I was heartbroken upon reading the recent account of the young Irish girl who hung herself to escape the intense bullying and harrassment she encountered in her first year at a U.S. high school. See Phoebe Prince's tragic story here: http://www.salon.com/life/teenagers/index.html?story=/mwt/feature/2010/03/30/phoebe_prince_cyberbullying
This dilemma...of violence and torture versus compassion and empathy is one that teachers face a great deal in our profession. I know that parents have a more personal stake. I'm not a parent, but not a disinterested, disengaged, ignorant bystander either. Allow my discourse, despite the fact that others may have a more "personal" stake.
Early in my career, the very first year, I encountered a young man who captured my heart, despite his ne'er do well attitude. He was a sweet prankster, and never a mean hearted word passed his lips. His actions were silly and light hearted...though somtimes tinged with a sort of underlying melancholy.
At 14, this young 9th grader, whom I'll call Eli, was in the struggle of his young life to come to terms with what it means to be a man. What it means to grow up, be proud of yourself and your family; invest in your own future; decide what matters most. He was a strangely somnambulent boy. Yet somehow his soulful eyes held a glimmer of mischief, of life...of soul.
He was in my class, and somehow decided I was his FAVORITE teacher. This "favorite" teacher thing...it sometimes happens even when you don't plan it. You don't cultivate favorites if you can help it. Yet they come...maybe having seen some piece of humanity in you that they are drawn to. Some piece that they connect with. You show an interest in their talk. You ask questions about their life and what they like to do when they are not in school. You laugh at their silly pranks-- Eli liked to come into my class before study hall and connect all the paper clips in my dispenser into one long chain...so that later, when I tried to quickly pull one out...they'd come out as one enormous rope of clips! He'd just smile...and then grab the container and begin to "fix it" for me.
He wasn't a great student, but was genuinely bright. It felt as if no one, ever had bothered to engage this young man as a real person. He spent a lot of his "spare time" just hanging, quietly in my classroom...catching me in my planning hour, or his own lunch.
He had a gentle smile and dark soulful eyes. He never raised his voice, but seemed to be a bit "lost" at times. I really liked him. He was so sweet.
In 10th grade, I no longer had him for class, but he continued to come to my classroom to visit and goof around occasionally...silly 15 year old conversations. He never let on anything much about home, stress or angst. He had an older brother, about 20, and a divorced mom, who had recently began dating a Mexican gentleman. She was gone a lot from their home, out having a life, I imagine. She was a young mom....mid to late thirties. That tells you how old she'd been when she had the 20 year old.
This was tiny town, rural Colorado. Our high school had a population of about 500, in grades 9 through 12. Lots of farm kids, lots of migrant worker's kids. A rural catch basin school with a great deal of farm land, a miniscule village of under 1000 residents, and lots of sugar beet and corn fields. It was easy for the kids to party. If parents went out of town...rural houses are far apart, and there is generally no one close enough to be disturbed by noise enough to call the County Sheriff.
Eli didn't know what he wanted from life. He resented his older brother...a much tougher guy, who had done some time in juvenile hall. He resented his mom, though he loved her deeply, probably because she was out at night a lot, with a new man. Worst of all...he resented the manager of the village convenience store and gas station...a grown up, adult man...who was making Eli's life a misery. This is a part of Eli's life that he did not share with me, his "favorite" teacher. Had I known...I could have acted. I kick myself....eat my heart out still (this was 13 years ago)...and wonder just..."if only...?" or "What if...?"
The man, I believe, had previously dated Eli's mom. He had a "bone to pick". He thought Eli's mom was a "slut"...and continually used this and worse terminology to describe her to Eli's face. Eli endured this. It was constant, and in his face. Terrible slurs, vocal, filthy goading. Eli endured.
I didn't know. I didn't see it. I wish, I wish, I wish I had found out sooner.
One late autumn night, Eli's brother held a party at their country house. Eli's mom had taken a vacation to Mexico with her boyfriend. The brother was in charge. The party drew a varied crowd, from Eli's 15 year old peers to the more hard men of 20 that made up his brother's "gang"...and they were a gang. There were drugs and alcohol at the party.
