As a retired junior high and middle school teacher, I understand that the words “Your mother” and what follows are fighting words. I always tried to stop this sort of bait within my own classroom but I also understood that I could not control student speech elsewhere
So, I tried to talk with my students, individually and as a group. “If someone says your mother is a fire truck, does that make it true? Of course not. You mother remains who she is regardless of what someone else says.”
I extended this to the personal remark, “If someone says you are a kangaroo, does this make you a kangaroo? Of course not. You are whoever you are regardless of what someone else says. Someone else’s words do not change who you are." I went on to point out that by reacting to these words, students are giving undeserved power to those who are speaking them.
When I taught at Annapolis Middle School, I had a chance to experience personally what I had been talking about with my students. One morning I intercepted a passed note from a girl in my room. As soon as the class saw that I had the note in hand, they rallied, “Read it out loud, Ms. Schupp!” Of course I was not going to do this, but as I read it to myself, I was puzzled. The note said, “Ms. Schupp is a bitch.”
Hmmmmm. The girl who had written the note was not a bad student and she had never given me any trouble. Why was she hurling these insults about me? That period I did not send her to the office but I told her that I would catch up with her at lunch. During lunch period, after I’d given her and myself a chance to eat something, I went to the cafeteria and called her aside.
“I really don’t understand why you called me a bitch. I’ve never given you reason to do this and just because you call me a bitch does not make me one. I know who I am and your words do not change that. I suspect that you are upset with someone else. Who is it?”
Without too much encouragement, she broke down in tears, saying that her mother had a new boyfriend and that her mother was not paying attention to her any more. She was really angry with her mother.
The girl started crying and I hugged her and told her it was okay. Because I had a class to teach in a few minutes, I called the guidance counselor so she could spend some time in his office and try to work through some things.
Now, a look at current events. I usually do not personally speak harshly of various groups. I believe in free speech. For instance, I hate what the KKK stands for but support their right to say what they want to say. If people make fun of women, my hackles rise and I am angry—but I do not want to take away their right to say what they want. I find much offensive that I read, but I do not want to take away anyone’s right to say these things.
Charlie Hebdo has a right to free speech, even if it may be offensive to some. The latest edition of Charlie Hebdo has sold more than any of the other editions. This, in some way, says something about the power given to the speaker when there is a terrible reaction to the words.
It saddens me when so much evil is the result of religion and reactions to words. My mother taught me, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt.” I accepted this for myself. However, I do believe that words can be hurtful and I discouraged vocabulary such as “fag” in my classroom. But, at the same time, I tried to teach students to rise above them. Most importantly, never should sticks and stones (and bullets) retaliate against words.
I am afraid that the world’s problems have been reduced to the middle school level. It is sad what this says about the emotional maturity of the human race.