“1 Ohio school, 4 bullied teens dead by own hand”
The photo above goes with the Yahoo! news link below it. They are further evidence that somewhere in our society we’ve messed up. As a historian, my brain creates unsettling parallels. As a human being, my heart hurts. I see several problems. In the above story, the particulars of one school’s recent tragedies is laid out, but no apparent progress seems forthcoming. In the last two years, Mentor High School in Ohio has seen four suicides and currently has two independent law suits laid against it for its neglected responsibility in two of the deaths. The most recent young lady, Sladjana Vidovic, 16, was an immigrant from Croatia. Before her two students, friends, ended their lives within three weeks of each other; Eric Mohat, 17, whether he was gay or not, was mocked as though he was, and his friend, Meredith Rezak, 16, a well-liked athlete had recently confided in friends that she thought was gay. Jennifer Eyring, 16, was “developmentally delayed and had a hearing problem.” All were harassed, sometimes physically. All came to the same conclusion that they just couldn’t go forward. As much as the students responsible for tormenting these victims are guilty, an even greater responsibility lies with the people in their lives who should be mentors. Teens make mistakes–horrible ones, sometimes–adults, parents, teachers, coaches have the responsibility to correct these mistakes.
Why do teens lash out at other teens? Whole books have been written on the subject and I am not an expert in that field. I do, however, worry that our society reinforces the wrong things, poisonous things, that do more harm than we may wish to acknowledge. In this post, I want to cover some ideas I have about what we can be doing (and what challenges our ability to do it). To do this, I want to cover some things I have mentioned in the past–Sam Wineburg’s belief that history can humanize us, and the creation of the “other” or the use of dehumanizing language to undermine our obligations to each other–and a new program I read about a few years ago founded by Erin Gruwell–the Freedom Writers Foundation.
The History-Humanizes-Us Argument
One of my first concerns is the unrealized potential in many history classrooms across the country. Sam Wineburg has pointed out the inherent value in teaching history as a subject by teaching historical method. Question: What do the historians we admire most all share in common? Answer: A deep knowledge and understanding of past peoples and experiences. Even if that knowledge is not entirely correct, the act of engaging someone distant, foreign and strange and getting to know there culture is an important task–something every education should provide and very difficult to achieve. Most of the history curriculum at schools and even to extant and colleges and universities emphasizes a survey format that is really about packing one’s head full of trivia, but not really learning about another culture and people that different, even strange. Amidst that difference and strangeness there is similarity, too, but even if there is not it is irrelevant! It is especially beside the point in this country where we are, in our founding, flawed though it might have been in its acceptance of slavery, committed to a society that lives in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, not fear.
To realize history’s humanizing qualities fully, to draw on history’s ability to, in the words of Carl Degler, “expand our conception and understanding of what it means to be human,” we need to encounter the distant past—a past less distant from us in time than in its modes of thought and social organization. It is this past, one that initially leaves us befuddled or, worse, just plain bored, that we need most if we are to achieve the understanding that each of us is more than the handful of labels ascribed to us at birth. The sustained encounter with this less-familiar past teaches us the limitations of our brief sojourn on the planet and allows us to take membership in the entire human race. Paradoxically, the relevance of the past may lie precisely in what strikes us as its initial irrelevance. ~Sam Wineburg
I think a focus on this skill-building, methodology-based approach could really help open the eyes of young people–even if it only plants a seed that take a few years to blossom. The best teachers find ways to do this even with obstacles such as survey courses, testing-directed teaching and unimaginative adminstrations. They challenge students to try to step out of their boxes and see things from different perspectives. Developmentally, this is a challenge for teens, but it is good to push them to the edge of their abilities–sometimes you push and they go beyond the point they thought was their limit.
The Freedom Writers Argument
Erin Gruwell was a student-teacher when she was assigned a high school freshman English class of students everyone expected to fail. Maybe they would have if a student had not passed a caricature of another student emphasizing racial features in a crude way. Gruwell snapped. She did not hesitate to compare the act to the Nazi caricatures of Jews and other undesirables. Her English class started down a path of personal journal writing inspired by Anne Frank’s and investigated the way society’s turn on their own. She took them on field trips and arranged to have speakers that would speak on the issue–most of what she did initially she paid out of her own pocket, because she cold not get funding. Realistically, most teachers probably cannot do all the things she did, but she has set up a program to help educators do the most important part: in teaching her students to read and write she taught them about the historical atrocities born out of racial or religious prejudice. It was extremely poignant in this inner city school in Los Angeles with many mixed influences on the youth, few of them positive. Her students learned self-confidence not because she praised them but because she challenged them and they succeeded. She cared enough to challenge them and they took that and built a strong and positive community, helping each other deal with troubled home-lives, difficult economic situations and their own demons. In the end, a class of students that was never suppose to make it out of the ninth grade and was regarded as a criminal element graduated, a group of young people unafraid of others’ differences.
The cases in the article above are not from a “ghetto” school, they are from a suburbanite public school. The very safety and comfort is sometimes the biggest challenge for students who do not really understand questions of hunger, suffering or danger. When I worked at the Close Up Foundation with students from every demographic, the kids who were the most difficult to reach about citizen-involvement were often some of the ones from comfortable suburban schools. I do not mean to say that all suburban schools or high school students are like this!! Nor am I saying that we should deprive our children of comfort, but I am saying that we should be aware that it is often difficult for a teenager to grasp troubles that are foreign to them, or for that matter to accept people who are different from them. It is why we–all of us!–are there to educate and, again, plant seeds that will eventually bring forth fruit: healthy, compassionate citizens.
The Society-is-letting-itself-down Argument
But in the meanwhile, we have to acknowledge our failure as a society. The students in the article above who were bullied to death represent the same demographics that the law fails to protect, today: the disabled, immigrants and gays. These are our society’s failings: The disabled, so often labeled as burdens to their caregivers and to themselves as having low-quality lives, are frequently aborted or euthanized, legally. The range of disabilities that are targeted is expansive. Immigrants are being targeted by private citizens and increasingly by governments, currently more at the state level than the federal level. Finally, the persistence of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Domestic Marriage Act, not to mention the various state same-sex marriage bans, continues to establish a second class status for gay citizens and their families. What do these issues all have in common? They are not all in the same party platform! But, they all reinforce the notion, established by the government–so, in other words, our society, us!–that certain groups of people should be treated differently–not just differently, but beneath the rest of society. In a society founded on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, we cannot expect to be successful and rely on future generations if we continue to tell our children, “there is something wrong with these people and they need to be treated differently.” Is it any wonder that our children, in this society, follow this pattern?
For gay teens:
For disabilities rights and protection of disabled or elderly: