Several years ago, I was working as a 9th grade World Geography teacher, and I somehow got involved in a conversation about economically disadvantaged students. I remember one colleague going on and on about how “those kids” were a drain on community resources and how we as teachers shouldn’t have to be responsible for students who clearly don’t want to be at school, and whose parents are not supportive of their children’s educational needs. I remember sitting quietly for a while and taking it in before asking her whether she thought our collective shunning of “those kids” would have any negative impact on her life personally. She immediately said that it absolutely would not have any effect on her life, and that we should just send those kids home and let them lie in the beds they were making for themselves. She went so far as to say that kids like that LIKE living in poverty because they don’t know any better, and that attempts to pull them out of the cycle would be fruitless because when things got hard they would just revert to what they have known from birth. At this point, I got angry.
I don’t recall my exact words, but I remember telling her that teachers like her were exactly the reason that impoverished kids feel hopeless. And THEN I probably stepped over the line when I said something to the effect of, “The kid you just gave up on? That’s the kid that is going to grow up to be the man that steals your car. Or robs you at gunpoint. Or breaks into your daughter’s house. The experiences that people have when they are young shape who they ultimately believe themselves to be. And you just told that kid he is hopeless. If you think that the “throw away” kid isn’t going to have an effect on your own life, you should think again.” We are all connected.
Last night, I had a conversation with a friend and we were talking about the tragic act of domestic terrorism that occurred in San Bernardino yesterday, leaving 14 dead and many others wounded. I asked my friend what kind of experiences would drive someone to do something so heinous, and he said, “At some point in someone’s life, it goes back to early trauma or abuse or neglect…at least I think that is the root of a lot of hate.” I’ve been sitting with that thought, and the more I ponder it, the more I agree.
People do not get to the point of indiscriminately shooting dozens of people over night. I mean, I just don’t think this is something that happens quickly. Maybe I’m wrong, but I have to believe that the amount of hatred and rage necessary to fuel an act that evil had to grow over time, with a lifetime of experiences leading up to this ultimate act of violence. And, as I thought about the amount of deep, deep abhorrence and fury required to cause such a horrific event, my thoughts drifted back to my conversation with my teaching colleagues about “those kids.”
Who are “those kids”? Maybe they are the children that come from economically disadvantaged households. Maybe they are the kids who don’t quite fit in socially. Maybe they have a different religious background or skin color or family situation. No matter what their difference might be, the common thread lies in the fact that “those kids” are invariably the children that society has set on the outside looking in. And although being on the outside obviously doesn’t predestine a person to acts of hate and rage and violence, I would postulate that it definitely increases the likelihood that a person who is “othered” as a child will become an adult that engages in those despicable acts.
And who are the people affected by such gruesome acts? They are often the innocent. They are the mother who was attending a celebration for work and was senselessly gunned down. They are the friends that went to the movies together. They are the father at work just doing his job…the police officer that walked out of the house that morning with no inkling that today was the day his job would require from him the ultimate sacrifice. They are innocent children sitting in their desks at school. None of these people necessarily directly contributed to the lifetime of experiences that led to such terrible violence. And yet, they are victims nonetheless. We are all connected.
When I speak to my children about the many, many senseless acts of violence and cowardice and malice we’ve lately experienced as both a nation and as a global community, my first instinct is to come from a place of fear. Honestly, I’m scared all the time right now. I used to tease my now-ex-husband for his vigilance – for his need to always sit with his back against the wall, looking out at the crowd, and for the way he automatically checked for exits and warily watched those who came and left in any social situation. I see now that his caution was born of a lifetime of violent experiences. And I’ve noticed that I’ve started doing the same thing. I recently took my kids to the movies at a theater, and as the lights dimmed, I leaned over and told my oldest, “If anything scary happens, the closest exit is down by the screen. You’re in charge of crawling with Sofia to the exit, unless someone comes from that place. If that happens, all of you kids get under the seats and I will stay in front of you. Don’t move and don’t make a sound.” He looked at me like I had three heads, but I wasn’t kidding. I wanted to at least have a plan. It’s a scary world right now, and somehow having a plan and uttering it aloud made it feel just a little safer. We are all connected.
Despite my initial instinct toward fear, though, in quieter times I talk to my kids about love. I talk to them about acceptance and about inclusion and about kindness. I talk to them about being the person that sees a need and fills it…that looks for opportunities to bridge gaps, not widen them. I hope my children will make a difference to one of “those kids.” Hell, my children ARE “those kids.” But maybe if we all take care of each other, one small act of kindness has the ability to change the trajectory of one of “those kid’s” path. I don’t know…maybe that’s idealistic and unrealistic. It probably is. But, here’s what I do know:
We cannot continue to combat fear with fear. We cannot continue to combat violence with violence. We cannot continue to combat hate with hate. We are all connected and the vibrations we send out into the world come back to us. They come back to our children.
If, after you realized that the names of the San Bernardino shooters were Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, you automatically drew conclusions about an entire group of people based on these two individuals, I would encourage you to examine your fear. We fear what we do not understand. We fear what we find different and “other.” We draw our circles around what we know and love, and leave those whose ways and languages and mannerisms and beliefs and behaviors we don’t understand on the outside looking in. It’s natural to do this. But is it right? And will it make things better? We are all connected.
My thoughts and prayers are with all of the victims of the many recent tragedies. And when I sit quietly and ponder, my heart hurts for the victims of the Planned Parenthood attack and the people killed by terrorists in Paris and the victims in Beirut. But, I also mourn for Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik’s 6 month old baby girl who is now an orphan. I hope she is protected in her innocence, and that she is met with love and acceptance and kindness. Hate is taught. Fear is learned. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, love is always the answer. We are all connected.