Tuesday, November 25, 2014

If Michael Brown had been Michael White . . .

Last night, it was really hard for me to go to bed.  I was tired.  I’d had a long day at work and afterward.  I needed sleep.  But the news was full of the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision to not even indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.  So no trial.  No hashing out of the testimonies and evidence in court.  No attempt at justice for his survivors.

And all I could think about was this: if Michael Brown had been a white kid, the police officer would not have shot and killed him.

I’m not looking for debates and arguments.  No one is going to change my belief in this.  

In seven or eight years, if my blond-haired, blue-eyed son and his African-American classmate walk into a store together, they will follow the other kid around.  It doesn’t matter that his Dad is a wealthy and famous professional athlete.  If they walk down the street together as teens-becoming-adults, people may wonder if my kid is okay, and if this young Black man is bothering him.

And I will never have to teach my white son how to act when he gets stopped by the police, just so he doesn’t have to fear being killed.

That is just how it is in this country.  And in some places, like Ferguson, Missouri, it is a lot worse than in others.  

This didn’t start in Ferguson.  It didn’t start with Trayvon Martin or even Dred Scott.  It began when Europeans stole people from their homelands and brought them to this continent and Europe and South America and the Caribbean against their wills.  It began when white people broke up Black families and turned people into property.

It continued as white people denied Black people education.  As they split up enslaved people from the same African cultures so they couldn’t communicate with one another or even offer each other comfort in their imprisonment.  This continues, in a different, insidious form, even today.  We see it in school systems that offer less and lesser to people of color.  Nowadays it comes down to socioeconomics.  But . . . surprise, surprise . . . socioeconomic stratification in this country has always been on racial lines. Why? Because of centuries of denied opportunities.

These days, you will hear white people talk about the way Black people speak, act, dress, express themselves through music and other media, and it is almost always with derision.  Everything about being Black in America descends from what white people have put in place.  Oh, but NOW you don’t like it?  Maybe early white Americans should have thought of that when teaching Blacks to read was punishable by death.

If your ancestors had been kidnapped, beaten, raped, abused, considered property, and KILLED simply because of their skin color, you’d be seriously pissed off too.  When we look at the historical conflicts in Europe . . . let’s take the Irish and the English . . . these are viewed and discussed in academic terms.  Former “terrorists” (depending on who you ask) are now leading politicians.  The subjugation of one people by another is looked back upon with regret, pity, compassion, and understanding.  (NOTE: as a person of English and Irish heritage, I take no sides in this one.)

Rebellion and protest are in our nation’s DNA.  In school, we study the American Revolution.  Rebels are heroes.  Wanton acts of violence and unrest, such as the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party, are put in the spotlight as proud moments in our history.  The murders of Loyalist neighbors, and their banishment to Canada or elsewhere tends to go unmentioned.  But it was all good, because these were white people fighting for white freedoms.

But in the year 2014, Black people aren’t allowed to be angry when police officers kill their sons and brothers.  When their people are routinely arrested and incarcerated at a hugely disproportionate rate to whites.

And I’ve seen wealthy white kids using the N-word with their friends and posting pictures of their drug paraphernalia on Facebook and Instagram.  No one even bats an eye.  A Black kid walks down the street, and he MUST be up to no good.

If you’ve got a problem with me and what I am saying, don’t try to change my mind or convince me it’s not about race.  Unfollow me and unfriend me on social media if you want.  I don’t hate cops, and I don’t condone rioting or looting.  But I am also clever enough to realize that white, straight, female me has NO CLUE what it’s like to be Black in America.  And I am still angry about all these dead Black kids.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"No Brainers" and My Son, the Scarecrow

Yesterday, my son told me something that I can’t stop thinking about.  We had already been discussing school and how he feels there, especially in math class.  Math is his hardest subject.  It just always has been.  He has some special issues where math is concerned.  No one denies that.

What he told me, though, was how he felt when a teacher poses a “no brainer” and he doesn’t know what to do.  That was the term he used: “no brainer.”  I don’t know if he heard that from a teacher or what.  His dilemma is as follows:

“If I raise my hand and get called on, and I get it wrong, everyone will know I don’t know it.  But if I don’t raise my hand and I am the only one not raising my hand, everyone will know I don’t know.  They will talk about me outside of class, about how I don’t know anything.”

He is ten years old.  In case you have not read about me and my son before, it may help you to know that he has mild autism.

My son seems to believe that he is the only one who doesn’t know everything when it comes, especially, to math.  Also, he can’t understand why anyone would like math when it is so hard.  He thinks he is the only one like this.  He’s like the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz.

The Scarecrow wanted, more than anything, to have a brain.  By the way, can I just say that neither a scarecrow nor a tin man have a heart OR a brain?  So that’s a whole thing right there.  But I digress.  Let us continue to suspend disbelief so I can keep using this metaphor.

At the end of the film (SPOILER ALERT), the Scarecrow learns that he is, in fact, smart after all.  When it came time to need to solve a problem and have “smarts,” he came through.  He wanted the Wizard to give him a brain, but he had it all along.  Like the Scarecrow, my son wants someone to make him be good at math.  He wants external validation that he is good enough academically, and that he can do things other kids can do.  It just takes him longer.  And he might need some additional tools.

So is my son internalizing the idea that if he can’t correctly answer a “no brainer” in class, then he doesn’t have a brain?  Or that the brain he has isn’t good enough?

