What do you see when you look into his eyes?

My students know I can get a little upset when it comes to racism and disrespect of any kind.  I teach a course on Genocide and Human Rights, so I’m just a tiny bit sensitive to some issues.  And by tiny bit, I mean I fly off the handle, one student might say irrationally.   But don’t we all have our hot button issues?

Teachers can’t help but see the world through their subject lens.  A science teacher reads the newspaper and is drawn to issues of global climate change, new findings in medical research, and latest images from the Mars rover.  An English teacher reads every novel with the thought of, “I wonder if this would be good for my course on…”  So, it is only natural, that when I see the news, and I see a young man and his classmates taunting a Native American Elder, I see it through the lens of history.

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I also have chaperoned numerous school trips, shuttling 45 to 150 kids to various locations around Europe.  Regardless of how many students, these are always the best and worst weeks of my life.

My mommy instincts kick in and I worry about the precious cargo I’m in charge of.  I worry one or two of them will get left on a train.  I worry that a few might feel left out or be homesick. I worry that they might do something that reflects poorly on themselves, their families, and our school.  They are kids after all, they don’t always think about the possible consequences of their actions.

99% of the time, we return home all in one piece.  (There was that one time a student broke her wrist.) We have a few funny stories to tell about nearly losing teacher in the city, the crazy antics the kids got up to after 10 pm, and the amazing learning we all shared together. But I have never EVER had a situation where, when unsupervised, my students did what these boys did on Saturday.

There was that time that I had a student in class say something like, “Didn’t the Jews sort of ask for it?  I mean, they could have just left?”  The the room went into an eery silence.  A giant vacuum left us breathless, my mind exploded in emotion as time stood still.  How do you respond to that in a respectful and measured way?

I tried to remain calm, to not show emotion, but inside I was a raging.  With restraint, I tried to explain why I found the question to be inappropriate.  I tried to explain why the question was insensitive. I tried to explain that no one ASKS for genocide to be committed against their people.

Then there was the time we were in Berlin. As my homeroom approached the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe I gave them a warning:

“This is one of the most important things you will see today.  It is to be respected.  No climbing on the blocks. No taking of selfies.  No yelling or playing tag in the maze of stele. This is hallowed ground.”

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We stood along side it. One of the students had prepared a short speech about how it was designed and what it was to represent.  Then I gave them more instructions.

“Each of you needs to take your own path.  Don’t go together.  Walk amongst the stele and remember why this was created.  Have your own experience.  I will meet you on the other side.”

They took their own paths.  They wandered for maybe two minutes and then the sky opened up into an apocalyptic rage of wind and rain.  You couldn’t really see or manoeuvre in the chaos, but some of the students were able to find each other and huddle amongst the monoliths.  Their screams and cries joined the screams and cries of others caught with no protection from the storm.

When the torrent subsided, the students emerged.  They were giant sponges weighed down by their wet sweatshirts and jeans.  They were cold, shivering, and miserable.  They seemed to have understood what just happened.  They were all visibly moved, shaken.  The monument spoke to them.

No one complained.  They knew that in the shadow of that monument, there was no room for complaint.

And as I gaze into this boy’s eyes I have so many questions.  Where are the adults?  Why would adults allow you to wear MAGA hats on your service outing?  If your school is sending you to march alongside those who are in support for the Right to Life, why would you stand and jeer at others who have just as much right to live?

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And I wonder, do others see what I see through my history teacher lens?  Do they see boys in brown shirts? Do they see boys using their power and privilege to belittle others? Do they see boys taunting those that do not fit their view of a master race?

Monday is going to be a difficult day for Covington Catholic High School and their diocese.  Already their website’s “contact us” page is set to password only.  Their Twitter accounts and their Facebook page are locked. I can only imagine the disappointment the teachers at Covington are feeling right now.  This is not what usually happens on their annual trip to Washington DC.

We can only hope that for Covington’s next service project, these boys will work alongside people like Nathan Phillips.  Maybe these boys will learn to build bridges of empathy, rather than build walls of prejudice.

Looking for programs and resources to teach empathy amongst your students?  Contact Cultures of Dignity, Teaching Tolerance, and Facing History And Ourselves.

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