Kislev (or Elul 8 – Hear)

A kid teased another kid at school the other day, and thought nothing of it. It happens all the time – people calling each other names that target intelligence, ability, appearance, nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation – you name it! From “you’re dumb” and “you’re ugly” to more subtle insults like “you look good, no homo” (“hey, miss, I was just complimenting him but I didn’t want him to take it the wrong way”) to clearly racist slurs like “immigrant” (he isn’t) and “terrorist”, from casual unthinking comments like “that’s so gay” to direct creative insults involving parentage and future, kids have many horrible ways to be nasty to each other and those about them.

 

They think nothing of it. As far as they’re concerned, it means nothing. Heck the kid that was being teased laughed. Everyone laughed. Only the teacher took it seriously. No-one knows why – probably because the teacher is old, and politically correct and soft and…so I gave this speech in school. I’m recording it here because it’s my response to the Pittsburgh shooting, and the one before that – and the one (and it breaks my heart) after, and the many, many others.

 

Did she laugh when you told her she should quit synchronized swimming because she now had water on the brain, or when you thought it was hilarious to call him Paco because he came from Latin America? Did they?  They told you the nicknames were funny? Maybe. Maybe what you don’t know is that they came to me after and told me how much they hated your teasing. Why would they tell you? You tease. You’re also their friend and they don’t want to lose that. So, they won’t tell you. Ever.

 

But I don’t want to talk about, for instance, the girl you called plump, who laughed at your nasty little make-up tips. I want to talk about the girl sitting silently behind her. See, you don’t know it, but she was teased in the same way in her previous school, so much so that she suffered depression and anxiety and finally left that school and came here to this one to feel OK. When you said that – not to her, even – she realized this school would never be OK either. She went home and cried herself to sleep. Maybe she turned to a form of self-harm, like cutting or restricting food, like drugs or alcohol. I hear from the kids who have made such a choice. They exist.

 

Why, you say, did she not go to an adult? Well it was because three of you had made a joke of it the day before, saying “miss, he’s bullying me” when someone wouldn’t lend you a pencil and claiming that the low mark I gave you on a test was due to me being racist – especially funny if the kid who says it is as white as I am. So, no, she didn’t feel it was safe to turn to authority either.

 

But never mind her. There was another boy sitting next to her. He heard your words too and you’re in a higher grade than him. Being in a higher grade, you have authority you know. It may be slight, and not very conscious – but people look up to you. As an older kid, that’s what you’re beginning to acquire – authority. Authority is another word for power, and that’s something you get more and more of as you get older, and as Spiderman’s uncle once said, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” What kind of responsibility? Is it your doing that the young lady turned to self harm? No, of course not! No one but her chose her path. Did you have influence here, however? Yes. Yes, you did.

 

So, that boy who heard you might have a little brother with developmental disabilities or a cousin who is gay or got any one of a number of people you’ve insulted in his life. And after your words, might see his brother or cousin just a tiny bit differently. Might be a little less likely to help. Might be a little more critical. Might say slightly less OK things himself. That didn’t do much to make the world a better place.

 

Or what about these three kids sitting at the side? They are popular and charismatic and they’ve already been teasing the person you just called a name. They now get a feel that this is OK. After all you did it, and you got away with it, and so, it’s no big deal to tease. And the poor kid getting teased is getting more and more angry all the time – and should he lash out physically, it will not be your fault if he or his opponent gets hurt. Absolutely not. But did you contribute to an environment where this kind of behaviour was possible? Hmmm….

 

But never mind them. There’s another kid in the class. He hates this school, just as much as he hated the last four schools he was at before they kicked him out, or he moved or left or whatever. He hates the teachers – they are all unfair and mean and nasty. He hates all the privileges the older kids get that he doesn’t. He hates how the younger kids can get away with just about anything. He hates all the other students – they’re losers and they either bug him or ignore him or whatever. He hates everyone. And your comment and people laughing was that final touch that told him the next thing to do was to get a knife or gun and come back to school….

 

What, you say? It couldn’t happen? It would certainly never happen here? Maybe not. But this last week I was at a vigil for 11 Jewish people who were murdered.  The man who murdered them did so because somewhere in his mind, he created a universe in which Jews were bringing refugees into the country and the refugees were full of Muslims who were terrorists who would kill him and his family. Thus, if the Jews were dead, he’d be safe. This man didn’t see himself as evil. He was, in his very horribly incorrect way, trying to protect family. What made him think that refugees were full of Muslims, that Muslims were terrorists, that Jews were paying for refugees to come?

 

These were all things he heard from the president. Now, the president does NOT, emphatically, see himself as antisemitic. He does not. Why, he has Jewish grand kids! He supports Israel! So, it is definitely not his fault. And yet…what kind of environment did he create? Who did he encourage and embolden with his remarks? How did people with different, possibly fractured world views hear him? Oh, I’m sure this was not a consequence he intended. He too, in his very horribly incorrect way, was just trying to protect family. But our words have consequence. We have power. And it is our job to use it with care.

 

Frankly we haven’t been. And if we, in our classes, haven’t been, that means I haven’t been doing enough. For if you tease, then I as your teacher have permitted this, have modeled this, have encouraged this in some way. That must stop. I say now that I am sorry – and will try to do better, to work harder at being polite to and about you. Oh, I’m sure I will fail sometimes as will you – but I will try. Hopefully together we can build a school where a person won’t need to turn to violence to protect herself or her family. Hopefully this will be a school in which violence – even emotional violence – is unthinkable. That’s the school I want to teach at, and you all being amazing kids – that’s the school I know you can create.

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Posted on November 12, 2018, in Elul, Kislev and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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