I’m not sure what one can say about this latest story. AP reports that a number of students at a St Louis middle school are facing suspension for a spirit day gone awry. But how “Hug a Friend Day” de-evolved into “Hit a Jew Day” is beyond me.
“-isms” happen in school. Any school. Public. Private. Home. It happens. And it’s awful. But it’s how we as adults handle it when it does happen that determines whether these students are merely tasting what it’s like to be mean, or foretelling the quality of person they will be as adults.
But this incident did get me thinking of my own experiences with anti-semitism. I’ve experienced a few boughts of awkwardness directed at me in my time as a teacher, but surely nothing that qualifies as an “ism.” In fact, they can all probably just be filed under the heading, “ignorant.” But it’s hard to be offended when you’re the first Jew a student or parent has ever met, and they are trying to ask questions in a polite way.
I’m in the business of answering questions, so if I’m easily offended by them, I shouldn’t be a teacher. Besides, my parents always said that if someone was mature enough to ask a question, then they are probably mature enough to hear the answer. (I think, however, that this was in response to the “where did I come from?” question to which they initially responded, “Mommy’s belly.” Their story goes that this satisfied me for a while until I asked the natural follow-up question, “But how did I get in Mommy’s belly?”)
Case in point: one year, a parent of a drama student I was teaching from a predominently Mormon community showed up at Back-to-School night. She was excited to meet her kid’s theater teacher and asked with a smile, “So, what tribe are you from?”
I smiled and said, “You know that play with the guy on the roof with the fiddle? That’s pretty much my grandparents’ saga in a nutshell.” She got it with the common language of musical theater.
Years later in Los Angeles I got, “Are you going to hell?” This was a genuine question from Eduardo, a Latino student, sizing me up as one of his favorite teachers and trying to merge what he knows of me with what he thought he knew about Jews. Not feeling it was my place to undermine the beliefs at home, I said I would leave that up to him to decide.
Clearly I’ve seen racism in schools, and any other -ism that you can name, but this whole St. Louis thing got me thinking…
I believe in the separation of church and state. I believe that religion does not belong in the public schools. But I wonder if the pendulum hasn’t swung too far. By not discussing our differences, have we created more of them?
My own school had an incident earlier this year (as many schools do) of a guy of one race spitting out some nasty comment to a girl of another race about her appearance. (I should note, she ended up kicking the guy’s butt). Anyway, when I was talking about this incident to our Assistant Principal, I mentioned that the school had some accountability here, not in how they handled it after the fact, but in how we contributed to it in its happening.
I work in one of the most diverse districts in the state, in one of the most diverse states in the country, and we don’t celebrate the cultures that make up our school. There isn’t one Chinese dragon ever on our campus. There isn’t one Hanukah song amidst all of the Christmas tunes at the choir concert. There isn’t one morning announcement about the meaning of Cinco De Mayo, but there is a faculty bulletin in our boxes that morning inviting us all for margaritas. There hasn’t been an assembly celebrating diversity that isn’t a tri-screen-ear-bleedingly-loud-pop-music-in-the-dark presentation that just yells at us about diversity.
It’s like “Show, Not Tell.” We are told to be tolerant, but we aren’t shown why.
Meanwhile, back in St. Louis, the students who decided that slapping Jews was their way of celebrating diversity are getting suspended and counseled. I don’t know what’s happening to their parents, but I’m sure they will only suffer the embarrassment of knowing that their kids were the villains in a nation-wide tsking. But what about the school?
How can a school preventatively stop these stupid things from happening? The answer is simple.
Teach through celebration.
Teach through modeling.
Teach through common language.
Incidentally, you know that Latino kid that asked me if I was going to hell? Three weeks later I came into class having just learned of my sister’s engagement. When I shared my news with the class, Eduardo raised his hand and said, “Mazel-tov, Mrs. Wolpert.” I kid you not.
I guess he had come to his decision.