Note: I wanted to try something a little different. The following is a kind of hybrid essay – part memoir, part op-ed piece. Please let me know what you think.
A Lesson Learned
The job of creating inclusive schools and communities is not simple. Like kindness, being inclusive is both incredibly easy and incredibly fraught and nearly impossible to legislate.
Mindy was olive-complected, tall and skinny. She was my best friend. Her almond-shaped brown eyes didn’t line up exactly right – neither did mine. We shared the experience of wearing an eye patch to correct muscle weakness. We were, at least to some degree, neighborhood outcasts.
We were deep into pretending that the narrow strip of dirt and grass between our two houses was a ship. I was the captain; she was the first mate. We were busy battling pirates when Marguerite, Johnny, Susan and Mike showed up. “You stupid, skinny bitch,” they taunted. I was relieved – they weren’t yelling at me. I stood silent.
Back when I wasn’t retired and worked for the New York State School Boards Association, I attended many meetings on school climate and safety. Anthony Bottar, a member of the New York State Board of Regents, opened one such meeting of the Statewide School Safety Task Force with a statement expressing the commitment of the State, in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, to improving safety in schools. He talked about the broader reform initiatives to get New York State students college and career ready. He suggested that part of that effort included tending to students’ emotional health. He asked for suggestions, “What can the Board of Regents do to help?”
I immediately raised my hand. I have been thinking about the issue of school climate for what feels like most of my life. I was involved in it in my own school district, serving on my local board of education when Columbine occurred. Regent Bottar called on me. “I think it would send a powerful message if the Regents changed the tag line for the reform agenda to college, career and citizen ready. It would signal the importance of those other qualities – emotional intelligence, civic-mindedness, etc.” There was some murmuring and some discussion in the hall. Ultimately the people in the front of the room – the Commissioner of Education at the time, John King, and Regent Bottar – were unwilling to pursue that idea. The suggestion was forgotten. That meeting was early in 2013. It was the beginning of the end of my career in education.
Not only was I silent while the taunts rained down on Mindy – after a while I joined in. I knew it was wrong. But, it was too tempting; it was exhilarating to be part of the powerful. At least in the moment.
We didn’t speak for months – then I got my courage up and I apologized. I asked her, “Can we be friends again?” Fortunately for me, she said we could, but not until I faced her mother’s wrath.
At a pre-arranged time, I rang her doorbell and Mindy answered. She ushered me up the stairs. Their apartment was the mirror image of my grandparent’s place next door. Her mother, who was intimidating under the best of circumstances, was seated at the kitchen table, taking a break from making dinner. I told her I apologized and it would never happen again. She told me, in her sand-papery voice, in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t bully Mindy and I couldn’t treat her like a second fiddle, or else I’d be in trouble. She nodded toward the pot of boiling water on the stove.
Maybe I imagined that she gestured to the boiling water – but I’m pretty sure she actually did. In my memory she actually said, “I will boil YOU in that pot if you mistreat her!” Whether she uttered those words or not, I clearly got the message. Almost 50 years later Mindy and I are still friends. I learned my lesson. I had learned my lesson even before her mother’s threat.
In my mind these stories are connected: my experience at the task force meeting in 2013 and my behavior as a nine-year old. I’m wondering if others see any relationship.