18 October 2010

It gets better

Over the weekend Alec Couros connected me, via Twitter, to this extraordinary video...

In a political realm (especially Texas) dominated by cowards, this man is a giant hero
The Trevor Project

...part of the national "It gets better" project created by columnist Dan Savage in an attempt to help LGBT teens and young adults get through the misery that is secondary education.

I cried, as will any actual human who watches this incredible display of courage and compassion. And I got angry as well. I got angry that we, strangers to specific communities - in this supposedly "Christian" nation, must so actively intervene to assure our children that they are loved and valued creations of our God.

And then I thought how much wider this is...

I say that not to diminish for one moment the horrific pain inflicted on kids - by their peers, parents, schools, communities, and nation - because of their sexual identity. Nor do I wish to insist that every gay educator come out and be a public mentor. Mr. Burns heroism is part of his identity - but - and this is essential - our identities are ours, for disclosure, description, definition, and our forms of heroism are ours. It is not for "us" - any of us - to insist on some form of "authentic identity" from others. That kind of thinking is its own form of bullying.

But, if we are "educators," and I mean that in the broadest sense, we can speak to and for kids. We can and we must. We can, within whatever identity we, as adults, have crafted for ourselves, find students we can connect with and say, "It gets better."

School is Hell (as Matt Groening says)
There are so many chances to intervene. To stand up and protect, or to look into the shadows which surround your school's grounds and corridors, and find the child, teen, young adult, who needs to know his or her value.

I coached soccer, about a decade ago, in a high school in a supposedly "good district" (that is, one which got good scores on standardized tests). It was a small school (about 800-900 kids K-12 in a single building), in a small community. And every morning, according to my players, one history/government/economics teacher greeted them by calling them "faggots" because they chose to play this football rather than that other kind (terrifyingly, a Google Search indicated that this guy is now being interviewed for a position as principal of a Colorado high school). Down in the elementary school wing, we had to fight to let youth soccer players - girls and boys - wear their team shirts to school on Fridays. They wanted to do this because the school expected youth football players and youth cheerleaders (down to Kindergarten) to wear their uniforms to school on Fridays. But it was a big fight. As one teacher told me, "we don't want to celebrate differences."

In three years the principal came to half of one game. The Superintendent came to none. The only teachers who came consistently were a Middle School English teacher and the High School theatre teacher. Of course the football stadium would be filled Friday nights with more people than lived in the town.

If soccer players are abused because they are different, if "faggot" is the faculty insult of choice, what chance might a gay student have in that school?

What chance might any "different" student have?

I think I did a pretty good job coaching soccer there. We won more games than we lost. A few players really blossomed into fabulous athletes. We even gave other kids a place to hang out when we played Saturday night games, crowding ourselves onto the tiny "American Football"-sized field so we could play under the lights and offer teens another option besides getting high on the town's tiny beach or hanging out at the gas station's cappuccino machine or at Tans + Tapes across the street (yes, that kind of small town).

But none of that's important. Despite fantasies embraced by many coaches and parents, school sport is not vocational education. What was important, whether as soccer coach, or Odyssey of the Mind coach, or as "the tech adult" for theatre productions, was the ability to share the days with kids who often lacked community support.

To share the days with kids who were, maybe, a touch too smart to make some teachers feel comfortable, or a touch too active (or creative) to want to play a fall sport that is mostly standing around waiting for adult instruction, or a touch too uncomfortable with print to learn plays by reading them, or a touch too unhappy at home for any of a thousand reasons, or a touch too excited to sit in a classroom for hours on end. Maybe, even, that some of them had intrinsic personal desires which weren't welcomed in "a place like this."

And to be able to see these kids, and to tell them that I once had these kinds of problems, but that I had managed to survive. And that they could survive too. That, yes, "it gets better." That school is often hell. It is far too often a cruel hierarchical place where conformity and compliance is worshipped by the adults in control, but, it is also over at age 18, and then you can escape. You can leave. And you never have to come back.

