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We Are The Sum of Our Actions

A simple classroom adage that holds so much relevance in the world we now find ourselves in.  Like many of my fellow citizens, my overextended sense that our great American society would just exist indefinitely, was obliterated on 8 November 2016.  We find ourselves bewildered by the deplorable, hateful, racist others that exist in this country.  We find it unfathomable that one belligerent, repugnant, spoiled man-child, and the cronies he rode in on, can seemingly break every societal rule with such wanton disregard for the core principles that founded our country.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow.  We must accept that our false sense of comfort, and easily distracted nature, have allowed such a cohort of people to exist and take hold of our once great nation.  But the ugly truth is, we have let this happen.  We did not invest and take part in our democratic processes as we should have.  We assumed too much, in thinking justice and righteousness would always prevail.  We ignored the fact that we were never fully educated on certain historic truths of how we achieved our status as the leader of the free world.  In essence, we’ve been kept just ok enough, shielded from major hardships and allowed ourselves to be pleasantly preoccupied with the spoils of a materialistic economy.  We’ve piddled away time relishing in our over inflated sense of self-importance as reflected back to us through social media.  We didn’t think we had to be involved in developing our people or in molding the direction of our civilization.

We were wrong.

So how did this happen?  Where do we go from here?

First, we need to stop believing words at face value.  We’ve forgotten some very basic homespun wisdom.  Talk is cheap and words are easy. Action speaks louder than words.

We’re in an age where we’ve seen it all.  Religious figures that pretend to be holy, selling poor saps on what they want to hear, just so they can line their pockets with the hard earned pennies of their guileless, blind sheep.   But honestly, I blame the sheep to a large extent.  In this world, you have to be able to look beyond a person’s words, and assess the character of the person uttering the phrases.  A true, holy leader should be virtuous and humble.  The phony, shameless greed and valuation of materialism should be enough to show the desperate followers that their leader is unfit for the title.  But lately, some Americans seem to be blind from seeing a person’s actual character.  They lack the analytical ability, especially when that person seems to say everything they so desperately want to hear.  They like the words, and accept them at face value, because the words make them feel good.

In my last year as an elementary school teacher, I had two boys in third grade, who for months were stealing candy from a corner store on their way to school every morning, until they were finally caught.  These two boys were the picture of adorable – they were two of my least problematic boys that year.  They were charming, funny and handsome.  They had loving parents and families, who were distraught when they learned what mischievous act their children took part in.  Let’s be real, most kids at some point steal something.  Stealing candy at age 8, is about as innocent as it gets.  I’ve done much worse, and at a much older age.  My friends at 13, had actually committed felony level theft.  But I had to get real with my boys.  The benefit of being a child is supposed to be that you have an allotment of time to make some mistakes, and time to learn from them.  Life is supposed to be forgiving in childhood.  I had to drill in to them that eventually people become what they do.  For example, if you let your insecurities take ahold, and all you can do is to talk badly about everyone else, because deep down you don’t feel good about yourself…well, then you are a hater.  That’s the definition.  I calmly asked those two boys, who stole a candy bar every morning on their way to school…what is a thief?  They said “a thief is somebody who steals.”  “Well, you stole candy, so that makes you a thief, right?”  They looked to the floor with tears in their eyes.  “I’m not a thief…I don’t want to be a thief.”  I told them I am so glad that you don’t want to be a thieves, but saying that you don’t want to be a thief isn’t enough.  I told them that so many kind-hearted, loving boys like themselves make simple mistakes…and continue to make bad decisions, but at some point, those bad choices lead to labels, like thief, and labels stick.  I had to tell them, that if they don’t like the label of thief, then they have to stop doing the things that thieves do.  People become the actions that they most commonly do.

I wrote my first blog post in reaction to all of the buried, racist hatred that began spewing in this country just after the orange man-child was elected.  I was heartbroken thinking about the world that my students will have to face, the world I faced – even though I know that the hate and discrimination of my life won’t even compare to what they’ll endure…and that thought broke me.  I recalled a year when I was 8, at the mercy of a hateful, racist bigot as my 3rd grade teacher.  I went on to recount that that same year, on my first family vacation at Disney World, I was singled out and spit on by a racist redneck boy. I remember his flaming red hair and his family’s unforgettable southern drawl – my pacifist father went right back and confronted the boy’s family.  “Hey” he yelled, “your kid just spit on my daughter.”  The first thing his grandmother instinctually said was, “awww, no way!  Maayyy boy wouldn’t do that…he’s not a racist!  We don’t raise ’em like that!”  (bullshit) was what I thought, and what I wish my 8 year old self said.  She would not, could not see that “her boy” was just that…a homegrown, hateful racist bully.

