Suffer the Children: American Lessons from Middle School

Christina Baik

He strutted up the stage like any other cool high school senior with an attitude. But I noticed a certain heaviness in his steps as he approached the mic and took it in his hand. He slowly unfolded a wrinkled piece of notebook paper and closed his eyes. The theatre grew still and he started to read his piece.

My breath tightened as I listened to the raw anger of his poetry. In a tumble of rhymes, he told us the story of returning home from school to learn that his dad walked out on him and his mom. While he hid his eyes from us, I could hear him struggling against hot tears as he spat his last words.

After a brief silence and awkward clapping from his classmates, he returned to his seat a few rows ahead of me. He pulled his hood over his head and slouched deep into his chair.

This caught us off guard. Usually at these monthly open mic events, the high school students wrote love poetry to get the attention of a crush in the room or did covers of popular rap songs. The last time a student shared about an emotional struggle, several students laughed at her. But something opened up this time.

Another student stepped up to the stage. He took the mic and started pacing the floor with his poem in hand. He disclosed a similar story about a father who left him. He described how his anger and confusion festered into bitterness and self-blame. His words were piercingly honest and echoed much of the earlier reading. But he read with a steady voice and his piece took a turn that made the previous poet look up.

The poet on stage slowed down and read verses about the steps he took over the years to try to make sense of his dad’s decision to leave. In his struggle to understand the one who hurt him most, he found relief in choosing to forgive.

As this poet took his seat, the previous one’s shoulders softened and he looked over at his classmate with a question in his eyes.

After the event, I watched them walk out together to the bus.

Lowering Our Guard

I was working at the time at an arts center in Philadelphia that hosted these open mic events for local middle and high school students. I left the theatre that day deeply encouraged. It is rare to see such voluntary vulnerability in a public setting, let alone on a stage where others who took a similar risk before were met with ridicule. It was stunning to witness a moment in which one person’s breaking open was met by another bringing hope into the pain. Generally we are conditioned to be on our guard, invulnerable. So we keep our mouths shut – and miss out on opportunities to learn from each other. When we are honest, we may recognize ourselves among the silencers.

The exchange I witnessed that day left a lasting impression. The following year, I started teaching middle school humanities at a Friends school out of a conviction to create safe spaces for risk-taking and to foster rich levels of critical and personal engagement with some of life’s most pressing concerns. What I saw at the open mic turned out to be just a sliver of the possibilities. In my students I ended up finding some of my greatest hope for the future. In the travails of its young people, perhaps America could learn something about honest self-searching and reconciliation.

Most people I know are not fond of middle school. They remember it as one of the most uncomfortable and painful periods of their lives – rife with self-consciousness, silencing, and social division. It is sobering to recognize that, in many ways, the middle school experience hasn’t progressed very far over the years. We still deal with low self-image, bullying, and in-group vs. out-group dynamics. As much as we as a society want to think that we move on from those tumultuous adolescent years, they serve as an acute microcosm of our greater culture. I’ve found that the middle school classroom can be an invaluable space for strategizing concrete steps toward positive change.

Accessing the “Other”

One such step is to reflect on “the danger of single stories.” As conversations about race came up in my classrooms, I grew very cognizant of my own identity as one of few faculty members of color in the middle school and the only Asian one. I saw how students’ limited access to the multiple, authentic life narratives of their peers and teachers led to narrow understandings of each other as individuals and members of particular groups. In my first year, my curriculum began with Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, where we discussed the consequences of a mindless society and the importance of critically examining the world around us. The book awakened the students’ critical thinking and writing skills, but I wanted them to reach for a more personal level and open up to each other much sooner. So the next year I assigned Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes and Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” before Bradbury’s novel, to give students a more scaffolded understanding of being an individual in community. These works challenged students about their preconceptions of each other.

The more voices we read and discussed, whether from short stories and poems, articles about local bullying incidents, or their peers’ writing, the more my students realized how much they shared in their habits and insecurities. Some of the more confident students shared their own stories about being both victim and perpetuator of assumptions and labels. This encouraged the shyer ones to do the same. Naming and exploring the danger of prejudicial perceptions in the curriculum early on created a safe space much sooner.

This school exercise might sound simple or quaint, but contemporary adult society isn’t so far beyond middle school as we think. The evidence of the omnipresence of micro- and macro-aggressions – the unchecked prejudice, whether it has to do with race, class, sexuality, religion, or any other identifier – demonstrates how much more we need to seek out and share alternative stories to the ones we know by heart.

I am writing this from Israel, where my heart aches to see the fear and anxiety fueled by the incessant “single stories” on both sides of the wall. During a YDS travel seminar to Israel/Palestine in March, we visited holy sites and met with religious and political leaders. One of the most salient visits for me was to the University of Bethlehem, where Palestinian students told us that they didn’t have any Israeli friends. In one student’s words, “How can we, when we never meet any Israelis?” Her comment made “the danger of single stories” all the more universal and real to me. Access to more narratives about the “other” and friendships across the wall are absolutely necessary.

