Two recent Manchester graduates say they want more from their school’s history curriculum
Like many 17-year-olds, Alexis Gob spends a few hours a week on TikTok. There, she sees videos of viral dances and trendy style tips. But the app has also introduced her to videos that detail the brutality of African chattel slavery in America.
“Like dark stuff. They hid all of it.” Gob said, “The teeth the president has, that is just crazy!”
In one video, Gob learned that President George Washington either used the teeth of the people he enslaved, or sold them.
“Most of the information I get is from TikTok, or whatever outlets they send you to,” Gob said. “But TikTok has so much about Black issues that I learned.”
Gob, a recent graduate of Manchester West High School, said this is just one example of how the local education system is falling short when it comes to teaching all facets of American history. Instead of confronting the brutality of slavery in the classroom, she said she and her peers were largely left to find out the truth on their own — on TikTok or otherwise.
That was also the case when it came to learning about Juneteenth.
Gob and her friend Anna Maly Fabelio, who also graduated last month, say they’re just now understanding the meaning of the holiday: to commemorate when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learned they were freed two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. To this day, Juneteenth is celebrated on and around June 19 to signify when all enslaved Americans were officially liberated. It was first recognized as a federal holiday in 2021.
“Well, when it comes to our education, it was not here," Fabelio said. "We don't even talk about it in school. We never did anything.”
As a first-generation American from a South Sudanese family, and the second person in her family to graduate high school, Fabelio said she feels a responsibility to educate her family about Black history and culture in America.
Looking back, Fabelio and Gob say it’s not just that they wanted more from their history lessons — they also didn’t feel like there was space to discuss current events like Black Lives Matter protests and school walkouts happening in 2021.
Many times, they felt those conversations were cut short because teachers just wanted to move past those topics. Fabelio said it seems like teachers are often “scared” to address these issues because they don’t want to say the wrong thing or offend their students.
“They really shouldn’t be [uncomfortable].” Fabelio said, “Because they have no reason to. They are educators too, to educate us. Don’t just let things go.”
But both students say their art teacher, Richella Simard, was a bright spot. They say they felt they had a connection with her, and unlike many other teachers, they said she welcomed discussions about current and historical events.
“She manages a lot at the school — like Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month,” Gob said. “But she actually made it feel like we're welcome here, for who you are.”
Simard, who graduated from West herself 20 years ago and who has taught in Manchester for 13 years, said she tries to make an extra effort to get to know her students: asking them about different holidays that their cultures might celebrate, or inviting them to bring in food that their families make. Essentially, she said, she tries to break down barriers that exist in the classroom.
In an effort to build on that student engagement, Simard said she tried last year to get the Manchester School District to recognize Juneteenth. She said she emailed several administration officials asking them to consider celebrating the holiday in the school community.
But she said she never heard back from any of the five people she reached out to, including the then-superintendent.
“I think it'd be really nice for the administration to say, ‘This is our priority,’ because it has to come from the top down,” Simard said, “It really breaks my heart.”
Tina Philibotte, who became Manchester’s first chief equity officer last July, says that she is taking steps to help the district recognize the holiday. For example, she and a student brought the school’s bookmobile to the Juneteenth Block Party hosted by the Hop Knot in Manchester.
“We’re building the foundations,” Philibotte said, “as a school, as individual school communities, as a district, to be able to really celebrate these events and to celebrate Juneteenth.”
She said this is one of the many ways the district is trying to build more spaces for students to engage in the kind of conversations that alumni like Fabelio and Gob might have been hungry for. In her first year as chief equity officer, Philibotte said she has worked to review the district’s curriculum, bring anti-racism practices into the classroom and build stronger relationships with community organizations. She’s also trying to offer more support for students of color who might want to organize new advocacy groups.
Philibotte said there’s still work to be done to allow teachers to fully engage in conversations about racial diversity and the cultural identities of their students, citing concerns about a 2021 New Hampshire law that restricts how educators can talk about racism and other forms of oppression.
Simard, the art teacher, said while the curriculum is part of the discussion, teachers also have a responsibility to make their students feel comfortable and connected in the school community as a whole. That’s the kind of connection Gob and Fabelio said they want to see district wide, and what they said is missing.
Moving forward, Philibotte said she hopes to give students more of a voice in how the school district can improve.
“I want the kids integrally involved in every step of the way,” Philibotte said.