Hard Lessons

Today was tough.

It was a busy day, full of classes (some Window/Mirror lessons, plus Sewing). The lessons went well. The library was active. It was a very happy day, on the whole, but for one incident.

I don’t want to say too much about what happened, for the students’ sake, but someone made a homophobic comment on one of my anonymous Padlets (see previous post), of the sort that middle school students can impulsively make, with the intention of being funny but the likely reality of being quite hurtful. Other kids noticed right away, and called it out (“Who wrote that? Don’t do that!”), and I had them all close their computers. And then I pretty much lost. my. mind.

I mean, I was calm and firm, not insane. But I was so incredibly upset. I can only imagine how challenging it is for a kid to be gay in middle school, and if you add to that this idea that other kids see it as a joke? Nope. I just can’t even. And during a lesson whose main purpose is to build empathy?? REALLY?

I’m about as laid back an educator as you can get, so I’m sure the kids didn’t know what to make of this version of me letting them know, in many many words and from many many angles, how incredibly important it is to be decent to each other and how incredibly painful it is to be on the receiving end of humor that is at your expense. I have never in my life delivered a message so clearly. Then I just had them sit there for about 5 minutes in silence–I was too angry to do anything else, to be honest.

There was absolutely no wiggling around; no whispers. You never saw such a quiet group of 6th grade boys. I think they were shocked. I also think they were actually reflecting, some of them. I had no idea at all who had posted the comment, so they all had to listen to me rant, and to their credit, they were listening, and then they were thinking.

Then, once I was breathing again, I thanked the ones who had called it out when it happened. I said that I didn’t think whoever did it intended to be hurtful, but that it was hurtful. I said that we’re all learning. And then I asked if anyone had anything to say.

And this is where the learning was really happening, friends. Because, in those final minutes (and at one point the bell rang, but not a single person moved–we kept talking, and there was none of that restlessness you usually get after the bell), a number of kids spoke up in defense of their gay peers (or their gay selves). They were fierce about it, too–calm and firm, but passionate. I felt hopeful. They can hear it from me all day long, but when their peers are saying it? That’s the magic. And the ones who weren’t talking were listening, taking it in. I hated to send them away while they were still processing, but another class was coming and they had other classes to get to. We were in that magical land of the teachable moment, where the shock of the unexpected takes you to a vulnerable place (me and them–they had seen me upset and emotional, and I was seeing them either ashamed or stunned or ignited with a sense of justice). I wanted to grab onto it, while at the same time wanting it to end because it was not easy. I suspect many of them felt the same way.

Then, this evening, I got an email. A gentle confession. A true apology. Maybe he was afraid I’d end up tracing the comment to him; maybe he just wanted to get out ahead of it. But if you could read it, you would see that it was authentic. He is sorry.

I wrote him back and said he should ask me some time about the time I got in big trouble in 6th grade. My story: I wrote a note calling my absolute favorite teacher a bitch, all to impress some boy she had reprimanded. I got caught. I hurt a teacher I adored. Another teacher called me at home that night to tell me it would be okay, and that phone call is one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me.

I would like to tell my young friend this story because he is feeling the pain of his own actions. The young friends he might have hurt got some very real support today from me and, more importantly, their vocal classmates. All our young people need our support and love.

So maybe it was a tough day, but it was also a productive day. I love my job. I love my students. I love this adventure we are on of learning together and becoming better people together.

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