During the early evening, Eli had gone along with some other guys into the town and stopped to get snacks at the convenience store...the ONLY store in the town...so NO they couldn't have gone elsewhere. The manager...as usual, goaded and insulted and "took Eli down" verbally. Just verbally. I don't expect that Eli was silent either...I'm sure he used foul language and yelled back.
Eli was drinking; he had also had some drugs...probably coke, but maybe meth. He returned, later in the evening...around midnight...wacked out of his 15 year old mind. He returned with his brother's gun.
The manager of the convenience store did not know what hit him. Eli shot 4 rounds into his face, at pretty close range. He ran from the scene, but he wasn't a professional. The police retrieved his cell phone at the scene (yes...kids had cell phones, even 13 years ago)
Eli was picked up...taken to Juvie. He lingered there for a few months, while it was decided whether to try him as an adult. During this time, his girlfriend brought me what amounted to the saddest, most sorrowful letter I'd ever read.
Eli said: "You were my favorite teacher. I wish I had known you sooner. I wish I had known you when I was little. You helped me a lot. I don't want you to feel like this is your fault, because I know you will. It isn't anyone's fault but mine. I am freaked out. I know I'm never gonna get out of this place. He just wouldn't leave me alone..., you know?" But I was so torn...between revulsion for what he had done...I kept thinking about the poor dead store manager. Gone. How could Eli do it?
His lawyer wanted a character reference. I wrote what I knew. Eli was one I loved. Eli was one I lost. Eli was one I failed.
He's serving life, in Cañon City. That's the maximum security prison. He's 28, and may never see the outside.
This one shocked me. It lives inside me. I didn't see it coming. I wasn't prescient enough. I wasn't tuned in enough. He was just a gentle, quiet boy/man...trying to figure out how to be a grown up man. To his brother, this meant gangs, violence and crime. His father was out of the picture. There is no excusing Eli. But somewhere along the line, he needed to learn alternatives to violence. Alternatives to hate.
It scared me. Columbine scared me. I wonder how the public can think that it is so easy to see and find evil when it is a frisson, a current...a deep, dark element, in nearly all of us. Can we teach"empathy"? As a Social Studies teacher, it is my domain to think about sociological causes and deterrents to crime.
We don't necessarily need to use corporal punishment. I don't know if that is the answer today. How do we make kids "feel" for each other, and their fellow humans. How to short circuit the violence switch? At many a conference and teacher meeting I and my fellow teachers...largely History, Geography, Psychology, Economics, and Civics/Government types...have debated the "teaching of morality" vs. "the teaching of 'moral thinking'"
We are not allowed to impart religious teachings to our students, but we are allowed (in the state of Colorado REQUIRED to teach about religion and philosophy as influences in history...ie. comparitive religion and philosophical thought) this gives us a unique place and postition to address possibly the most important issue in any life. How to live an ethical, moral life.
There are some great and thoughtful programs that endeavor to do this through critical thinking exercises using moral dilemmas. One program is "Facing History and Ourselves." See: http://www.facinghistory.org/ There are many others. The public view that somewhow teachers are not thinking, paying attention or don't care about such things as behaving ethically is incorrect.
Research has been done about the use of Socratic discussions to engender critical thinking about moral issues. Here's one example: http://conference.nie.edu.sg/2007/paper/papers/AFE575.pdf
The key is for the teachers to NOT use this as a "lecture" opportunity. Finger pointing and scolding can have the opposite effect to that intended. The discussion and dilemma must be broad enough to encompass many views; captivating enough to catch the teen mind; "new" enough to not be overdone (sorry...the Holocaust is overdone, and kids get numb with it...and labor under the supposition that "Those Nazi's aren't like me...I could never be in that situation!")
I have found that this type of teaching, and NOT one day "diversity events" are the thing that works best in the classroom.
For a take on what works best as a "school-wide" effort...check out Challenge Day...the single most effective, moving one day, event dealing with bullying and engendering respect, good behavior and empathy among high school students that I have ever had the pleasure of participating in. http://www.challengeday.org/ Challenge Day even got the Oprah seal of approval...for what that's worth. It is a moving experience...and I wish Eli had had the chance to be a part of this.
We do care. I sometimes feel like Tolstoy's question is aimed directly at me..."What then must we do?" His answer? "Add your light to the sum of light."
I keep on trying. There's another post in me regarding this subject. I'll get on it soon. A more positive one...a success story. Stand by for that....it's a good one.