Thursday, January 14, 2016

Mean Girls (and Boys)

Taxpayer, did I fail you today? What is it you pay me to do, anyway?

Sometimes a puppy or piglet or what have you is born and the mother rejects it. Usually it's the runt, but sometimes the little one is rejected for no reason humans can fathom.

Kids do this, too; they will gang up to reject another kid for reasons no adult can understand.

I spent one period in a give and take with a class that I called out as being mean to a student (who was absent, of course). They protested belligerently:
"The student (we'll call her JoJo) posts troubling images on Instagram. "
"The student ignores me when I say hello."
"The student suddenly changed her style and is dressing strangely."

I parried.
"JoJo is pursuing negative attention, because being ignored is the worst feeling ever."
"She has learned that your greeting is sarcastic and has an undercurrent of mockery."
"She is trying to re-invent herself since you persisted in rejecting her true self."

Their protests persisted, but one brave young man raised his hand. "This is my first year here, and I learned that trying to make friends can be a big mistake. I have good friends now, but it was really hard to be rejected." I sensed the lump in his throat before I see his eyes tear up, so I quickly interrupted and turned my head, dragging the kids' attention away from him, knowing (unfortunately) how deadly public tears can be for a young man. "So what T is saying is that this meanness isn't directed at just JoJo. That doesn't make me feel better. Remember when I told you in September that I would soon love each person in here? Well I do now, and imagine how it feels to find out that someone I love is being wounded by people I love!" My eyes filled with tears, but I kept them from rolling out.

"What would you think of a person who enjoyed poking needles into a newborn baby? That's essentially what you are doing. We all have souls that are as tender as newborns, and your meannesses are needles poking her soul."

One kid raised his hand: "My first year in this neighborhood was when I was in 5th grade. I said hello to JoJo, but the other kids said not to because JoJo was weird. I kind of listened to them." His confession and indictment shift the conversation to the practical--the kids start to ask how they are supposed to treat her. But they say it begrudgingly, self-righteously. It is clear they still think she is bringing this upon herself.

What grows is what we water. If JoJo's Instagrams are too weird to like, I suggest, find a comment she has made and validate it. If JoJo says hello, respond. Compliment her about something true and real about her, like a good hair day or a nice nail polish choice. Being nice does not mean you have to marry her or eat lunch every day. Think about how it would feel to be her.

We had gone as an 8th grade class to the Museum of Tolerance just last month, and one well-liked student wrote an unprompted vow (her word) to be an ally to others, an agent of goodness. In the middle of this exchange with the class, I pointed right at her: "I call upon you to fulfill your vow to be an ally to this human being!" Her eyes widened. She nodded once, solemnly.

This conversation went on for over forty minutes. I do not know if many behaviors will change, JoJo's or the rest of the students'. I do not know if JoJo can recover from FOUR YEARS (5th, 6th, 7th, 8th) of belittlement and rejection.

But the vow girl stayed after class to share how she had been rejected in elementary school and knows how it feels, and confessed she'd been mean to JoJo but felt terrible about it. And you know what? I believe she will fulfill her promise, and just that one person might help to turn the mean tide.

Taxpayer, if you expect me to stick to the state standards every day, I let you down. But if you pay me to create better American citizens, I gave it my best shot.