When I was in fifth grade, I was a bit of a misfit. I was new at my school and couldn’t find my place, and when I tried to find it as a smart and opinionated tween with more-than residual baby fat and gap teeth, I was swiftly rejected–at least it felt that way. But there was another boy in my class who was the target of true meanness, who wore the same pants most days and struggled to keep up in math and had not one friend. I never saw him be unkind, but I did see him be uncool. So in my fifth grade self-preservation, I avoided him, thinking I could not afford to go down one rung further on the social ladder.
Well, our teacher noticed. One day she sent him on an “errand” that kept him away long enough for her to completely shut our collective shit down. She had noticed (!!!) the way people moved away from him when we lined up for recess. She noticed how he was reliably picked last in every miserable game of kickball. She noticed when we openly sneered when he got a question wrong. And I was among them! I was a mean kid too, even when all I wanted was to be included and known, and I absolutely knew how rotten it felt to be excluded.
Mrs. Phillips laid down the law of kindness so hard and so fast, I have never forgotten it. Not only did she show us just how mean we had been, she showed us how important it was for us to change it immediately. She firmly announced: This (shit) is over. We felt ashamed, we were silent, and then he came back from his errand and we started being kinder. That minute. I still can’t really figure out how we went from being complete punks to knowing we had to be better, but she knew how to help us flip the switch and we did. We really did.
The stories about how students are treating one another after the election results this week are gut-wrenching, but I am taking some measure of comfort knowing they are happening in the sacred space called school. Because all those students? The ones scribbling swastikas in bathrooms stalls and singing clever (not clever) chants about deportation? They are under the good, fierce guidance and care of TEACHERS. And like my teacher did for us, those teachers are going to shut this collective shit down.
The teachers will comfort the kids who fear they will never see their parents again. They will protect the kids whose churches burn. They will not tolerate the taking of another human’s body. They will acknowledge that this isn’t new, it’s just been fueled. They will also nurture and guide and teach the kids whose families are not modeling civility. Just like they always do. I don’t think it’s a teacher’s job to be the entire world’s moral compass, but I think they end up being one anyway. I lament the cruelty people are showing right now, but I’m looking for hope in the leadership of people who know what it means to show that steadfast love.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.