A Note on Compassion

This week, my eighth-grade students began a project-based learning (PBL) activity that blends their coursework in science, English, and history classes. They’ll work on this project for three weeks, during one or all of those class periods. Their task?

Establish a society from the ground up.

Vague? Absolutely. Challenging? You bet.

These students have just spent more than a month learning about the development of the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, and government system; they’ve also been studying the government’s influence on the preservation and allocation of natural resources, paying special attention to the National Parks Service and humankind’s impact on our environment.

The two teachers that I am collaborating with on this project want students to think about the natural resources for their designated regions, draft rules and government systems, determine basic human rights, etc. I want them to collaborate effectively, develop presentations that are compelling and informational, research to find information, and market their countries to compel others to “move.”

We knew this undertaking would be a challenge. We knew that students would argue about menial components (like the design of their country’s flag, or what their nation’s song should be); and we expected groups to struggle with the concept of compromise. We knew that some students would do very little, whereas others would attempt to shoulder their entire group’s burden singlehandedly.

In all our conversations about the project’s learning objectives, though, we failed to consider one crucial desired outcome: compassion.

On day two of the collaborative experience, I sat with one of the groups as they discussed their country’s would-be rules (based on the group’s core values, established the previous day). Here’s a snippet of the conversation that ensued:

Student A: “Okay, we’re banning Muslims, right?”

Student B: “Yeah, no Muslims, for SURE. Have you seen what they’re doing to our country?”

Student C: “And Jews.”

Student B: “Add ‘build a wall’ to the list.”

Maybe I should have intervened after the first student opened her mouth; maybe I was right to let them talk through it for a few minutes. Either way, I sat in a shell-shocked kind of stupor for a solid 2 minutes. Then I chimed in. “Why are you banning Jews?” I asked.

One of the girls, who had been pretty quiet thus far, asked, “What are Jews?” My soul wilted a bit. We chatted for a few moments about the religion and culture, and then she asked, “Wait. Why are we banning Jews?” The other kids in her group couldn’t think of a good reason, so they agreed to remove that list item. We went on to discuss their issues with Muslims, as well, and the students quickly realized they didn’t know as much as they thought they did. I urged them to replace the word “Muslims” in their doctrine with the word “Christians,” and see if they still thought their rules were fair.

During my drive home that evening, I reflected on the experience.

They’re only 13 years old, I reminded myself, as I knew many others would say. They’re just repeating what they hear at home.

And isn’t that sad?

In the two hours we spent together that morning, I watched students spend more time arguing about who to exclude, discriminate against, and condemn than they spent talking about any other component of their projects. I was left wondering, after it all — How am I going to teach these kids compassion? Isn’t that something that parents are supposed to instill from Day One? 

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know anything about parenting. I don’t have kids. But during my four years of teaching, I have reflected often on the upbringing my parents bestowed me with. I don’t wear rose-colored glasses: I am well aware that my parents likely harbor some racial prejudices. I think this is true for all members of society, whether people are willing to admit it or not. But my parents did not raise my siblings and I to treat others maliciously. We were not taught to believe that exclusion is right and just, or that others are automatically bad or good due to the hue of their skin or the dialect with which they speak or the religion they do (or don’t) practice.

We were taught, above all, to respect others — and always, always stand up for what is right. To know that it takes all kinds of people to make this world turn. To know that sometimes, we will encounter people we don’t like or disagree with — and that those feelings are perfectly acceptable and normal for us to experience, but we should always treat others the way we want to be treated.

My dad’s always been a beacon of integrity for me, when it comes to dealing with others. I have strong memories of him passionately expounding on situations in which someone was being pushed around by somebody else, simply because one person had more power or sway than another. He told me time and again when I was younger, “You must defend those who cannot defend themselves.” I’ve met few people that feel as passionately about doing what is fair and just.

I know, I know — those of you who know me are probably thinking, Sure, this is well and good, but you’re an asshole sometimes, Renee. Point taken. I don’t claim to be perfect, and there are many times in my life I’ve acted in ways that I regret and wish I could undo. But imagine how atrocious I might be, as a human being, if my parents had taught me that entire cultures of people are bad. What if my parents had instilled in me the belief that we should separate ourselves from those who have differing opinions or unpopular viewpoints? What if they’d raised me to believe that different is bad and that same is good? Holy automaton, Batman!

I’ve been rambling, friends, and for that, I apologize. For those of you who have stuck with me this long, I have a request:

Think about the messages you share with your children on a daily basis. Are they messages of love, or messages of hate? Are you teaching them to forgive others, or condemn and hold grudges? Are you challenging them to expand their horizons, or are you teaching them to remain stagnant? 

I think sometimes, it can be tempting to isolate ourselves and the ones we love. I think this occurs because we fear change — we fear losing the people we love to different perspectives and ideals and lifestyles. Certainly, in this age of political division, it’s easy to allow ourselves to be consumed with contempt for anyone who dares to think differently. But I also think if we spend too much time building a wall, we will miss out on all the diverse beauty that the world has to offer, and that would be a crying shame.

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