We have tried to help him understand that his autism is a difference in neurology.  He has a brain (and all the stuff connected to it), but his is wired differently than most other people’s.  He reacts differently to things.  His senses perceive more of some things, and maybe less of others, compared to his peers.  What he has begun to sense a lot of, very recently, is that being different isn’t just hard for him, but it’s hard for the people who work with him.  And he doesn’t understand why they might feel impatient with him (as he perceives it) or maybe not like him (again, his take on things).

When we use glib terms like “no brainer,” and when we react to kids in ways that might increase their anxiety, we certainly don’t mean to upset them.  But for a kid like mine, who is mostly trying to figure out how the world works and his place is in that world, I’d like to ask everyone to consider their word choices and their voice tones, and all those other additional meanings that can be attached to what we say.  There’s a little ten year-old Scarecrow over here who wishes his brain was like everyone else’s, and doesn’t realize yet that it will never be.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, November 13, 2014

When Bullied Kids Become Forgiving Adults

There’s been this article going around on the Internet recently: 17 Things Former Bullied Kids Do A Little Bit Differently As Adults.  It resonated with me on a number of levels.  I did experience some bullying as a kid.  I also experienced it in my first marriage.  And yes, it has shaped who I am as an adult.  In a way, it has made me a better educator and parent, because I know what to look for, what to ask, and how to empathize.

There are also some items on that list in the article that used to be a lot more true of me as a younger adult than they are now.  Time heals wounds, sure.  And as we age and mature and gain wiser insights from our experiences, we learn that our coping strategies and defense mechanisms are sometimes just that: masks and maneuvers we don’t always truly need.  But there is another silver bullet to overcoming bullying: forgiveness.

Some time this past year -- I don’t really recall exactly when -- Facebook suggested I befriend someone I kind of knew in high school.  Funny thing (not really) was that this person had bullied me during my first year of high school.  I guess it was kind of short-lived, but it was scary as hell and while it went on, it was relentless.  I’m not going to reveal too much about the person, and you’ll see why in a moment.  But I do need to tell you a bit about what happened so you can appreciate the progress I needed to make in myself to reach a place of forgiveness.

This older student was in two of my classes.  So was at least one of her friends, and I guess some other kids they knew.  In gym class, she threatened me one day out of the blue.  It continued here and there, and carried over into my art class.  The teacher was out for an extended illness, and as we worked on our projects with a substitute there for supervision purposes, this aggressor broke apart projects of students in other class periods and threw pieces of them at me from her table partway across the room.  Again, no provocation by me.  I was a freshman just minding my own business.

After gym class one day, as I returned to the locker room to change, the bullying girl and a couple of friends were waiting, menacingly, just inside the locker room door.  I had to detour into the teachers’ office to say, “I’m not going in there.  There are these girls that are going to beat the crap out of me if I go in that locker room.”  I ended up at the vice principal’s office, my Mom got called in, and it got dealt with, I guess.  And knowing our vice principal, I am sure he said that if they retaliated against me for telling on them, he’d call the police.  As it was, my mother threatened to have the police down there that very day if it wasn’t stopped immediately.

In the intervening years, I never knew what became of this young lady, except that I heard she had worked in a place I had once worked, with my sister I think.  If you’re reading this, and you’re from where I’m from, stop trying to figure out who it was.  It doesn’t matter now, as you will see in a moment.

So like I said, Facebook thought we might like to become friends.  I found that . . . well, kind of amusing.  Thirty years later.  So I didn’t request a friend add, but I did decide to write to this woman.  I sent her a private message via Facebook:

“Hi _______.  Do you remember me from high school? You and some other girls were in my art and gym classes when I was in 9th grade. For some reason, you decided to harass and threaten me. As far as I can tell, I had never done anything to cause these attacks. I know that you later worked with my sister. Looking at your Facebook, it seems like you are at a happy place in your life. Having been an educator myself for over 20 years and working with many kids over the years, I guess I have to chalk up the way you treated me in high school to some stuff you were maybe going through back then. I just thought that since Facebook suggested you as a friend for me, I would get in touch and tell you that I am happy that you are happy.”

She wrote back the very next morning and apologized.  I was on the right track that she had gone through some difficult times back then and took some of it out on me.   I’d be willing to bet that she never even remembered bullying me until I reminded her of it.  Her apology was sincere, and I was really moved by her offer to try to make things up to me.  I simply responded “all is forgiven” and I later did add her as a friend on Facebook.

And I am really glad I did.  I can see that she has encountered difficulties in her life and has triumphed over them.  Things I have never had to face.  I am encouraged and impressed by her bravery and strength.  Would I have known these things had I just snorted and clicked “ignore” at Facebook’s friend suggestion?  Even more importantly, would it have just been so much easier to consider myself superior in some way, after she expressed sincere contrition, by just “moving on” and considering it in the past and behind me?

What kind of Christian would that make me?  What kind of human being?  Bullying is bad.  It’s not okay.  But it doesn’t just arise out of nowhere.  People who bully others, whether they are children, adults, pet owners, commenters on social media, teachers, clergy, ANYONE . . . are hurting, damaged people.  And since we all are potentially in that same boat, aren’t we all just one or two thoughtless comments and snide remarks away from being the perpetrators ourselves?

So these difficult experiences did indeed mold me into a certain kind of person.  I have those reactions and feel those emotions outlined in the article.  But by confronting the experiences I had, and opening them up to look inside what they truly were, I was able to give myself and another person some healing and peace.  So let’s be careful when we throw around the term “bullying.”  And let’s also stop blaming the Internet.  It was, after all, a social network that enabled me to initiate this reconciliation with someone I would never have encountered otherwise.  And let’s just be kind to each other.  And forgive those who hurt us.  And tell them so.  For everyone’s sake.