Bullying seems to be a common theme in the classes I teach.
Maybe because I was bullied growing up. With my chubby visage and round glasses, my awful posture and general uncoordinated nature, and my awkward and nerdy demeanor I’m surprised I didn’t kick my own ass.
Or maybe it’s because bullying is such a prevalent, yet still overlooked issue.
In reading The Chocolate War with my ninth grade students, there’s a particular scene that dictated our discussion one of the days. In it, a bully, prompted by the antagonist Archie Costello, calls the protagonist Jerry Rennault a “fairy.” This challenge to his masculinity incenses him and eventually leads to his being savagely beaten by a group of kids.
So, one of my students asks what’s the big deal with being called that. I responded with a question: “How would she like if someone degraded her based on her ethnicity?” She nodded her head in realization. I had implored her empathetic side. She understood the hurtful capacity of words.
When I was her age, though, I would have asked the exact same question.
After all, I come from the generation where Eminem mainstreamed the word “fag” to the point where our own teachers called us it without qualm. Homophobic slurs were as ubiquitous as morning greetings. And the stigma – my God, the stigma – of someone classifying you as a “homo” was akin to being a leper. No one wanted that distinction, even if you identified as a homosexual.
Back then, though, kids did not seem to identify openly with a sexual orientation, not at least until high school. When they did identify as something other than straight , they became a punchline. Kids barely understood gay (if they did at all). And transgender? What the hell was that? Unless of course used in its derogatory “tranny” form to degrade certain teachers.
Now, however, times have changed. While I contend that the current generation of students lack fundamental knowledge of both domestic and world history and their comprehension of their own language is more lacking than an ELL student, they possess something that very few in my generation did.
More than simply being aware and respectful of others, they embrace differences. They actually want to understand one another, not single out those whom they perceive as different.
A December 27, 2016 National Geographic piece titled “‘Gender Revolution’ Portrait Carries a Message of Hope” by Alexa Keefe focuses on photographer Robin Hammond’s cover photograph of Avery Jackson of Kansas City. Of the 80 children Hammond photographed and asked “the same nine questions about how being a boy or a girl played out in their everyday lives,” Jackson, originally born a boy, has identified as a female since 2012.
Children have long been a symbol of innocence; now, we can also consider them agents of social change. As Hammond says, “’Telling Avery’s story makes, for many, an abstract and confusing issue real and relateable…This is a very human issue…It is my hope that Avery’s pride and confidence can act as a message of hope for a community who have, for far too long, been misunderstood and marginalized…Avery’s picture in National Geographic tells millions, including transgender people, that who they are is normal and part of our humanity.'”
The key to Hammond’s words resides in his use of the word “hope.” The new generation, our future, offers hope in revising humanity’s conception of gender and, on a greater level, acceptance in general. As the leaders of tomorrow, they must stand for what they believe. If they do not, recall Martin Niemöller’s words:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Those who wait for something to happen, for someone else to act, usually end up disappointed with the result. The inaction of bystanders constitutes a choice. As I’ve always told my students, they write their own stories in life. Just because their families might hold certain prejudices and believe certain stereotypes does not mean they too must adhere to these same beliefs. When their peers make insensitive and derogatory jokes, they do not need to accept them. If they recognize oppression, they can take the steps necessary to combat it.
Sure, kids are cruel, especially kids in middle school. And some of them can’t shake a hand or look you in the eye when they talk to you or recall who fought in the American Civil War. At times, I think the world is doomed if they constitute our future.
Despite all of these gripes, I can say confidently that acceptance is no longer a myth propagated in the classroom but seldom practiced. Many youths nowadays accept others, not with an indifferent shrug of the shoulder but with vigorous interest. They are at the forefront of a social revolution they do not even realize they are a part of. Yet, they are making a difference every day they do not demean someone for their gender, sexuality, culture, or religion.
I don’t pretend to know how it feels to have others hate me for whom I’m sexually attracted or for which gender I identify with. Nor can I say that I’ve always accepted all. I’ve judged others. I’ve believed stereotypes. Most importantly, though, I’ve learned from these experiences and grown into a more accepting and supportive man, for empathy allows us to reflect and reassess.
As President Obama said in his January 10, 2017, Farewell Address, “But if our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction — Atticus Finch — (applause) — who said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
If only they made presidents – past, present, and future – as insightful and human and beholden only to his own conscience as Atticus Finch. And, yes, my seventh graders did come on January 11 and ask if I heard the speech. Because President Obama quoted Atticus Finch. And they understood what he was talking about.
That, my friends, is why I teach.
For the little moments like that make all the difference.