Last week’s Independent reported the story of a student who withdrew from Nauset Regional High School because of anti-Semitic harassment. An unnamed girl who participated in that harassment was said to have “expressed regret” and acknowledged that she was hanging out with kids who “were not good people.” But she also deflected responsibility when she said that she did not understand the Holocaust well enough until she studied it sophomore year.
I do not know who this girl is or if she attended Nauset Regional Middle School, but I can say definitively as a teacher at that school that, if she did, she had the Holocaust facts, human stories, oral histories, reflective discussions, and social-emotional learning to have made better choices.
All the education, all the opportunities to develop empathy and understand how our actions affect others will do no good if we do not apply it to our actions. It is not enough to know the facts of history. It is having the ethical self-discipline to act morally.
I have a poster on the wall of my classroom: Courage is like a muscle; we strengthen it with use. How do we help young people to use that courage to do the right thing?
Adults need to think about the messages our kids are getting. We must be conscious of the media that we consume and that we let them consume. If the radio station they hear in the car on the way to school or the news they see on TV at home degrades or disrespects the dignity of a group of people, they should not be hearing or seeing it. There should be active conversations about how such degradation is wrong. Kids absorb so much, directly and indirectly, and many emulate what they hear and see.
Every day young people are watching YouTube videos made by hateful people, viewing memes or sharing jokes that mock the pain and suffering of others, or having their ears filled with racist, homophobic, or other slurs while playing video games or interacting in person or on social media. Not only schools but families must take these things seriously and have direct conversations about what they value and what behavior they expect as their children and students go out each day and represent them to the world.
Adults have to model moral courage. Kids have to see us speaking up in the grocery line when the person behind us is saying something prejudiced. We have to address the kid or adult we do not even know who is behind us in the seats at a sports event or movie using a slur. We have to tell them how we addressed the bigoted comment that a colleague or family member made. We have to be upstanders. They watch and they learn how to be in this world based on what they see us doing. Give them a playbook for action, not a seat on the bench.
For those students who have not yet formed a strong enough moral backbone to do the right thing, we must be that backbone. We, the adults, must make it clear that racist acts and remarks will not be tolerated. We as schools and as families must make the consequences of those actions feel costly enough that they override the discomfort a student may feel at not going along with the crowd or not adopting a friend’s bad idea.
It is unacceptable that one of our children should feel the need to go to a private school because of the treatment she has faced in this community. Anyone who knows a teenager knows that even things we might consider minor, like picking out an outfit to wear or deciding where to sit and eat lunch, can be stressful. How exponential is the stress of hearing degrading words slung about or being targeted because of who you are? It is cruel, and it is disgusting. Those words should ring loud and clear from the mouths of every student, teacher, administrator, parent, and community member. The buck stops with each one of us every day.
Anne Needel teaches English, including an eighth-grade unit on Holocaust literature, at Nauset Regional Middle School.