Otherwise, we will continue to read about incidents like the mob attack in Jerusalem’s Zion Square just last month. A Palestinian teenage boy was beaten unconscious by a group of Jewish adolescents in front of hundreds of people. The incident immediately brought me back to news stories about the mob attack at South Philadelphia High School in 2010. In Zion Square, it was Jewish teenagers who attacked Palestinian teenagers; at the Philadelphia school, it was black students who attacked Chinese and Vietnamese students. In both cases, young people were hospitalized. The victims and victimizers could easily have been switched, considering the long, complex histories of tension between these ethnic groups. The youth pick up such cruelty from what adults around them profess about the “other.” Uprooting the entrenched “us vs. them” mentality that leads to such violence is an incredibly daunting task. Where does our hope come from?

The Choice to Forgive

When I am discouraged, I remind myself of the second open mic poet’s decision to forgive the one who hurt him most. I recall the slouched poet straighten up in his seat ahead of me as his shoulders softened to the story of a classmate who also lost a father but found peace. And I remember that there can be healing when we are honest about our struggles and choose to forgive. I also think back to my eighth-grade English classroom and their “single-story” revelations.

One of my most powerful memories as a teacher is what happened when I decided to model the openness I sought from my students. Once I gathered the nerve in class to share my own stories, as both a victim of false assumptions and one who makes them, students relaxed. They knew I would not judge them, and our conversations gained much depth.

During my first year, for instance, I hesitated to tell my students about how just before the school year, I was attacked by a group of black middle school students in the city. They had yelled racial epithets and thrown chunks of concrete at me from the broken sidewalk as I was biking just north of Chinatown. By my second year, I was able to admit to my students that on the rest of my ride home, I involuntarily winced at every black face I saw. I emphasized to my students how I do not assume all black people will harm me, but that incident humbled me to realize how human I am to draw such associations in a moment of fear and panic, even when I know better. Becoming this unguarded to my students and asking for their understanding opened them up to each other in some powerful ways. A white, affluent boy admitted to his black friend (and as it turns out, his neighbor) that when he met her last year, he assumed that she was “from the ‘hood, poor, and part of a gang.” We were all taken aback by both his stereotyping and brute honesty. I was impressed by her easy way of assuring him that she forgives him and it’s okay. There were many such instances of honesty and forgiveness that year.

This is Not Okay

Even as we were breaking through to candid discussions in class and my students were reading, writing, and sharing vividly honest work, that second year I was rudely reminded of the continued urgency of this work. During recess, a group of boys were playing a game they called “Minority Four-Square.” They each claimed a minority identity, such as Mexican or black. Strikingly, a couple of students of color were playing along. When one got out, he would shout, “It’s because I’m Mexican!” or “It’s because I’m black!” and the others would routinely roll their eyes and laugh. They all thought this was hilarious. The derisive way in which my students played a game that made fun of those who claim a disadvantage due to racism was alarming.

I had been nearby, trying to process what was happening, when they asked me to join the game and choose what minority I would like to be. My eyes widened and nothing came out of my mouth. Perhaps they didn’t see that I was already an ethnic minority because they knew me as Christina, their English teacher. Since I was too emotional at this point to make this a “teachable moment,” I just pulled the two leaders of this group aside and briefly told them how inappropriate this was. Then, I went inside to organize my tangled feelings and thoughts before bringing all the participants in for a full discussion the following morning. I understood that thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds may not be developmentally able to fully comprehend the meaning behind their game. At the same time, I knew that several of these kids loved social commentary and most likely thought they were making a witty point about “playing the race card.” One part of me was wary of over-dramatizing the situation; another part of me shouted, No! This is not okay! My alarm was not eased when one of the colleagues I confided in replied with, “Oh yeah, the diversity thing.” Others were much more supportive, but this colleague’s comment highlighted the pressing need to actively resist such a lackadaisical attitude toward social issues.

The election season raises our attention to urgent social issues while illuminating the partisanship and drama that we’ve grown to expect from politics. In some ways, it looks like middle school on a larger scale, with the rumors, name-calling, and measures of popularity. Such an exhibition of the human condition may lead one to numbness, irritation, or despair. But I share my stories about two high school seniors and my middle school students because they chose to be vulnerable and forgiving in such a climate. My students kept me on my toes by not so gently reminding me to avoid complacency. As a teacher, I strived to equip my students to overcome the indifference, self-centeredness, and despair that too often characterize people’s reactions to conflict, and choose instead to engage in further action toward good. My students provided a hefty challenge. They also offered me hope.

Christina Baik is a second-year M.A.R. student at YDS. Previously she taught eighth-grade English, sixth-grade Spanish, and a supplementary course she created for her eighth graders called “Identity in Community” at a Quaker school outside of Philadelphia. She graduated from Swarthmore College in 2008.