’s appropriate to be emotional, and when it’s time to put those emotions aside.” When she’s especially passionate about a belief, it becomes harder for her to hold back her agenda and try to keep herself from pressuring students who might not have the same views as her. She believes that, “It’s better, in certain moments, for kids to be able to share their voice without feeling like they’re going to be judged for not having the same view as me”.
Times got even tougher after the 2016 election. Mrs. Kelly explained how the day after the election was one of the hardest in American Identities, “I started my morning with two girls just crying in my classroom,” she said. She explained how one girl, who was from the Dominican Republic, was crying in response to the anti-immigrant sentiment, how she was frightened by the way she might get treated by some of her classmates. The other girl had a transgender brother, and the current political situation disheartened her. I asked Mrs. Kelly if she thinks the class is more important now, in the trump era, than it was a couple years ago. She explained how it’s always important to have classes such as American Identities because it’s about making people recognize the ways in which they themselves are ignorant, like that kid who was verbally attacking gays without actually knowing any facts, but she also thinks that it might be more important today because of the current political situation, she explained how, “Maybe it is more important now because I guess our politics have become so polarized that if you believe one thing you can’t also believe the other thing at the same time...so I guess that’s why it’s more essencial now, it’s getting people to understand that you can have two truths at the same time”
Another part of its continual importance is it’s crucial value of student voice, the opportunity for teachers to listen to and view students with respect, as Mrs. Kelly explained, “The most powerful thing about the class is being able to see high school students as people”. The class also gives students the opportunity to view each other differently, and the opportunity to find out who they truly are. CHS student, Max Macort, who is currently taking American Identities, explained how, “Your experience as a student depends on your classmates, you learn so much about your classmates, and you’re going to learn a lot from, whether it’s Mrs. Kelly, or Mr. Murphy, or Mrs. Iacobucci, and I feel like their greatest contribution is enabling people to have these profound realizations about themselves and about each other.”
Mr. Murphy and Mrs. Iacobucci are the two other teachers who now teach the identities course along with Mrs. Kelly. Mrs. Iacobucci met Mrs. Kelly when they both started working at CHS. Before working at CHS, Mrs. Kelly went to Bridgewater State University where she originally hoped to pursue creative writing, but her passion for kids pushed her towards becoming a teacher. She’s originally from a small, largely white town in Connecticut, so growing up, she found a desire to meet diverse people and “not be stuck in this white bubble”.
When I asked Mrs. Iacobucci what she felt that Mrs. Kelly is most passionate about, she replied with, “She’s always attracted to books about race, she's constantly reading about racial issues in our country, she just seems to be drawn to that”. In general, she has a passion for raising the voices of students who don’t always get heard, Mrs. Kelly explained how “You’re always hearing from white people, you’re always hearing from males, you’re always hearing from straight people,” but she wants to focus solely on the students who often don’t have the chance to get their voice across. Sometimes she gets backlash for “excluding” white people, but in her mind, she’s giving minorities moments where they can express who they are, while white people don’t usually need that because they have opportunities to voice their thoughts every day. She rejects the phrase “all lives matter” because, “Obviously all lives matter but it’s taking away from the people who have been oppressed in our society”.
With the student led gun-reform movement currently taking place, I asked Mrs. Kelly if she thinks she is leading students to become activists, “In this context, I don’t feel like the leader, I feel like I’m being lead”, she said, “I just feel so appreciative that I am in a classroom with those minds and those hearts, and if they ever see me as someone that’s inspiring them, that’s awesome.” She’s opposes the adults who are criticising students for voicing their opinions on serious issues such as gun reform, she believes that if students are that young, they can’t even vote, and yet they care so much about the world, care about changing the world for the better, they should take a stance because they are the future leaders.
I asked her what she was looking forward to for American Identities. “In the long term, I’m always looking forward to the different kids in the room”, she explained, “whose identity is gonna be one that someone in the room has never had experience with, and is now going to feel like ‘oh I know a little bit’”. She hopes the class remains popular among CHS students, and that 5 years from now the societal situation isn’t so indignant that the word “politics” can’t even be mentioned. “I hope that people could bring that back, where you can just sit in a room with people that differ from you and be able to talk without getting so angry.”
As for the students, she hopes they continue to find the courage speak up, and she hopes adults give them the biggest possible platform for them to do so. “I was a very quiet kid growing up,” she said, “but my mom has always said to me ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’...It’s about times when something doesn’t go my way, or I didn’t fight for it but I wanted it to happen and I just stayed quite. She says, ‘you’re only gonna put grease on the wheel that has a noise, so only the squeaky wheel gets the grease’. She’s like ‘you need to speak up, you need to go after what you want’… and my students show me that too, like the kids who are similar to me when I was in high school, when they do speak, like the gay boy in the story I was telling you, those moments when it would've been much easier for him to be silent but he knew that this is the moment that it’s much harder to talk but it’s essential that you speak”.