How do we stop the hate?
Posted Sunday, May 1, 2005, 09:33 AM
One thing that I have discovered working with kids is that we as adults do not give kids enough credit for what they are capable of doing. This last month has been very busy at work, and my supervisor enlightened me on why. Apparently April and May statistically have the highest suicide rates for teenagers in the US than any other month. So, naturally, all of the issues and pressure that would drive that spell for a very busy time for “Mr. Tim: School Councilor.”
There was a large fight at my middle school fight the other day. Now, for a bit of perspective, it was large for my school. A few weeks earlier there was a fight at a school in LA, and over 200 kids were involved. Our large fight consisted of eight students. The students were all suspended for a week, so this week I had the opportunity to sit down with some of them and try to convince them to use some anger management skills. If you are reading this right now, you are probably thinking the same thing I did when the school asked me to do this task. “Anger management skill! These kids are beyond that at this point, and probably not able to control their anger in the first place.” So I called my supervisor and got a few strategies and started working on what started the whole thing.
At the same time there was an issue where two girls wrote a very threatening note about another girl. Not a big deal, after all this happens all day long in a middle school. But the harshness and vividness of the note was above par for what I’ve seen over the last few months, so the school asked me to sit down and talk about what was going on. I sat down with four girls to talk about what was going on, and in the end a resolution was reached. Not because I gave them any kind of tool to channel their anger, but because I got down to the core of the issue: words.
After looking into the fight a little deeper, shocking as it may appear, I discovered that the situation was sparked a few weeks earlier because of a note that was passed between two girls about their boy friends. One thing leads to another, and the fight was the end result. Somehow words had affected someone so much that as more words were exchanged, the end result was physical retaliation. Why do we as people get hurt so much by words? What is it about words that make us loose our ability to reason and think straight?
I found the answer in a small, quiet 6th grade girl. Her parents are Irish, and immigrated to the US only last year. She was in my office for some other peer issues with her friends. She made a statement that totally enlightened everything for me. “Words hurt us not because we are not tough enough to take it. Sticks and stones my break my bones, but words make me feel like less of a person.” And there it was, plain as daylight, for the entire world to see. The reason that words can be so devastating in an argument.
Racism is what we call it when one group of people of certain genetic character traits, oppresses and put under foot another group of people solely because of their differences. The reason this oppressing race believes they are justified in doing so is they feel a sense of superiority. Racism thrives and breads in an environment where people are allowed to view others as less of a person.
Words have the ability to let us classify people into a type or a class of person. For instance, in a middle school setting, there are the “Goths,” the “Banger,” the “Punks,” and the “Good Kids.” At first these descriptions seem to be a great way of categorizing kids into their various peer groups, and in fact these categories are almost perfect stereotypes for what you will see in any school. But here is what happens. You start to here comments like, “O, well, she’s a Goth chick, and they just don’t get fashion.” Or thing like, “he’s a Banger, no way am I going to get caught up in that crowd.”
Theses statements are not necessarily bad, but if they go unchecked they lead to other comments that are not as innocent.
“What a freak! Did she get those close from a thrift store?”
“Did you see the way he wears his shirt buttoned at the top only? He’s just like all those other Bangers.”
“She would never do anything wrong. She’s a straight ‘A’ student and never gets into trouble.”
What happens if we let people see themselves, and others, as a particular stereotype, we reinforce the idea that they are indeed all of those things. We, in essence, make it easier to see a person “only” as we categorize them. All it takes at that point is a parent, adult, religious figure, political leader, some one of influence in our lives, to point out that “we” are above that thing that “they” represent, and you have a powder keg ready to ignite in to hate.
Have I solved the problem of racism? No, and nor do I pretend to have solved it. But what I have realized is that words can lead to violence and hate, because if we allow ourselves to categorize people, or be categorized by other people, we allow the worst thing possible to take root. We make it easier for a person to feel superior to another person. That has always been the cry of the civil rights movement in America, equality for all. That is impossible if we allow people to see themselves as superior to others.
So…that’s my new soap box at school. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to convince some kids to think about what it means to see people as equals first, then how their differences can be celebrated in light of that equality.