To any school where bullying, harassment, or mean-spirited behavior is fostered:
You are the reason I almost lost faith in humanity.
In the basement of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., children’s artwork lines the walls, much of which is boldly stamped with the humbling, optimistic words, NEVER AGAIN. I’ve toured the memorial four or five times, and ending each visit in that basement left me, as a teacher, so hopeful that children of today “get it”, that we humans were evolving, that mass evil could never take over a society again. In the face of modern day terror- from the booming businesses of sex slavery and child pornography to suicide bombings and genocides- the innocent images and quixotic words that lined the walls of that basement asserted themselves in the back of my mind, assuring me that we humans do learn from our mistakes, that we are, ultimately, evolving. Never again, right?
My mother raised me to understand that conformity can be the root of evil. Conforming on a small level could lead to conforming on a big level, an Adolf-Hitler-and-the Nazi-party level. My mother was born in the Netherlands and was raised during the apex of WWII. When she was just three years old, they placed a helmet on her little head to “protect” her from the bombs that fell from her sky. Her only music was the repetitive thumping of soldiers’ steel-toed boots as they marched past her building. My mother was not Jewish, she did not have to live the terrors of the Nazi regime the same way millions of others did, but she bore witness to it nonetheless. And so my mother raised me to understand that when we don’t form our own opinions, when we blindly follow the masses, evil can happen.
I became a teacher in part because I wanted to pass my mother’s life lesson on to new generations. This was my way of making sure that children learned to think for themselves, to follow their sense of right and wrong. This was my way of trying to make sure it never happens again. Whether I taught history, literature, or grammar, I wove this lesson in to my classes or conversations with kids one way or another. Think for yourself. Never be a blind follower. Stand up for what is right and just and good in this world. Never follow the herd just to fit in. And for years, I saw good children become even better adults who were open-minded and open-hearted, who knew right from wrong, kind from cruel, good from bad. It seems like such a simple lesson, really. And it always seemed so easy to pass on to kids.
… Until the three years I spent teaching at a-school-that-shall-remain-nameless-here. I watched children and adults loathe each other based solely on rumors. I saw people shrug their shoulders when they heard that a violent or criminal act had been committed. I heard people lie in order to fit in. I saw remorseless psychological and verbal violence take place simply because that’s how the cool kids were acting. I learned that many believe that success is actually based not on one’s ability to think independently, be happy, or evolve spiritually, but rather on how well one follows the leader.
But, what does it matter if you get into a good university if all you know to do is follow the herd, if you cannot stop to think about the ways in which your actions and words impact others, if you cannot treat another human being with respect, if you cannot maintain a friendship that goes beyond a simple greeting, if you cannot think for yourself to determine what is moral or immoral? I saw children earn straight A’s, attend Ivy League schools, get high scores on the standardized tests, acquire accolades for their achievements … but they did not necessarily know how to stand up for what is right, how to be their own person, how to care about something outside of themselves, how to be kind.
A good education is not about high SAT scores or getting into a certain university; education is about teaching children how to decipher right from wrong, how to think, how to embrace diversity, how to live a life with integrity. Grammar, writing, and literature – pertinent as they may be – are the means through which I strive to do this.
I lost faith in humanity for a few years there, but three years removed from the school that so damaged my faith in humanity, I now witness random acts of kindness among teenagers, am part of mutually respectful interactions between adults and kids, and am privy to genuine goodness every day that I walk the school hallways. And when I look into my own heart, I see sincerely good intentions. Perhaps best of all, however, as my two sons grow up before my eyes, I have the honor of knowing two extraordinarily compassionate and loving human beings who are much like their father. Through all of this, I am losing faith in humanity no more. :)