A delight for English teachers is reading thought-provoking, inspiring material that provokes deep discussion. The discourse that occurs is often impressive. One of my best friends is an English teacher at a high school across town, and she told me of a pivotal moment during a recent class discussion.
They were reading “Romeo and Juliet” and discussing one of the supporting characters, Mercutio. For clarity a student asked, “Who’s Mercutio?” Another student answered, “He’s the black boy.”
An African American young man voiced his offense at the phrase. My friend didn’t understand the insult in the statement, so she dismissed the offended young man’s proclamation and continued with class.
The offended student became dejected and shut down for the rest of the period. After class she spoke to the young man who explained why he felt insulted. My friend apologized for the misunderstanding.
That night, she thought back on the incident with sadness. No teacher wants to create disunity in her classroom, and when it happens, most teachers are quick to rectify. In her contemplation, she recalled some of the lessons learned from this same class when it studied Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” a novel on Holocaust survival.
Their conversations about the novel centered around silenced voices. The students were touched by the enormity of stories left untold, quieted by concentration camps. The class knocked down many barriers and a more positive, open rapport was created during their study of the novel.
This rapport and the lesson on the importance of not silencing voices weighed heavy on my friend’s heart. So, the next day, she put curriculum aside.
She reminded her students of the lessons learned from “Night,” including the importance of allowing all voices to be heard and the understanding that the definition of an insult is relative. It doesn’t matter if we think something is offensive or not. Our opinion of whether or not someone should be offended doesn’t change the fact that someone might be offended. We do not have the right, nor the ability, to dictate someone else’s feelings.
She then replayed the incident from the previous day and confessed to her students that she had inadvertently silenced a voice. She publicly apologized to the young man.
But then she took the discussion a step further — something teachers do so effortlessly. She taught a life lesson on the importance of semantics.
Instead of simply crying out, “I’m offended” or “That hurt my feelings” and expecting everyone to cater to those ambiguous proclamations, she encouraged her students to create teachable moments when they are offended. Just as the young man did for her after class the day before, explain specifically what caused the hurt. Teach those involved so that the behavior or the words can be altered so insult is prevented in the future.
My friend then gave the young man the opportunity to teach his classmates why “the black boy” had such a negative connotation for him. Some of the students had no clue, and my friend could see the revelation in their faces. The awareness became tangible, she said.
She ended the discussion with a challenge to operate their daily lives with accountability from the day’s life lesson — to avoid barking out declarations without definitions, and more importantly, to genuinely listen to and act upon those clarifications.
Perhaps we should, too.