I was grabbing a smoothie one morning when a familiar face walked into the store, a former coworker of mine from public school. We greeted each other and she asked where I was currently teaching. I told her I had recently taken a position at a private Montessori school. Her mouth formed into a pained expression and she leaned in close, “ooh, how is that? Ya know, working with those kinda kids?”
My heart started to race & the Mama Bear in me started to stir. Because I knew exactly what she meant by that question–I got different forms of it all the time. The implication behind the questions is usually that they are incapable of doing things on their own or are entitled.
I’d been through this before so I took a deep breath to tame the bear and calmly told her the truth. “Honestly… ‘those kids’ are no different than the kids I taught in public school. Some are entitled, others are not. Some are gifted, others have significant learning disabilities. Some come from wealthy families, some don’t. We have a mix of different kids, just like anywhere else.”
“Really?! Huh, I just had this picture in my head that it was something else I guess…” her voice trailed off.
I didn’t rescue her by diffusing the awkward silence that lingered with pleasant small talk. I wanted her to marinate for a moment in the realization that she’d been guilty of something we’re always teaching our students NOT to do–making negative assumptions about an entire group of people based on ignorance and stereotypes.
One afternoon I was having lunch with a coworker and she was venting about some of the students we work with and what a difficult time they have following directions and being respectful. “I hate to say it, but I swear I think for some of these kids it’s Only-Child Syndrome. I think it’s really hard for kids without siblings to learn to take direction and get along with others when they’ve never had to learn how to share or compromise.”
My heart started to race & the Mama Bear in me started to rile. Because I heard those comments all the time–my own son is an “only child”. And, while I don’t subscribe at all to the belief that there’s anything wrong with the deliberate choice to have only one child, the comments are especially hurtful when your intention was always to give your child a sibling.
I’d been through this before so I took a deep breath to tame the bear and calmly told her the truth. “I’ve heard you make negative comments about only-children before….I don’t know if you forget that mine’s an only child or you remember and say it anyway. Either way, I think ‘those kids’ end up learning how to share and compromise through school and socializing with friends. I know in our house we really work hard to make sure he learns those skills.”
“Well your case is different…I was talking about those parents who don’t…” her voice trailed off.
I didn’t rescue her by diffusing the awkward silence that lingered with pleasant small talk. I wanted her to marinate for a moment in the realization that she’d been guilty of something we teach our students not to do all the time–to assume an entire group of people have the same negative characteristics because of judgments we make about the whole, based on ignorance and stereotypes.
All I really remember doing for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day when I was coming up in the 80’s is coloring in a sketch of Dr. King photocopied from a book of January worksheets and writing a few sentences to finish the statement “I Have a Dream…” on lined paper. I’d write something about having a dream that everyone was treated equal and what-not, with no real understanding of what the day meant, who he was, what he stood for, or what he personally sacrificed as part of his mission to make an impact.
One of the things I’ve come to appreciate most about his legacy, and what I try to pass on to the students I have now, is the idea of peaceful protest–the concept that when they see/hear something wrong and they don’t speak up, they’re complicit in the wrong-doing. And always being mindful of the fact that we can voice what we know is right without being aggressive. My proudest moments in the classroom are when I hear one of my middle-schoolers advocate for themselves or another with firm, unwavering calmness (yes, it does happen, and frequently). I love when I see them look a peer in the eye and firmly say “I don’t like what you just said to __________, that was hurtful”.
This is the stance I’ve learned to try and take in my own life–to not be “silent about the things that matter”. I’m no longer concerned with trying to “change the world” or “wipe out injustice”–too big to really put any action toward on a daily basis. What I aim for now is to speak up in the little daily encounters I have with people who make generalized assumptions about groups of people that are hurtful–not just racial generalizations, but generalizations about ANY group. And to speak up with firm calmness, not trying to brush the awkward moment away in an effort to help them remove the foot from their mouth.
When I was young I used to let people steamroll me and say whatever they wanted, letting that anger well up inside with no outlet, too scared to say anything. Then I went through a phase where I’d let all that built up anger take over and say something insulting and hurtful in retaliation–giving them not just their share but everyone else’s before them.
But what I’ve come to learn is sometimes most effective is this idea of peaceful protest. Saying the truth with love and then letting that awkward moment of silence linger. Maybe they use that quiet moment to curse me in their mind or think “who does she think she is?”, but there’s also a chance they use that moment to rethink an old assumption or have an a-ha moment.
Honestly, what they choose to do with that moment is none of my business. My business is knowing that I spoke up for what mattered, even if it seemed like a “little” thing. And my business is also what I do with the moments where I am the one that has to eat a slice of humble pie or admit that it was me who was ignorant or wrong.
We thankfully live in a time when it would be clearly out of integrity for most people to catch themselves saying “those women” or “those Latinos” or “those homosexuals” and then go on to generalize that entire group in a negative way. But, for Pete’s sake, it’s 2020…let’s tighten up a little and eliminate “those ______________”–those ANYBODY’s–from our vocabulary altogether. And that includes “those kids”.
“Those kids” are the ones who are watching and listening.
author’s personal photo
This story originally appeared on Krissy Brynn Jackson Blog