I’m not trying to weigh in on the Paula Deen thing. Really, I’m not. Especially because every time I read something about it, my feelings toward her do adjust slightly to the right or left of the issue. We are easily swayed, aren’t we? Shouldn’t we be as easily swayed by truth? Because, in reality, there’s this side of the story and that side…and then there’s the unadulterated truth.
The story I’m about to relate is true—as best I can recall, and I have to change the names. I honestly don’t remember all the names, exactly, and the whereabouts of any yearbook that could jog my memory is a bit of a mystery.
It is one of the best days of my teaching career for a variety of reasons. First of all, I think the kids learned something far more useful than how to score a 4 on the state mandated writing test. More than that, they were vulnerable with each other. And a couple of them were downright gutsy.
It actually started some months before I facilitated this particular lesson. See, there was this African-American student in my class. She was outgoing, smart, and cute, had plenty of friends, took care of her work mostly, and–with the exception of having a bit of a chip on her shoulder and being perhaps a bit mouthy from time to time– was what we teachers call “a good kid.” Let’s call her Vanessa. It’s a pretty name, and yes, I borrowed it from Cosby.
A second key player in the drama that would unfold was a Caucasian student. She was smart, took care of her work mostly, and we all called her a good kid. She was polite, got along with her teachers, and generally stayed upbeat even though she had few friends. As much as I hate to use an increasingly overused word, I am sure she was bullied. She was overweight, lingering uncomfortably through an awkward stage. As if appearances aren’t enough to condemn a child to thirteen years of hellish and hurtful taunting, she was also what we educators politely refer to as “economically disadvantaged.” If memory serves, she lived in the trailer park that was located right next to the middle school where all of this took place. I’m naming her Mary Ann. In case you’re wondering, I borrowed that one from Gilligan’s Island.
I don’t know (or remember) the details. But it involved name calling. In the interest of fairness let’s note that Mary Ann endured a lot of abuses which never reached the teacher’s ear. You can call a girl a lot of names and still stay out of trouble. One specific insult almost never results in a punishment of any kind. Call a fat girl fat and if the teacher even hears about it, she’s forgotten it by the end of the class period. In the interest of fairness, let’s note that Vanessa felt, in ways that no white educator can ever comprehend, the weight of persecution at many times and in many ways which likewise are not reported and go unnoticed.
Vanessa and Mary Ann did not get along. For some time, they had been locked in a verbal tit for tat. Who knows where it started? Third grade, maybe? Back me up, teachers. It’s impossible to sort things out when two kids just don’t like each other, am I right? One day it escalated. And escalated. And escalated some more. Insults are traded. The insults take on that deeply personal tone until it’s all just ugly and hateful. Black girl calls the white girl the b-word. White girl’s had enough. She goes for the jugular. She’s only got one bullet left, the n-word, and she uses it.
Though Vanessa and Mary Ann were both enrolled in my fourth period language arts class, I was largely unaware of this ongoing conflict. By the time I learned of this incident, Mary Ann had been suspended for using a racial slur. I don’t recall Vanessa’s punishment, but likely she spent a few class periods in ISS, or in-school suspension, for using profanity. In school speak, that means that Mary Ann’s punishment was more severe.
Months later, I gave little thought to what had happened between these two girls. If it came to mind, it was only to remember that they didn’t get along, would probably never get along, and I could run my classroom more smoothly if I just kept them away from each other. But every once in a while, and I mean once in a big fat great while, something drastic occurs and it almost feels like the earth tipped on its axis one more degree and you might just fall over.
Eighth grade literature often includes The Diary of Anne Frank, a play based on the journal. Here is the perfect opportunity for a teacher to tackle the atrocity of racism. And the perfect way to teach it? A Socratic seminar. For you non-teacher types out there, Socratic seminars are discussions (yes, the name comes from Socrates), but the idea is for the teacher to get out of the way as much as possible so that the students determine the conversation’s direction. Normally, I generate a list of questions related to the text and a theme, such as racism. For each question, the students discuss their opinions until they wear it out or are completely off the subject. Then, I step in with a new question.
