Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Most Important Skill

Before the new school year starts, I try to think through a theme for the year--something that I want my students to carry with them long after the work of reading and writing essays and stories has finished for 7th grade. After reading article after article about the lack of empathy--and seeing such proof displayed, tragically, on the national stage all through the summer--I decided that this year we would try and work on what I believe is the most essential skill of all.

Growing up, I was very close with my oldest brother, Christopher, who is deaf. He lost his hearing at age two due to meningitis. Once I got to high school, Chris began to open up to me and vulnerably share what school had been like for him--the ways in which others did not view him or treat him with kindness and dignity, but rather with disdain and disregard.

His is not my story to tell: his journey belongs to him, and I do not want to speak on his behalf. Chris has a powerful, beautiful, and dignified voice all his own.

But I do want to share that after teaching for 13 years in a variety of contexts--at the high school, college, middle school, and Adult Ed levels--I am convinced that the most important skill we can help our students learn is empathy. It is more important than every single test score, every college essay, every other result or attribute.

And empathy is severely lacking.

The recent news out of Omaha, Nebraska, about Alex Hernandez is deeply disheartening. Watching Alex talk about his experiences of ongoing bullying (particularly the most recent instance when two male students stole his backpack and threw it into the toilet), and showing the clip to my current 7th graders, I cannot keep from crying.

But in the CNN article about Alex, in light of the wave of support and solidarity from people who heard about the disturbing incident and then connected with Alex, he shares a profoundly moving statement: "It made me very happy. It made me feel like I am not alone." This is the power of empathy. For a student who has traveled years feeling like he is alone, that his battles are his alone, and the cruelty of others is his alone to face (with little support, it would seem, from the school community in which he spent years), Alex finally feels like others see him for who he is. They are seeing the injustice that has been done to him repeatedly--not just in a single instance--and they are voicing their support of Alex and their righteous anger at those who attack.

One of the questions my 7th graders and I are exploring is why students who attack feel like they have the license to do so. In other words, why did those two male students who stole Alex's backpack think it was okay to do so? Why did they have a sense they would get away with it (as, by all accounts, they have. A mere mention that they didn't know Alex seems to have convinced the school that it was all a big misunderstanding--something that is often told to people who are systematically and consistently oppressed)?

One of the most insightful responses from my students is that students who bully and demean others do so because they do not have a deep, experiential, and intimate understanding of others who look, act, or think differently than they do. In other words: the segregation which plagues our school systems across this country is a massive culprit in the absence of empathy.

Our schools are woefully segregated according to race, class, gender, abilities, and many other attributes, aptitudes, and attitudes.

Instead of remedying this injustice, many of us seem to accept that this is the way schooling has been done, or that it would be too hard to change, or that it would impose upon principles of freedom. But when we allow segregation and misunderstanding to fester, anything else we teach or learn is meaningless.

What could have been done to prevent the tragic act of Alex's backpack being thrown in the toilet (and the thousand other cruelties Alex endured along his years as a student)?

Giving students experiences connecting with others who look, think, and act in ways that may be new to them. We need to invite speakers into our schools to talk about deafness, race relations, gender inequality, and more. We need to create experiential activities whereby our students journey outside the walls of their own schools and into others. We need to create new ways of fostering communities in our schools, and building schools that depend not only on zip codes but on justice codes: commitments to equalize housing costs and access to our public schools.

We can continue to pretend that standardized test scores are what matter, and that fighting for better scores for all is the work of justice. But that would be to deceive ourselves. What matters most is creating schools that model the kind of what in which we want to live: diverse, understanding, connected, and full of that most important skill of all: empathy.