Dear fellow American adults,
I submit the following for your edification, enlightenment and possible humbling mortification.
I used to teach fifth grade. The kids in my class were all about ten years old. They were old enough to understand the basic rules of how to get along, but young enough to still need a lot of guidance.
They were kids.
Young, young kids.
This essay is a composite of about 853 such conversations that I had with students over my ten years as a classroom teacher. The names were changed because, seriously, this could have been any fifth grader at any time in any place.
“Karen, I need your help! Jackie was mean to me!”
“Jackie, what did you do to Jason?”
“Nothin. I just called him a fat wussy pants jerk face noodle head.”
Jason sniffles and looks at me with huge blue eyes, filled with righteous pain and anger. “See? He was so. MEAN.”
I sigh. I rub my forehead. I look at the culprit, sitting in front of me in his baggy blue shirt, with his recess sweaty hair in his big brown eyes. He looks away. He knows he did something mean. Fifth graders know mean when they see it, even if it comes from themselves.
“Jackie? What do you have to say about this?”
A shrug. “Well, I didn’t mean it. It was a joke.”
I look at my little student with my most serious teacher face.
“Jackie,” I say sternly. “You know what a joke is. What makes something a joke?”
He drops his head. The shrug reappears.
“A joke is something that makes everybody in the room laugh. A joke makes people feel happy inside. Did your words today make everybody laugh? Did everyone feel happy?”
“No.” It’s only a whisper, but, still, he said it and I am proud of him.
“What you said wasn’t a joke because it hurt someone. It hurt just as much has hitting with a fist would hurt. What you said wasn’t a joke. What was it?”
Now the shoulders are drooping, the chin is almost on the chest. Now my ten year old student is truly feeling bad about what he did.
“I was being mean. I was making fun of someone.”
“I’m proud of you!” I tell him honestly. “You admitted that you were wrong. You are a strong and brave boy. Good for you. Now what do you think you should do?”
Jackie looks at Jason, a classmate he’s known for years. Both boys are teary eyed. Both are tender.
Jackie thinks that he means it, but I have to push a little bit more.
“OK,” I say. “You said you were sorry. Do you think that takes away your bad choice? Does it take away Jason’s sadness?”
The answer is obvious to any ten year old. A simple, “sorry” doesn’t erase the pain or the hurt. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t screw up. It doesn’t mean that you don’t need to make amends.
At this point I would usually let my two students hug or shake hands or say, “It’s OK.” I’d send them back to class.
But before the end of that day, I’d catch up with “Jackie” again, and ask him if he had thought about what he could do to show Jason that he didn’t mean those cruel words. That he had respect for his classmate and that he wanted to make it right again.
In the world of elementary school teaching, this is called an “apology of action.” It is designed to make the one who did the hurting take some kind of definitive action to elevate the one who was hurt. In that world, it means picking the one you targeted for the recess basketball team, or letting them sit in the best spot in the library. It means giving them some of your snack or choosing them for your math buddy.
Ten year old kids are able to understand that “It was a joke” is a very feeble excuse for being a jerk. They were able to grasp that a simple, “Sorry” can’t take away the hurt that words have caused.
They are little kids. But they get it.
Are you listening, adults in Washington DC, Hollywood, the media, the networks? Are you listening?
We know you by your words and by your actions. And we know it isn’t a joke if most of us aren’t laughing.