The racist epithets, and hate-fueled violence that’s become commonplace since the 45th smarmy GOP puppet has taken office is incomprehensible.  The ironic commonality that all of the horrendous racists captured on video have in common, is that they all become overtly offended (ahem, the original definition of a snowflake) when they are called out on what they actually are…racist.  They cannot comprehend or connect the fact that their actions show that they are just that.  People are aware of loaded words in the English language –  liar, racist, bully.  Even those who most embody those descriptors, do not want to wear those labels because they are negative terms that we don’t want to be associated with.  One’s sense-of-self is such a delicate thing (right snowflakes?).  But launching in to a fury of racial slurs, approaching people in stores and on beaches and grabbing your crotch, and yelling obscenities at another human being because they are not the same race as you, means…you are racist.  There is such a disparity in how, much of our populace perceives themselves, verses what and who they actually are.

In this post, I won’t divvy out the blame (ahem again, Grandma who irrefutably defends her racist grandson by claiming he’s not racist moments after he spits on a child of a different race = the problem)…and I won’t promise a simple, fast solution because there aren’t any.  I can suggest this –  the slow road to reconstructing human decency starts in our homes, and in the classroom.  As parents and educators, we have to call our children out on negative behaviors.  We do the gravest disservice by not making children aware of their unpleasant truths, but then we must also be there to support them and help them change to become the type of person they want to be – kind, a good friend, helpful, honorable.  We have to make our children connect and internalize that their actions show who they are.  I can say I am nice, because I want to be nice.  But if all of my actions show just the opposite, then I am not a nice person.  Words alone don’t mean anything.  If a child picks on, torments and belittles others…make that child understand that that is bullying….he or she is being a bully.  When they don’t like that label, which they won’t, because that label isn’t pleasant, make the child understand that the only way to make that label not stick, is to not do what bullies do.  If you don’t want to be a thief, stop stealing.  And if you don’t want to be a racist, stop spewing hate towards others based on racial differences.  It’s that simple.  It’s elementary really, which is where these lessons are supposed to be taught and mastered – in elementary school.

And if you realize that you can’t stop or you don’t want to stop doing the things that racists, or bullies, or liars, or thieves do…whatever your affliction is, that’s fine too.  Just demonstrate a basic level of self-awareness and own your label.  If the sight of a chink, a spic, a terrorist sand-nigger, or a nigger in your country throws your whole sense-of-self to the point where you’re overcome with a physical fury that can only be satisfied by you hurling your verbal retch on to others – if that’s really how weak you actually are, that the mere sight of an “other” can have such a profound effect on your state-of-being, then own your bullshit and just acknowledge that you are racist.  In other words, call a duck a fucking duck.  If you don’t like your label, then maybe it’s time to change.

 

The Difference of Teaching Empathy Verses Hate

End of the Year Field Trip

I am not yet a parent, so the proudest and greatest thing I have done with my life thus far, is to teach elementary aged students in Brooklyn, NY. It was the hardest job I have ever had.  It was also, the only truly rewarding experience I have ever had.

In my years as an educator, I taught 2nd – 4th grade, but most of my years were spent as a 3rd grade teacher.  It’s poignant really, because the most crippling and most influential year of my early life was when I was a 3rd grade student.

That year, I had an ignorant, racist bitch as my 3rd grade teacher. Mrs. Kline. I’m sure she was a general racist, but at that time she had specific animosity against Asian people because her daughter wasn’t accepted in to dental school and she blamed this on international Asian students.  Up until this point in school, I was painfully shy in class. I was ok socially, but I was a kind and quiet student.  Mrs. Kline, would routinely single me out and randomly get angry and upset and yell statements at me like, “I don’t know why you people even come to this country.” “Why don’t you just go back to where you came from.”

This was also the year my family took our first family vacation. We went to Disney World…allegedly, the happiest place on earth. While I was walking through one of the theme parks, a boy with reddish blonde hair and a southern accent came over to me and just spit on me. I was stunned. I didn’t even know how to react. But I felt humiliated, singled-out and exposed.

