Sunday, October 28, 2018

Two "N" Words and a "D" Word

I tried to teach my students to have empathy at every chance I had; this is my favorite lesson and one I believe had a real impact.

In light of the massacre in Pittsburgh yesterday, I thought I'd share this for what it might be worth. 

I was writing in another venue about how much I hated standardized testing, and how I thought the tests weren't even helping, when I changed to the topic of empathy, as you will see below:

            By comparison, one lesson I’m proud of, created long before teachers were ordered to standardize everything, and maybe wear matching shirts and slacks, went to the heart of human decency.

            It began with a boy on the bus. 

            “Back when I was in ninth grade,” I explained to classes, “we used to see kids we called ‘hair lips.’ I don’t mean to be cruel. They were born with a birth defect involving a hole in the palate (here I showed what I meant) or lip. Doctors closed the hole. But this left scars and most ‘hair lips’ sounded funny when they talked.

            “We had a boy like that, who had other handicaps, who rode our bus. The only person he talked to was the driver. Every morning he’d climb aboard and call out, ‘Eyyyy, Brrnee.’ Bernie. That was the driver’s name. He’d walk down the aisle and two big high school guys would go: ‘Eyyyy, Brrnee.’ They mocked him every day. It made me sick then. It makes me sick now.

            “If I had been bigger, I would have told them to stop,” I added, “but I was skinny and couldn’t do much to help.”

            Every student in the room could see the point. The cruelty of the two older boys. The evil of picking on one so defenseless. This held their attention and we went from there.

            For homework students had read a handout based on A Brief History of the Indies, published in 1552, written by Bartolome Las Casas, a Spanish priest. Las Casas admitted when he first came to the New World all he cared about was gold. He purchased Indian slaves and ignored the teachings of Christ. When he saw cruelties all around he began to feel a weight upon his soul. He freed his slaves and took holy orders, devoting his life to saving as many natives as he could. 

Students read scenes like this:

     The Christians, with their horses and swords and lances, began to slaughter and practice strange cruelty among them [the natives]...and spared neither children, nor the aged, nor pregnant women, nor those in child labor. They not only stabbed them but dismembered them [cut them up] like lambs in a slaughterhouse.
     They made bets as to who could split a man in two or cut off his head with one sword blow...They took babes from their mothers...and dashed their heads against the rocks...Others they seized by the shoulders and threw them into the rivers, laughing and joking...and saying as the babies fell into the water, “Boil there, you offspring of the devil!”

Before classes began, I prepared by taping pictures of the Holocaust on the board and pulling down maps and a movie screen to hide them. Students entered and took their seats. I told them the story of the boy on the bus and asked simply, “How can people be so cruel?”

That was our question for the day.

“What was the worst example from last night’s reading?” I inquired.

Almost every student raised a hand. “When the Spanish cut off the hands of the slaves,” Maggie responded.

“When soldiers burned the building with 300 Indian leaders inside,” said Marco.

“Throwing babies into the river,” Deedee added.

Page from Ian's book for a project on human hatred.

“How could they do it?” I asked again. “How could so many be so cruel? And what made Las Casas and others who tried to save the natives different?”

            I didn’t expect anyone to bite yet. I continued: “How long did Las Casas spend trying to save the Indians?”

Ken responded: “Fifty years.” 

I asked: “How many of you ever walk down the street and see a bug and step on it?”

All kinds of hands went up.

“Didn’t you feel guilty?” I asked one boy. “Gary! You murderer! That bug had a family, and they’re all like, ‘Hey, when’s Dad coming home, maybe he’ll bring us a toy,’ and you’re like, ‘No big deal. I’ll just scrape dad off the bottom of my shoe and keep walking.’”

The bug idea always got a laugh—the last of the day. I asked how the Spanish (some of them) could do what they did. No one was ready to answer. “It’s the same as the two boys on the bus. Or stepping on a bug. What did the soldiers say when they threw babies in the river?”

“Boil there, you offspring of the devil,” Deedee offered.

Correct. “Now, if the devil walked in this room right now and Gary jumped up and killed the devil, wouldn’t he be good?”

Deedee admitted Gary would be good. 

