Making a difference amid a school's culture of cruelty

Students have rebuffed some of my moral lessons. But they've begun to understand the power of kindness.

"I want to get a gun and kill [you]." I still remember the day last year when a student said that to me. I'm not sure what shocked me more: the fact that he didn't know me or the coldness in his eyes.

Another day after that incident, I was walking through the halls of the Orlando middle school where I teach when I heard a door slam as a boy stormed out of class. As I followed him down the empty hall, I quickly thought about the best way to approach him. After three years at this inner-city school, I had learned to gauge the danger levels.

As I wondered where all of that rage came from, I approached him quietly and with some coaxing, he agreed to sit down. His anger dissolved into tears.

These two examples reinforce my belief that anger is the unofficial mascot at my school. I am determined to do my part to transform the school's culture of cruelty into a culture of kindness and true learning, but it hasn't been easy. Students have rebuffed many of my efforts – and even tested my faith in humanity. The acts of grace I've glimpsed, however, give me hope that the struggle against cruelty is well worth waging.

In the early days of my time here, I felt as though I had been dropped into a foreign country. Many of my students read at levels three to five years below their grade. Some have been in and out of juvenile detention and already carry the emotional scars of poverty, neglect, or abuse. The ways people communicated and the words they used often sliced through me. With my Pollyanna attitude, I was seen as a foreigner. As a foreigner, I struggled to adapt to this environment, to engage my students, and, ultimately, to connect with them.

With students at my school being shot, arrested, and jailed on murder charges, my idealistic notions often dissipated quickly. Still, this year, after attending a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on political theorist Hannah Arendt and good and evil, I hoped to make a greater impact. Ms. Arendt's idea about the banality of evil made sense to me. Her concept of thoughtlessness gave me hope that evil could be fought with ideas.

Students' reaction to a lesson on evil

Armed with a notebook filled with lessons on tolerance, I thought I could reach my students with these ideas. My first few lessons, however, bombed. When I talked about the banality of evil and Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official who helped implement the Holocaust, my students' responses floored me.

Millions of Jews had been extinguished and they were concerned that Eichmann would lose his job if he didn't comply.

I was discouraged, to say the least. I then turned to a novel that explored bullying. When I read excerpts aloud, many of my students identified with the bully and called the victim "pathetic."

After that day, I put away the notebook. It seemed to mock me. Or maybe the toxicity was getting to me. I had failed and I didn't think I had the energy to push back against the tide.

I wondered if our culture had become a culture of cruelty. Movies, music, video games, and books – they all celebrated violence and pain. Tragedy and terror blared from every channel.

As a teacher and a human being, I desperately wanted to believe that good could triumph over evil. I desperately wanted to believe that individuals could make a difference. And I wanted to believe in the power of kindness.

Still, I couldn't find much evidence. Walking through the halls, my ears were assaulted by torpedoed insults and profanity. My school was a war-torn land where teachers, administrators, and students fought one another relentlessly. I wanted to fast-forward to the end of the year.

Then something happened that made me grab the remote control of my life and press pause with all of my strength. One of my son's classmates, a 10-year-old boy named Eric, passed away. I didn't know him, but sorrow enveloped me as I tried to explain death to my son.

Suddenly, everything took on greater urgency. Although I had always tried to treat my students with respect, a new determination fueled my efforts. Would this be my last day with my students?

With this new perspective, I decided to continue my lessons. I also decided to add something. I had heard that Eric was very kind and saw the best in others, so I planned a new section on kindness.

Glimpses of hope

I don't know how much difference I've made, but I've caught glimpses of hope. Out of the blue, we were given tickets to see "To Kill a Mockingbird." As we sat in the theater, I watched my students. They absorbed every word, motionless, caught in the grip of that powerful story. I had never seen them like that before. Afterward, one of my students wrote that he was "in awe." Another wrote that he admired the character Atticus Finch because he stood up for others.

Another glimpse came when students became enthusiastic about our kindness project on When the students tried to do kind deeds for teachers and a few didn't respond, I recognized the disappointed expression on their faces.

Then, I heard about the shootings at Virginia Tech. I knew that I had no answers. I knew that I had no way to stop the pain, the bleeding, the sorrow at Blacksburg, Va.

I do, however, have something I can do at my own school. With less than 30 days until the end of the year, I will continue to fight the culture of cruelty. And I will continue to believe in kindness and goodness – that Martin Luther King was right when he said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

Em Hunter is an educator and a writer.

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