I taught junior high English in Baltimore City between 1967 and 1975 where I met the usual and expected challenges of dealing with adolescents. When I returned to teaching middle school in 1988, the subject “English” had been changed to “language arts.” Not only was this vocabulary different, but I began to notice more subtle changes. For a long while I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then it dawned on me that students lacked empathy for others on a large scale.
I observed and become involved because of these incidents:
- An 8th grade student huddled in the rain next to the school building wall during a class period. I went outside to investigate and found him crying in the rain. On this day after Halloween, he told me that he had been unable to remove all the Halloween makeup off his face and that other students had been teasing him cruelly about his sexuality. This was not the first time; they had found ways to tease him before as well. He told them to stop but the teacher didn’t take it seriously and joined in the teasing, whereupon he ran out of the classroom crying. I knew this young man as a very intelligent student with initiative and was able to talk him into going inside to my classroom. I called the guidance counselor who led him to the guidance office. Then, I asked the vice-principal not to suspend this child for running out of the classroom. I expected understanding and cooperation. Instead, he raised his voice and laughed so that students in trouble sitting outside his office could hear. He concluded that he had to suspend this student. No one in authority understood the problem.
- A 7th grade Chinese girl was teased daily by a group of girls in her class because her simple clothes were not the usual teen brands and styles. She tried to ignore them and received care and support from teachers. However vigilant teachers are though, they cannot prevent all bullying. One day, some students put wet nail polish on her chair just before she sat down. Not only was she embarrassed and hurt, but an article of clothing that her family had struggled to afford was ruined.
- An 8th grader, with whom I had worked in 6th grade, reminded me of the peer pressure students frequently put on successful students. She was an average student who wanted to help her best friend deal with her first experience of a death of a close relative. She also understood there were other students in the school struggling with the same issue and designed a grief project: a survey of 7th graders about their experience with losing loved ones through death; creation of a resource brochure to distribute to students; and an assembly she planned with a local hospice representative to talk with a select group of students about how to deal with grief. This unique project was the last time she showed initiative. When I spoke to her 8th grade class about projects students had done in my program, I was planning to draw attention to the project she had completed. However, as she recognized the direction in which I was going, I noticed panic on her face and an almost imperceptible shake of her head. She did not want to stand out. Her peers did not value success and she did not want their derisive comments to haunt her.
- A 7th grade student in my class had experienced much taunting by bullies, but encouraged his victimization through his behavior with his peers. I was frustrated and had tried unsuccessfully many times to resolve the problem until an unexpected solution presented itself when I assigned a project. This student chose to research medieval music and to demonstrate it on his keyboard. His peers, tired of the drone of poor presentations, took interest. Peer comments afterward tell the verdict, “Hey, I didn’t know you were so cool.”
- A group of 7th grade students were giving me a difficult time, making it impossible to teach them on a particular day. In desperation, I stopped trying to teach content and, taking a chance with potential adolescent cruelty, talked with them about my feelings. I talked to them, without lecturing but just as one human being to another, about how frustrated I was because they weren’t letting me do a good job. I tried to connect their feelings and behavior with mine and show them the similarities. I could tell from the looks on their faces that perspective taking was new to them. I was trying to help them empathize.
What happened during the years I was not teaching? Have attitudes really changed? The culture and media have changed. For example, when I first heard of a new television program called “Survivor,” it sounded full of promise. I envisioned a group of people on an island faced with survival challenges that they would work together to overcome. Silly me. It turned out to be a “me vs. them” situation. The prevailing competition, along with all the subtle innuendoes exemplified by reality shows, make a cultural statement. Do these television shows reflect a societal change?
In our schools, should we accept that “kids will be kids?” Should we accept the prevailing attitude that bullying is a rite of passage that all kids go through in growing up? This kind of behavior is not new to our times, but research shows it is much more prevalent than it used to be and it creates very damaging long-term effects on the victims and bullies..and the very fabric of our society.