I wish I’d kept the questions I’d used that day. It would be nice to have it recorded so that I would know how we got to that place—where kids were willing to tell the truth and risk the consequences. But really, I don’t think it was the question or the careful planning of the teacher. Mary Ann just went for it.
“You all know what happened with me and Vanessa,” she began. And I held my breath. “I said something horrible. The truth is, that’s how my family talks. That’s what they think. But I know it’s wrong. I even tell them it’s wrong. And I try. I really try to think differently.”
Y’all. I thought she was done. The earth had already rocked under my feet, but I’ll be dad gummed if that kid didn’t just plow on through. She might have sliced a jugular vein before, but here’s the blood transfusion. True repentance. A sincere heart-felt apology.
“I just want to tell Vanessa in front of everyone. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”
Right here my heart soared…and then sank a little bit because I knew there was no hope of Vanessa accepting that apology. She was a good kid, but she did have that chip on her shoulder. The social outcast stepped out on a limb, and I was pretty sure Vanessa would sit back and watch it snap. I started running through every trick in my teacher hat—how do I applaud Mary Ann’s actions without making Vanessa feel like I’ve taken sides. Because, let’s be honest, we’ve all listened to an apology before we were ready to respond appropriately. Mary Ann had put her on the spot.
And, predictably, Vanessa narrowed her eyes, set her jaw, and said nothing. There was too much hurt and too much pride to make so convenient an end to the whole awful business.
It got real quiet. It was a little like all the oxygen spontaneously departed the atmosphere. Wide eyes darted from Vanessa, to Mary Ann, to me, and back to Vanessa. Ummm…next question? I didn’t know how to proceed.
Never in my wildest teacher dreams could I have expected this. The student who broke the silence was an African-American boy, a good kid—we’ll call him Michael. I choose that name because he’s an angel, and if you’re wondering, I borrowed that one from Good Times. He made the connection that every teacher hopes for when they run a discussion like this one. He identified with the theme in the play. He identified with the student across the room who is completely different from himself. He then acted on his convictions and said to his peers something that he was in no way obligated to say.
“I actually have the same problem that Mary Ann has,” he said.
I’m pretty sure my knees buckled.
“My family is racist, too. They hate white people. And I know what she’s talking about. It’s hard to resist that. I go to school with white kids. I don’t want to make enemies. But my family expects me to act like they do.”
Something in that room had broken loose, and suddenly it was okay to admit that we all have prejudices we’re not proud of. The discussion continued, and more walls fell, and I was one very proud teacher.
I have high hopes that Vanessa came around eventually. But realistically, forgiveness is a tricky thing. I won’t be the hypocrite trying to remove the speck from her eye. Incidents like this occur—some of them very public—and every one rushes to judgment. If we listen to all the clamor, we might forget that there are two sides of the story. And then there’s the truth. Take a look at Matthew 5:21-22:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
Interesting that Jesus speaks to both sides, isn’t it? We are accountable for our careless words and for our anger. Guess what? I’m guilty of both. I was thoughtless and heartless and said things I shouldn’t have. I’ve used words to distinguish between myself and someone else, ruthlessly implying that I’m somehow better. I’ve been the victim of those words as well, and carried the sting in my heart for a lot of years. You know what I found out? Forgiveness is a tricky thing, but not impossible. Jesus forgave me and paid my debt. What I’ve been given, I must give.
Here’s another lesson to be gleaned from this. Indeed, words are frequently a weapon of hate, and in our earnest desire to put an end to hate, we attempt to blot out the use of the word. And rightfully so. It’s hotly debated and everyone claims that their take on the issue is more right than the others. But here’s the thing—the unadulterated truth. All the debate—all that noise—is just a fallen, broken world trying to heal itself of the evil of which it refuses to repent. The only way to be completely free of our prejudices is to focus completely on the Lord Jesus. And if you are in Christ, racism is not your cause. Bullying is not your cause. Those things are secondary to your true calling. Your cause is Christ. Pure and simple.