I’ll never forget the first time I took a group of high school students to Washington D.C. As a teacher in the mountains of Appalachia, it wasn’t as if funding for such a trip was plentiful. The kids and I sold pizzas, popcorn, held bake sales and did everything possible that would allow us to go to our nation’s capital. When we came up short financially and couldn’t afford to travel on a comfortable bus, we had no choice but to take a big yellow school bus and tough it out with comfy pillows. Just thinking about it makes my back hurt. Mind you, this was a nine-hour drive through the mountains, chock full of twists and turns.
When we arrived in D.C., it was clear that selling all those cookies and pizza slices was worth it. The students were in awe. We visited every museum, national monument and historical building within our timeframe and my students exhibited total reverence for every square foot they walked. I know without a doubt that not a single one of them would have said anything harmful or disgraceful about this country and its leaders. They were well aware if they didn’t exhibit respect, their mean ol’ history teacher would be so disappointed in them. I made it clear that thanks to the military and political leaders who served before them, they were allowed to voice their beliefs or disagreements.
But in no way, I emphasized until I was blue in the face, does that allow them to be disrespectful in words or actions.
As both a student of life and teacher of many, I’ve seen words destroy kid’s self-esteem. I’ve seen harsh words bring teenagers to tears and I watched girls and boys get their noses bloodied over whispered lies. I’ve seen hair pulled, nails broken and back in the day, saw kids paddled when they exhibited cruelty and disrespect. One form of punishment worked for some kids, and it seemed harsher punishment was required for others. I'm sure it's still the case today, for it seems that some people tend to only learn the hard way.
I’m one of those people. How about you?
Perhaps you can relate. As a writer with an expressive personality, I can easily get overheated. I’ve been guilty of saying things I regret and foolishly believing the recipient of my hateful words could simply shake it off, forgive, and then all be back to normal. Why? Because I’ve been a part of relationships that do exist in such a way. For example, some familial relationships of which I’m a part are based on unconditional love. Feelings get hurt, words are spoken or texted, and then, over time, both sides forget and forgive. It’s family, after all. That’s what we do.
But hold it right there.
Regardless if it’s close family or friends, harsh words can have far-reaching consequences and we need to remember that. Sure, we can extend love and forgiveness, as that's what I believe decent human beings should do. But that doesn’t mean we forget unwarranted condemnation any time soon. My words have hurt others and others words have crushed my heart as well.
Cruel words can lodge in our subconscious and do irreparable harm. I’d venture to say that you, too, can remember hurtful words said to you that still make your stomach turn. Or perhaps you need to ask forgiveness to someone who's spirit you crushed at one time or another. You are not alone.
After watching the recent events unfold in Washington, my stomach turns in a similar fashion. I’ve watched cruel and mocking chants inflame people so badly that some are losing faith in this country—a country I love so much. Both sides are guilty. Instead of disagreeing respectfully, I’ve watched leaders tear up speeches, incite others to tear down statues and recently encouraged thugs to forget the words written on the walls of our US capitol building and destroy it instead. Heartbreaking.
I can’t help but wonder if those guilty of inciting riots, bigotry and hate, were once bullies in the halls of their high school. Perhaps they weren’t taught a hard enough lesson in how to act like a respectable adult. Or maybe they were on the receiving end of viciousness and never did the mental work required in overcoming their insecurity and realizing the difference between truth and lies. Regardless of the reasoning, words matter and can bring total destruction to buildings, hearts and minds.
I know that my history students—now fine men and women--- are shaking their heads in disgust at what they’re seeing on television. I hope they remember what I taught them. I hope I remember the lessons as well. We must guard our words and actions. It’s a new year and in many ways, it’s a new country. But I’m hopeful. I am always hopeful.
Perhaps our leaders need to be put on an uncomfortable school bus with one another and not get off until they’re sick of how they’ve acted. Perhaps they should be forced on a salary that only affords them pizza and bake sale goods. Perhaps, on both sides, they’ll think twice the next time they sound more like a teenage bully than a thoughtful adult leader.
One thing is for sure, if they’d been in my classroom, I know exactly what I’d do: they’d most likely get a good paddling in the principal’s office. Even worse, I’d look at them in the eyes and whisper, “As an American, I’m so very disappointed in you.”