Once You Get to Know Them

It was Monday, April 15, 2013. Tax Day. Patriot’s Day. And a normal school day at Stoneleigh-Burnham. During Morning Announcements in my Humanities 7 class, the notion came up that Patriots’ Day was a day off for most residents of Massachusetts and Maine and, after some good-natured grumbling, the students got down to work. Out of a class of 10, seven students wanted to read from their independent writing, and the entire class listened carefully and patiently to over an hour’s worth of readings, bringing insight and empathy to their comments and suggestions. The rest of the period continued in the same vein, and later on my French 2 students would be similarly willing to work to understand at a deep level how you distinguish when to use the imparfait and when to use the passé composé instead.

Following this class, I went to Reception to meet the students who were travelling with me to volunteer at the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society. As we loaded up the car, one of the girls mentioned there had been some sort of an explosion in Boston and, thinking of the Boston Marathon and my cousins who were running in it and my brother who often is involved with it, I lent them my phone when one of theirs died so they could look up what happened. They stuck to the facts, which were still sketchy at the time – two explosions, some injuries – and we moved on to talk about other things.

Unfortunately, no one was at the animal shelter when we got there; they must have assumed we would have Patriots’ Day off like most other schools. The kids remained cheerful, I told them on the bright side from my perspective I enjoyed spending time with them on the car ride, and we headed back to the school. Talk turned to the song “Accidental Racist” and the controversy surrounding it, and once again the girls turned to their phones to pull up information that would get them facts. From what they could tell, the song didn’t seem so bad. Focusing on lyrics like “I guess we’re both guilty of judgin’ the cover not the book / I’d love to buy you a beer, conversate and clear the air,” they felt that that the singers, Brad Paisley and LL Cool J, really wanted to look past surface appearances and get to know each other better. From the few lyrics I had heard, I agreed. (By the way, “Why ‘Accidental Racist’ is Actually Just Racist” in “the Atlantic” gives a superb analysis; I wish I’d read it, or listened to the song, before the car ride.)

There was nothing accidental about the racism I was to encounter that evening when I got home and caught up on the horrific events in Boston and people’s reactions through my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Beneath the torrent of facts, thoughts, and prayers ran a disturbing undercurrent; Logan James, who runs the Twitter account “Yes, You’re Racist” was working overtime retweeting deeply offensive remarks about President Obama, Black people and Arabs. At one point, Mr. James paused to comment: “Currently experiencing one of the highest rates of racist tweets about President Obama I’ve seen since the election #StayClassyAmerica” A little later on, Elon James White, who runs the program “This Week in Blackness,” signed on to Twitter. Clearly deeply angry, he began to retweet his own selection of deeply offensive and racist sentiments. At several points, people commented on their despair for the future of the country, as for example one person who wrote: “not sure if I should laugh, ignore or argue. The young seem a lost cause.”

A lost cause? Not the kids I know. Heaven knows there are vicious racists out there among young people as well as among the adults they are most likely emulating. But the kids I know believe what’s on the surface doesn’t matter, that you have to learn to get past initial impressions and truly get to know people, that racism is wrong, that sexism is wrong, that (to paraphrase Ferris Bueller) ism’s in general are not good. They care for and respect each other, and bring a dignity to their interactions.

They’re the kind of kids who can’t begin to understand why someone would set two bombs to go off in a location where they might kill an eight-year-old boy and injure a two-year-old, and the kind of kids who can’t begin to understand how a conversation about a horrific tragedy could disintegrate so quickly into petty partisan politics, reckless racist remarks, and the complete dismissal of an entire generation.

So while I understand why people might want to give up on young people, I beg to differ. Indeed, in one of my catch phrases, “They’re really nice, once you get to know them.” I wish more people could. They might be able to go to sleep with some degree of hopefulness and optimism even after a day like today.

And now that this is written, I shall too.

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education

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