But I too, was also ignorant. I grew up in a mostly white, blue-collar city in Upstate New York. I did not grow up in a household where racial slurs or ignorant expressions were ever used, but I was exposed to this in school and some of that permeated. The main issue with my upbringing was the complete vacuum of conversation around race, injustice and the continual way bigotry was ignored, and therefore accepted.

I had to internalize and understand that if the worst, and most painful experiences of my life were when someone judged me because I’m Asian, then how dare I ever do that to someone else. I started to grow as a person, and question what is innately right, and what is intrinsically wrong in the way I thought about and understood others.

As a teacher, I had the privilege of bringing two incredibly special classes of students, one from 2nd to 3rd grade, and one class from 3rd to 4th grade. In the class that I took from 3rd to 4th grade, most of my students were first generation Caribbean immigrants, 3 students were from Yemen, 1 student was Latino and 1 was from China, and they had me, a Korean American adoptee as their teacher. We were an entire class of immigrants.

In 3rd grade social studies, educators have to introduce the concept of religion. In this particular class, we had two very different devout religious groups represented – Christians and Muslims.  If this concept wasn’t aptly introduced, it could’ve easily become an explosive topic.

But instead, we discussed how there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” way to call, to worship or to have faith in a god. We discussed that the purpose of religion has always been to help people find meaning in life, to teach people a moral code and how to behave, and how different forms of religion have always existed to help people endure this difficult journey called life. Instead what we did, was teach acceptance, empathy and understanding.

When I reflect on the memories and meaning these two groups of students have had on my life, I am filled with an inexplicable mix of emotions, and tears start pouring out. These were some of the kindest, sweetest, most loving young people I have ever met. They were also wise beyond their years. We would talk about police brutality, Martin and Malcom, the shootings of young men of color like Treyvon Martin, the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook, the inspiration of President Obama. I would look at the faces of my babies (I say this, because I love them as if they were my own)…and I helped them see that they are more powerful because they have or inevitably will know hardship, in a way that some white people never will, because they too will know what it is to be singled-out, judged, generalized by what they look like, labeled by the hate that some people see, before they can be seen for who they actually are.

For anyone who has grown up different in this country…either racially, spiritually, different in their sexual preference, or simply different because they are empathetic beings; we are overwhelmed with what’s happening to our society.  All of the injustice taking place in our nation right now feels personal. These are the stories that have unfairly shaped our lives. We are standing up for all of our cumulative experiences of being singled-out, judged and humiliated. We are standing up, because we can’t stand watching decent, loving people and families experience some of the most brutal and unjust discrimination we have seen in our lifetime.

The proudest moment of my life, was when I was called down to the lunchroom because “my 4th grade girls were being difficult.” I knew there was NO WAY they did something wrong. They were the easiest, most pleasurable class to teach. I went in to the lunchroom, and saw all of my girls sitting together at a lunchroom table. The lunch lady was upset that the girls refused to eat, and they refused to go outside and play.  I went over and started talking to them. They looked up and told me that they were all fasting to support Leila and Maram, two of the Muslim girls in the class. That is what you get when you teach love and empathy. It was beautiful.

Christmas Fun on a Slide. Kinship and love.

Years ago on my Facebook timeline, I posted a note that Maram wrote to me…she made an adorable card saying she’ll love me until she’s 100 or 101 years old. I remember being at an African dance performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. A row of my boys sat behind me, and I heard one of the boys say to the other, “wow man, that’s so beautiful.” My kind, sweet boys…appreciating art, and the exposure to a different culture. I remember my girls supporting their Muslim classmates, and being better human beings than the now leaders of our country. These are the people being labeled terrorists, gangsters and criminals. IT MAKES ME SICK to think of anyone labeling these beautiful children with these disgusting, and INCORRECT labels. I think of Mrs. Kline…and I am truly disgusted that any person who calls themselves a teacher can harbor blind hatred towards a child.

I will fight what’s happening until the bitter end because I promised my students that they would have a better, more progressive world to be themselves in.  And that the countries and cultures their parents left behind to give them a better life, in a better place was not for nothing. I will resist what’s happening to our country…my country, because even after the profound experience of returning to South Korea this past fall to meet my biological family, it actually solidified that I am American, and that this is where I belong. And I want America to be the place that I know it can be.