Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Some People Are Retarded

I just had to take one of my students outside and ask him to cover the swastika on his notebook so that it couldn't be seen by others in school. This is the same kid who, on his very first vocabulary quiz the second week of school, wrote a sentence about the horrors of race mixing for one of his vocabulary words. He used the word correctly, so I gave him credit for it, but I let him know that I wouldn't accept any similar sentences in the future.

Since then, he has toed the line with technically innocuous sentences about Hitler and the Nazis on a regular basis, but with that interesting introduction to his thought processes, those seem sinister even though they'd just make another kid seem like just a history buff.

The swastika annoys me though. It's just too visible and too public. It forces me to realize that there still is a darker undercurrent in our society that runs contrary to the happy-faced imaged on the surface. The black kids in the class haven't complained even though he has kept it displayed prominently on his desk the past two days. He hasn't said anything aloud this year to offend them and honestly, these kids may not even realize that the little turd might as well be walking into the room in a pointy white bed sheet.

I shouldn't have to do this. There are remnants of the area's racist past floating around in the heads of many of my students, but the fact of the matter is that you don't really notice any real racial tensions amongst the students. Black, white, Hispanic, and Asian students mix freely in class. Outside of class, you often see kids voluntarily grouped by race, but many of them mix freely between groups.

Honestly, I'm a bit conflicted on this. I truly hate everything this kid stands for, but I'm a freedom-of-speech loving liberal, so I'm perfectly happy to accept the fact that this kid has his right to express his views, even if they are repugnant. As long as he peacefully hates people based on their ethnic heritage, I'm willing to allow him to do so and even defend his right to do so.

The only thing is that this freedom doesn't extend to the school environment. It's pretty well established legally that the school environment has a priority to educate and anything that banning anything that seriously infringes on that mission is appropriate. I cannot see how publicly expressing racist attitudes, especially in a school with close to 30 percent minorities and in a class with closer to 50 percent minorities doesn't risk a serious infringement on my ability to educate these kids. All it takes is one of them to realize what that symbol means, ask the wrong question of my little Neo-Nazi and there's a serious fight. Of course, maybe the kid could finally earn his red shoelaces that way.

I really should have spent longer with the kid trying to convince him that the ideas he's embraced are for idiots. White supremacists are always the worst examples of the white race. White people really aren't so bad, but the guys in white supremacy groups are always basically the white versions of the types who help reinforce the negative stereotypes of every race. I should have explained to this kid that he's too smart to waste his life on such a senseless hatred. He's actually one of my better students. He catches on to fairly difficult concepts quickly, but he'll never be able to get or keep a good job with that sort of ugliness coming out of him. Even run-of-the-mill racists are going to step back from someone who things Hitler is unfairly maligned. Normal, intelligent people are going to avoid guys like him at all cost.

I should have tried, maybe, but I didn't. I simply told him to cover up the swastika and that if I saw it again, I'd have to turn in a discipline referral for him. I helped support the martyr myth he's surely been taught to belief. We're not wrong because everyone hates us. We're right because everyone tries to keep us quiet. They're afraid of the truth. He politely said, "okay" and gave a look that suggested he expected this sort of idiocy from a teacher, although one so subtle it could almost have been imagined, and he went back to his seat. We'll see if he does what I asked.

Perhaps to try would have been pointless. He's getting this from his father, I think, and there's no way I'm going to win against the kid's dad when it comes to influence, especially when a society that so publicly rejects his basic beliefs hasn't done so for me already. His father lives several states away, and from some of his writing, I can tell the kid has turned his absentee dad into an almost mythical figure. I'm far too human in his eyes to compete. I really do hope he comes to his senses someday instead of wasting his entire life on hating something so irrationally, but I wouldn't bet on it and it won't be me who brings about that change if it does. This will be just another failure for me as a teacher where I had no real chance of success anyway.

And now, because I dissed on his swastika, he's probably going to fire-bomb my house in the night and I'm going to die. That's a pleasant thought.


That guy said...

I have a fairly vivid memory from around 6th grade of an older student wearing a denim jacket with a swastika painted on the back and something akin to Hail Hitler written under it. Similar to the kid you teach, he was fairly intelligent and almost obsessed with world history, this one thing seemed to stick with him and I'm pretty sure family views didn't help. I know he was suspended and I'm pretty sure he has to do some special-ed classes too, he was a friend of a friend so I remember some grumbling about it.

It's also interesting that you bring up wasting one's life on a hatred. I never really thought much about that, but it does seem like the most extreme racists, on either side of any fence, go out of their way to fail just so they can blame their target.

Meaghan said...

Honestly, explaining to the kid what is wrong about it isn't going to make him obey you, but if you tell him that he's going to get his ass kicked, he may listen. It sounds like he's a bit out-numbered.

Then again, encouraging that kind of behavior isn't much better than what he's standing for I guess. This one's tough. I'm with you on the freedom of speech. It's weird how so many people can't see the ignorance in that symbol and what it stands for.

courtney said...

This was well-written.

I do feel bad for you in this situation. It's a fine line between supporting freedom of speech and keeping racist language and symbols at bay in school, and it's a shame that you and other teachers have to put up with it. If he really is a smart kid, hopefully he'll eventually figure out that (a) his MIA dad is wrong and (b) racism gets you nowhere.

Maybe you'll have the opportunity to talk to him again. Since he didn't freak out when you pulled him aside to hide the swastika, maybe he'll be reasonable if you try to have a longer conversation. It sounds like he just needs a better influence in his life.

Not Afraid to Use It said...

For me, one of the worst moment of my teaching career was having to pull one of my Buddhist students from Thailand aside and explain to him why the swastika tattooed near his thumb meant in American society. For him, the original bent cross is a symbol of his faith. He had no idea who Hitler was, how that symbol had been twisted and repurposed. He was horrified that people would think he supported something like that. We both left that meeting quite discouraged.

Jacob said...

Not Afraid, I know what you mean. It's a very positive symbol in both Eastern and Navajo (I think) cultures, although I think the Navajo swastika is actually bent in a different direction.

This kid was most definitely not Buddhist, though. I wish he had been. It would have been easier to deal with.

Mickey said...

Good story. I hope your house is still standing.

And maybe it's not that the influence of the kids father is necessarily winning, it's just that there's no competition. Maybe he needs a voice like yours in his life.

Julie said...

I doubt he will fire bomb your house. If he is not aggressive towards different races, I doubt he will act out towards you.

I also doubt you could do anything to help him overcome his upbringing. People don't change unless they want to. Identifying with this cause is probably all he's got in life to belong to.

Chris said...

Jeez. That is a sucky situation. Given that he's still a high school kid, I'm going be optimistic and say this could still be a phase that he'll grow out of.