Friday, February 10, 2012

On modeling respect

I had a student once, let's call him R. R. is African-american, he came from a broken home, his father was in prison, his mother worked at least two jobs. He was the eldest. He had perfect attendance and spent his after school time looking after his little brothers and sisters. He stayed clean, stayed out of the gangs, and got A's and B's. He was, by all respects, a good kid.

And yet everyone treated him like crap.

His mother said he was spoiled, that he didn't do enough around the house, that he needed to go get a job on top of it all. His teachers dismissed him because of his background. He had to put up with regular bullying from the kids in his neighborhood, and I do mean the violent kind.

One night, after a school event, we ended up at the same picnic table. Something finally let go in him and he started crying. He wanted to know why it was so hard, why no one cared, why no one ever listened, why he could never do enough to be a good kid.

I listened. And in listening I modeled respect.

He needed someplace safe to go on the Saturday nights when his younger siblings were at Grandma's and his mother was, ahem, entertaining in. He said there were a bunch of people downtown who were playing some kind of game, he was thinking of going there.

It turned out I knew those people. Most of them were friends of mine, including my step-brother and the man who would turn out to be my husband. It was a live action role-playing group, running approximately one half active duty military, one third LGBTQ and entirely, deeply liberal.

I didn't say yes, I didn't say no, it was not my place to encourage or discourage. But I did tell him my brother was a member. And I gave the Game Master a heads up that if this person showed up he was underage and please keep an eye out.

He showed up. And they treated him with respect.

He was treated as an equal, listened to, expected to carry responsibility. When the time came to appoint people in leadership positions he had an equal chance as anyone, and was given one that involved a lot of public speaking, time management and organization, which the GM showed him how to do and which he learned to do masterfully. And when he spoke people listened to him, regardless of his age. When the local bullies destroyed his violin and his mother refused to replace it because she said he ought to learn to be more careful with his things, we passed the hat and bought him a new one. And when he made first string in his high school orchestra we all turned out to watch his first performance.

But more importantly, he had the experience of sitting with a group of adults who respected each other. No bullying, no threats of violence, no shaming or turning people away because of their gender or orientation or the color of their skin.

In the end he finished high school. Did a turn in the Army like all his friends, went to college on the GI Bill, got his Master's degree. These days he's the head accountant at a major non-profit, giving back to the community. He's also married and the father of two lovely children.

The last time we talked he thanked me for suggesting that group. He said they taught him that he didn't have to be afraid of the world, that it was a place where he could be respected, that the Golden Rule was true.

I had another student, let's call this one J. Everyone said he had his head in the clouds, was too smart for his own good, was disrespectful of the adults around him because of the way he acted and spoke. He was considered the school smart-ass. The first time I met him he demonstrated this by dropping a near-perfect salaam, something he had read about in a book.

I salaamed back. It was the appropriate response.

J ended up hanging around my classroom a lot. I ran the school computer lab, back in the day when not every house had a computer or a net connections. And as he surfed he talked. And I listened, with respect.

At one point I suggested to the school special-ed teacher that she administer an IQ test. Turned out he was three years ahead of grade level and bored out of his mind.

Last I heard he was a PhD candidate at Berkeley.

S. was another student of mine. Bright girl, sweet, looked after her little brothers and sisters, never got into trouble. Same problem as the other two, right? Nobody listened, no respect, nothing was ever good enough. No modeling of how you wanted to be treated.

Yes, she's still in the barrio. But that's because she's working at the local free women and children's clinic. As a pediatrician.

Had another kid, we'll call this one B. Younger this time. She liked to hang around my classroom as well. She was always telling me these horror stories about Bloody Mary, the demon in the mirror who would come and eat your soul. Everyone dismissed her as telling tales, trying to scare the other kids. She was just causing trouble.

One night after work I was on my way to a friend's party and I stopped to buy a bottle of wine. A woman approached me in the parking lot, asking for money. I recognized the child with her as B. And something just did not feel right at all.

Kids tell tales, you see. They rant and bitch and make up lies. But not always, and the not always part is what matters. Sometimes it's just because they do not yet have the words to say what's really going on. It's up to the adult to investigate, each and every time.

I went back to work the next day and insisted that they send our community outreach worker to investigate. Yes, she was probably just telling tales, investigate anyway. All this horror movie talk and now the way the mother was acting, it just didn't feel right.

It turned out her mother was pimping her out of the bathroom at a local gas station. Bloody Mary was the only way she had to tell what was going on.

Back when my husband and I first married we had some friends. Good people, good to us, I will always be grateful to them for helping us over some rough patches.


It got to the point where we couldn't go over any longer because of the way they treated their children. They never hit their children, not where I could see, but there was constant bullying going on, constant raised voices, a pervasive threat of violence. A wise, old friend summed it up this way; "Someday those boys are going to be big enough to take a swing at their father. And I won't blame them when they do."

Years later I found them on Facebook. Sure enough, after years of psychiatric medication, being in and out of institutions and yes, after drug problems and gang problems and round upon round of violence and both boys had been kicked out of their home when they were in their mid-teens for attacking their parents. One boy ended up with his Grandma, the other with an Aunt. Their parent's response was something along the lines of "We feel bad for the bleeding heart liberal relatives you've managed to fool, but they will soon learn how horrible you are."

The last I looked the older boy had finished high school and had joined the Navy. The younger had also finished high school, had a part-time job and was hoping to start college soon. We'll have to see how well they do, but they seem to be doing much better in an atmosphere where they weren't always afraid and bullied. Where they were treated with respect.

Anyway, that's what I know.

1 comment:

CannedAm said...

Thank you for this post. It's uplifting.