“You admit you’ve stepped on bugs,” I reminded her. “No one thinks killing bugs is wrong?”

They’re just bugs classmates interjected.

Unfortunately, I explained, Hitler and his followers believed killing Jews was acceptable. One Nazi official said the world would build a monument in their honor because they had the courage to do what no one else did. Getting rid of Jews was “like killing vermin,” he insisted, “a matter of cleanliness.”

            Did anyone know what vermin were?

“Bugs, fleas. Rats, I think,” Jacob offered. I told the class he was right.
“It’s a question of dehumanization,” I continued. The definition goes on the board: “to see others as less than human; lower than yourself.”

“I hate to tell you this,” I said, “but most of you dehumanize others. You put labels on groups or individuals you don’t like and you’re on your way!”

“We don’t kill people, though,” Greg objected. True. I turned and added to our notes: “Labeling: to see all members of a group as the same, without individual difference.”

In our school, students admitted peers were labeled “preps,” as in preppy, well-dressed, college-prep types. Poor kids (at least when I started) were labeled “grits,” dirty, lowly, unclean. Labels, we noted, allowed us to ignore the fact our enemies are human. 

I threw this out: “Next time you see someone you don’t like, say: ‘I hate that human being.’ It doesn’t work.”

I said I despised labels. But who could think of one? Every year I worried some parent would see this day’s notes and flip. The examples poured out: nigger, fag, gook, bitch, jock, nerd.

“Yeah,” I interjected, “let’s pick on him. He’s a nerd!” I asked someone to tell me what made a nerd a nerd.

Oliver and Kayla both said nerds were weak. That’s two “N-words” now.

“Oh! Even better! Let’s pick on the weak!” I added scornfully. We were back to the boy on the bus. Students who knew they were guilty of such behavior were already shifting in their seats.

            Then we moved to the final steps of the lesson. We raised the maps and movie screen. The kids came forward and looked at pictures of the Holocaust. There were young children being rounded up, Stars of David upon their sleeves. There was a grandmotherly-type looking straight into the camera. “Look: she seems like the type who’d bake cookies for the grandkids.

            “Dangerous,” I scoffed.

Another picture showed a house painted with the word: “Jude.” “Notice,” I told my class, “you can walk down the street and say, ‘I hate those Jews!’ You don’t even have to see them to hate them.”

“We do the same,” Antoinette replied. “We label people according to skin color and don’t think.” 

I nodded agreement.

Not the same picture used in class; but same idea.

Antoinette was staring at a photo of a long trench filled with emaciated corpses. Tears started. Her friend tugged her arm and led her to her seat. Students were subdued when I sent them back to their places. The bell was about to ring and we would pick up on the subject the next day. 

I used this lesson plan for twenty-five years and it never failed. Then, one day, I heard something completely unexpected. Susie spoke up, one of my favorite students, but still plain-looking and gawky at thirteen. The lesson was finished. The bell was about to ring. Classmates were thinking about labeling and the cruelty that inevitably follows. Susie had her hand up. Clearly, she hoped to have the final say. 

I called on her and she explained in an anguished voice, “You know, Mr. Viall, the other kids label me. They call me a ‘dog.’”

For once I was speechless. We all know teens can be cruel. No one had ever exposed this so perfectly, in such timely fashion, in its starkest forms. The word “dog” hung in the air like a Nazi victim on a scaffold.

We had just devoted an entire period to a discussion of human cruelty. Now those who had inflicted pain on Susie saw themselves, as it were, in a mirror. The image reflected wasn’t flattering.

“That is absolutely wrong,” I spluttered, my voice shaking with emotion. I looked to her peers for explanation. Chastened by a victim’s revelation, no one dared utter a word. The bell rang and I stood and stared as Susie’s tormentors snuck out the door and made their escape to lunch. 


            If you’re a dedicated teacher, and in my experience most of my peers were, you always try to improve. In the summer of 1996, I spent two weeks gathering material and writing a new handout on the Holocaust. The plan was to couple it with the story of Las Casas in the fall.

