Saturday, April 24, 2010

Just Like You

Racism is judging somebody solely on their race, skin color, texture and color of hair, and shape and color of eye.  Judging them to be somehow inferior. Less than.  Unworthy of human kindness and mutual respect. Ultimately, racism comes down to judging people.

In this month we have talked about judging others based on age, ability, gender, and even location. We have talked about the ugly truth of the under belly of predjudice.  I would wager that most who read this will think, "Oh, I hate prejudice people!  How can people be so shallow and insensitive?"  I know because I find myself thinking the very same thing.

Yet, if I were to be honest with myself, I still judge people on a daily basis.  I judge students to be lazy and unwilling to help themselves.  I make assumptions about the slovenly dressed woman at the grocery store with the dirty kids running around, making a ruckus.  I judge grammar-impaired oil-changer at Jiffy Lube.  I sigh in relief that I am not any of "those people".  I am blessed to have a strong work ethic, backed by a college degree.  My kids are clean and (relatively) behaved in public.  And, thanks to my mother, I have excellent grammar skills when I speak.  Yet, I have judged all of these people to be some how inferior, less than, and unworthy of my kindness and mutual respect.  I am culpable of discrimination.

This week was a sobering reminder about how judging appearances is often folly.  I have a student, the General, a very bright "A" student.  He came to my class after leaving an advanced level class of the same course I teach.  He has always been very successful in my class.  Things began to change.  Although the General is passing, he has not done a single assignment outside of class and recently his grade has dropped nearly 3 letter grades.  Finally, I was ready to take care of business.

Last week, I asked to see an assignment, the third one this grading period; of course he did not have it.  I chastised him, demanding to see that assignment and the new assignment by next class.  Come the next class, again he had neither assignment.  This time moved from chastisement to reprimand. Also, the General had to have all three assignments by the next class or his parents would be notified. 

Of course, the next class he did not have a single assignment.  He just meekly apologized, looking at me with my frustration and indignation.  After class, like a Harpy on scent of her prey, I went on a mission to solve this problem.  I spoke to his counselor and his other teachers, all of us agreeing that he was not meeting his potential.  It was, in fact, time to call his parents.  The only working, local number I had ended up finding was his mother's cell.

I called, barely introducing myself, and launched into his litany of sins against education.  It was at this moment the purpose of the call changed.  Mom's tone was somber and I could hear her choking back the tears as she listened, but soon the floodgates collapsed.  Out came the pouring of tears and truth.  She was going through a divorce and the General was hurting.  There is more to the story, but these are private details.  However, as she lay bare her broken life before me, I realized how cruel I had been based upon an assumption.  He was not lazy.  He was not defying me.  He was struggling with the loss of his family.

I tease that I have a jaded heart, that I am an Ice Queen.  But I am not embarrassed to admit, while talking to this woman, I broke down crying.  I wanted to reach through that phone to embrace her to make her lover's heart stop breaking, to soothe the worried mother.  Because I know.  I am divorced woman with two boys.  Every time I look at them and think about the divorce, my heart shatters into a million pieces knowing that because two adults could not "get it together", they will live divided, and in some respects, broken lives. 

This past few weeks I had to re-learn a lesson that I thought I had lalready leared, over and over again, these past 16 years as a teacher:  "Never judge a book by its cover because the story inside just might be unexpected.  I asumed a highly capable student was slacking off, when in fact his heart  and his life were falling apart.

Today, as you go into this world and see the faces and the lives of those who surround you, try to look past race, age, gender, and ability.  More so, look pass the poor grammar, the fashion faux pas', and missing assignments.  Look into the hearts to see the genuine person.  What you might find is someone just like you, with a hurting heart, broken into a million little pieces.


Simonides said...

As an educator such as yourself - I think you may agree that society as a whole can boil down far too many of our value judgements too easily by assuming others and ourselves make such judgements based upon the superficial aspects of race, creed and color in significant instances.

I tend to disagree (though I live in a diverse city so my view may be skewed). I think most times we rely on our experiences and the criteria that we utilize is developed from those experiences.

I do not think one should ever discount ones own ability to differentiate between the a priori and a posteriori - which is to me the ability to resist the temptation to process or rely on limited or no experience when facing a judgement as opposed relying on the knowledge of or experience of something which is the empirical evidence that I think we most often use. Don't you agree? otherwise we would continually burn our hands on the hot stove.

"And you may ask yourself-Well...How did I get here ?" Talking Heads

So you may be asking yourself what does all this have to with what you have just written - which is your self-critique with regard to your "value" judgements relating to a good student.

First - I think your self assessment is a tad harsh - I mean don't we all look at Kate Gosselin and collectively sigh ewwwww.

The internal cognitive processes that you utilized as an educator to define a student at risk worked. There were no lights or buzzers going off. It was a process - in no way would you ever have the ability to spot the sign of a "ship" in distress from a "distance" in your role as an educator. You observed some very rudimentary distress signals that you as an educator addressed in steps. You cannot fault yourself for not overreacting. And it seems that each step of the way you internally challenged your own assumptions - which is what led you to make the phone call to the students mother. Far too often that PHONE CALL WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN MADE - you made the call regardless of your initial motivation - the call was made to help a ship in distress whether its motors were working properly or it had been steered of course.

Sometimes we rely on the covers - to look closer its what happens after we open the covers that counts - and you saw the cover, picked up the book and started to read it. Mom only gave you some additional information that allowed you to adjust your perspective.

So whether its a dusty book jacket or a shiny pic of Kate Gosselin getting booted off DWTS if you pick it up and examine it and you make a difference well you have done something awesome and made a huge difference. So the lesson learned - well its to simply keep reading past the cover.

Mark H said...

It is the human condition (oriented to survival) to make assessments of a situation as soon as possible - don't walk near that sinister looking person... Hence it is natural to make prejudiced decisions immediately while we seek more information. What is important is to try to seek more understanding and to look for more explanations rather than going with our first impression as our last.

Miss Missives said...

You Asked, you have received.