I stared at the stack of manila envelopes in front of me and sighed. Instead of learning algebra that day, I would mechanically fold, insert, clasp and stamp for the next 40 minutes. With great hesitation, I picked up an envelope and started stuffing.
“Why does she always make us do her work?” I hissed in my best friend’s ear, referring to our math teacher, Mrs. A.
“Well, at least we get to goof around and not graph inequalities,” she pointed out.
“But we’re not learning anything!” I exclaimed, puzzled as to why neither she nor the others could see that math class was not the time or place to get clerical work experience.
I surrendered to the tedious work. Finally, the bell rang and I returned the ignored textbook to my locker. Later, during silent reading in Language Arts, I absorbed an article about child labor and the large number of children in third-world countries who work to support their families instead of going to school. A classmate interrupted my thoughts to chant, “I broke the silence!” Everyone smiled; our class joke was to wait for silence only to see which audacious individual would shatter it.
Instantly, a light bulb went off in my head and determination surged forth - I would voice my concerns. When I asked others, I found my classmates felt the same way about the waste of class time, but fear prevented them from supporting me. I doubted any change would result, but I spoke up anyway.
The fairly new principal was an approachable guy, but sitting in his office and trying to convince him Mrs. A. was not teaching proved arduous. The words refused to come out of my mouth in any logical order. I inhaled deeply and questioned why I had to open my mouth when only a few months of junior high remained. But my conscience warned that keeping silent made me just as guilty as the wrongdoer.
So I told him everything. I told him about the envelopes, about certain students receiving privileges, and about spending class time on non-math-related projects. I was one of the “privileged” students, but the unjust system offended me.
I walked out of that office relieved of a huge responsibility, and content that I had done my part. I graduated knowing I had forced my peers to reflect on their silence.
The fight for justice continued for two years, but Mrs A. no longer teaches eighth-grade math and her clerical responsibilities have been given to someone else.
I finally understood the power of a voice. The people it represented and the wrongs it could right made “breaking” the silence worth it.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.