The first lesson remained the same. Now, on the second day, we addressed dehumanization in more modern forms. We began by listing basic terms: Holocaust; Gestapo, Nazi, swastika; genocide, dictator, and more. The last page of the reading, which we began in class, was nothing more than a large photo of Hitler’s face in black and white. I had scrawled “a cesspool in the head” across his forehead before running off copies. As expected, few students knew what a cesspool was. I had Rob, a young man we nicknamed Mr. Dictionary for his prowess with words, explain. 

I did not expect to find there were those who did not recognize Hitler. We started every class after that by turning to the page where the dictator was shown. I wanted to insure everyone knew who it was, with the drooping hair and toothbrush mustache.
(That’s one of many basics a teacher discovers must be taught only by teaching. That’s a car you want in the parking lot.)

The story was filled with hard-to-pronounce names. So we read the opening section aloud. I told students not to worry about names and dates once I turned them loose. They should try to imagine a world gone mad. The story was titled HITLER’S BLACK HARVEST.

Angie, a hard-working young lady and one of my favorites, volunteered to be first to read:

     Most students today know a little about the Holocaust. They usually know gas chambers were disguised as showers. They realize Jews had to wear yellow stars. Some know six million Jews died. Only a few know non-Jewish victims totaled another ten million.
     Still, it seems impossible to come to grips with the horror. To understand the truth we must focus on the broken heart. We must go beneath the surface of the printed page. 
We must dive into an ocean of blood.     

I asked Angie to stop a moment and allowed the words “ocean of blood” to sink in. Then she kept going:

We must watch as German troops arrest Israel Lewi. Then we must see his tearful daughter rush up to say goodbye to her father. We must see a soldier’s anger as he orders the poor girl to open her mouth. Then gasp as he fires his pistol down Liebe Lewi’s throat. 

“How many of you would want to say goodbye to your father in this situation?” I asked. You personalize history and every kid can sense how terrible this must have been.
Caitlyn volunteered to read next:

We must see Icek Bekerman steal a piece of leather to make into a pair of shoelaces, from the shop where he works as a Nazi slave. See him caught. Then see him hanged.
We must see Sophie Scholl and brother Hans, not Jews but “good Germans,” protest Nazi rule. See them paint: “Freedom!” and “Down with Hitler!” on building walls. We must shudder as they are arrested, placed on trial, sentenced to death, and beheaded.
It is not easy to watch what we must watch. And sometimes we must listen. Hear the cries of a nameless Polish prisoner. His head has been caved in and both legs broken when police torture him to make him talk. His battered body makes a thump when he is thrown into a wood coffin and sent to the ovens to be burned. Listen now. Listen as he regains consciousness at the last second, screaming: “Open up! Open up! I am still alive!”
Listen. Let his terrified shouts enter your soul. Then you may be ready to understand.

We stopped again to let the horror sink in. Silence hung over the room. I warned the reading would be hard to take and told everyone to go ahead and pick up where we left off. They would be looking evil in the eye and I asked them to see what they might discover.

I took a seat and settled down to paperwork. At first, the hush was broken only by rustling pages. Then I heard quiet crying. I glanced up and saw a girl with tears running down her cheeks. I thought: I hope I haven’t gone too far, but I want students to feel the evil.

I focused again on grading. The sound of crying grew. Melissa, normally a most enthusiastic young lady, was weeping. 

            Now I was worried. Had I delved too deeply into horror? Frankly, I feared some parent might complain. “Are you okay?” I asked Melissa. She sniffed, said yes, wiped her face, and turned a page. “Are you guys okay?” I asked the class. Nods. Tears. Most kept reading.

            I started watching. Some were turning red, stifling their horror. Finally, I said, “Look, if this is too hard, you don’t have to finish.” One or two folded their handouts back to the first page and wiped their faces. 

Melissa choked out a few words and kept going. “No….we….need….to….know this,” she sobbed. Classmates nodded and most kept reading till the bell rang, signaling an end to the period.
I asked everyone who could to finish the handout for homework.

The next day we focused on “empathy” once more, what I always called the “antidote for hate.” I believed it was possible to teach students to have empathy and hoped the idea stuck.

The definition again: “You can feel what another person feels.”

In my experience, most teens grasped this concept quickly, that we are all human, that we are all the same.

In my class we discussed this matter the very first day.


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