“Mr. Taylor, I’m going to start calling you Benjamin, but you can’t be mad at me because I warned you. Okay, Benjamin?”
When it comes to 8th period, all bets are off. At the end of the day, there is an unspoken understanding between my students and I that some jokes will slip through the cracks of my waning late-afternoon discipline.
It never (rarely) gets out of hand, but my students know that when we are all ready to bust through the doors into the open air like a reverse High School Musical, I am more concerned with getting through to them on proper apostrophe usage than correcting their mild irreverence.
In truth, few acts of misbehavior make me visibly upset. The stank face is one. If a student makes the stank face in my general direction, they purchase a one-way ticket to the hallway until they can “fix whatever is wrong with their face”.
But what my students know about me is that the only time I get really visibly upset is when they put each other down. There are words in our society that have bred negativity disguised as harmless idioms that some of my students have unfortunately taken to: one is the r-word and the other is the other f-word (‘f—ggot’).
From the beginning of the school year, I made it clear that inappropriate language in my class included these two words (as well as the negative use of the word ‘gay’) and the use of such words would result in immediate removal from the class. I wanted the consequence of using these words to convey the room I have for such ignorance, which is none.
Only a few students had to learn how serious I was before all of my students knew how serious I was. And yet, when I sent them out I never felt quite right about the consequence: do they learn anything from me kicking them out? From a one-hour detention sentence?
At the beginning of this semester, I reminded my students of the expectations in my classroom. As a first-year teacher, I learned my own lesson about being extremely specific with certain rules (“keep your hands and feet to yourself” makes more sense to a middle-schooler as “if you didn’t bring it in, don’t touch it”).
When I reviewed my rule about the words we use with each other, one of my students raised his hand. “I’m not trying to be rude,” he cautiously started, “but why do those words offend you?”
I explained to the class that when we describe something stupid or ridiculous as “gay”, what we are suggesting is that all people who are “gay” are stupid or ridiculous. Or to say that someone or something is “retarded” is to imply that it is a negative thing to be handicapped. I also reminded them that even if they disagreed with homosexuality, there is a respectful way to disagree with something without calling it stupid or ridiculous.
“Oh,” the kid who had posed the question replied. “If I had known that’s what we were saying, I would have never said those words.”
Sometimes off-handed comments hit you head on.
Most of my kids didn’t know that the use of these words cut certain groups of people down. Most of my kids had heard these words from adults or their peers and assumed they were okay. All of my kids heard me say they were not okay, and thought, “Why?” but never bothered to ask out loud.
For the rest of the day, when I reviewed my rule about language to my other classes, I made sure to tell them why. One of my students that has me for two classes nudged a friend after hearing my explanation again and whispered, “Did you know that?”
A lot of times, my kids just don’t know what they’re saying. They get it secondhand from people they respect or shows they like, and assume it’s acceptable.
A lot of times, we as adult just don’t know what we’re saying. It wasn’t so many years ago that I referred to things as the r-word until a friend made me think about the connotations for the first time. I still hear some of my friends using slurs like these, and I can’t honestly say I am courageous enough to always confront them like I do my students.
It’s not fair for us to assume that people know what they’re saying just because they’re saying it. It is easy to react angrily when we hear things that offend us; it is incredibly difficult to react with patience and kindness. It is difficult to calmly ask, “Why are you using that word?” instead of getting in people’s faces about the offense you believe they have purposely given.
All words come with a set of intentions. Even though a word or sentence is offensive does not mean it comes from a place of purposeful offense.
If it does, we need to work to love the people who hate. We cannot continue to accept the “every person is an island” mantra, because the world will never get better if we continue to put broken people on their own islands far away from the rest of us equally broken people. I have sent so many students out for bullying others, only to regret that I did not try harder to show them how loving others works: not by pushing people away, but bringing them in close and understanding their hurt. What if the friend who corrected me had pushed me away instead of seeking to make me understand what I was saying?
If words do not come from a place of purposeful offense, we cannot offend or hurt back. That makes us hypocrites. We also cannot say, “Eh, they didn’t mean it.” We must have the difficult conversations with one another about words. We must change the way we speak to one another, ensuring that each word that leaves our mouths, each text or post that leaves our fingertips, is conveyed with the intent to lift up and never the intent to pull down. As The National once said, “I think everything counts a little more than we think.”
I was not offended in any way by my student who decided to call me Benjamin, but I explained to him why he couldn’t call me Benjamin even though he had warned me.
“I have to know you respect me, Kevin,” I said, “even by what you call me.”
We have to know we respect each other, through each and every word.