I think about those conversations, and they are/were the most important things I did/do as an educator. Whether it was ordering pizzas I really didn't need on a Sunday night just to talk with my team's Libero who worked 40 hours/week while his mom lay sick in bed, or meeting students this semester who feel abused by certain professors. "Hang on," "I understand, believe me, I understand," "It gets better."

We can fight bullying, and we must. We can fight the roots of bullying, in every class, in every activity, and we must.

But while we are doing that we need to do something more. We must look into the shadows - the shadows that are there in every classroom, in every school hallway, in every community - and we must crouch down in those shadows with the children, the adolescents, the young adults who hide there, and we must tell them what we understand - what we have learned through our nightmares - and we must say, "it gets better."

- Ira Socol

I actually began writing The Drool Roomfor certain "damaged" boys on my team at that high school. In "cleaned up" form I shared some of the stories. And I think I said something much like... "it gets better."


bigmaggie said...

I am a high school teacher and sponsor of our schools Gay-Straight Alliance. I, frankly, find it depressing that the best message we have to send to these kids is that it will get better, but not until later, when you leave school. While I know it's not the intent, it almost seems like a defeatist attitude to me. It's like saying to these kids, "There's nothing we can do about the toxic environment that is school. You'll just have to suffer through it until you can escape." Where are the videos of people committing to making a difference in these kids lives today? Where's the movement to confront and change the system of cruelty that has been created in our schools? When I first encountered this campaign, I thought it was nice and timely, but the more I thought about it the more it seemed like a band-aid at best and a cop-out at worst. I don't want to hear anymore "It gets better." I want to hear "We will start doing whatever it takes to make it better for you right now!"

irasocol said...

Big Maggie:

Thank you. I think what you say is very important, and yet, I'm somewhat of a realist by nature.

The despicable teacher mentioned above has moved up... been given an Ed.D. by some institution. The kids I hoped to help with Universal Design Technologies back in 1995 have gone from kindergarten through college in most schools without getting any help, even as the cost of many of the solutions has dropped to zero.

We have an educational system - now more than ever - devoted to conformity due to "leaders" as 'diverse' as Barack Obama, Chris Christie, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Eli Broad, Geoffrey Canada. And if you read back through the posts of the past two months (or those linked here) you'll see that I am trying to change everything, from the architecture, to the schedule, from the process to the evaluation.

But as long as the structure remains, the shadows will remain, and the kids in those shadows need to hear that, "it gets better."

I know I did.

- Ira Socol

bigmaggie said...

No, I know you are one of the few out there really, truly fighting for real change to happen that will allow all students to have access to a safe environment in which to learn and grow. That is why I am a religious reader of your blog and recommend it to my colleagues at every opportunity. It was just more of a general comment on the way this particular campaign is making me feel saddened by the reality that these kids don't have a better option than to stick it out, like I had to. I hadn't managed to find an outlet for those thoughts on a blog on this subject that didn't already have a million comments until I came across yours. I think you're right. I think it comes down to realism vs idealism and I know I am an idealist. I have to be to keep going in this profession. I have to believe that change for the better is not just possible but that it will actually happen some day or else I don't know if I could keep getting up and going to work every day.

irasocol said...

Please, do not lose the idealism. Please. We need the belief in possibility so missing from American discourse ("the art of the possible").

You know, if I couldn't work directly with kids each week. Talking to them, giving them hope - immediate or long term - I could not draw the strength to fight the system.

I suspect that is the same for you.

Maybe lets put it this way, to kids we whisper "it gets better." To power we yell, "never again," and we hold them accountable daily.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

I had forgotten about that School Is Hell book.. Binky got me through the last years of high school.

bigmaggie's criticism of 'it gets better' is mine as well. But it's tremendously heartwarming to see all those videos, where the generational transaction is occurring, mediated by youtube. My personal favorite: Auntie Kate Bornstein.


Liz said...

Thank you for this post Ira! School bullying is a terrible thing, and awareness and prevention are the starting points to solving the problem.

I have the same criticism of the "It Gets Better" campaign as some have mentioned above. I wrote a great big blog about it, and thought I was alone!! I'd love if anyone had anything to say about it, so please come on over.


Amy Crismon said...

I am Amy and I am from Dr. Strange's EDM310 class. This was such a sad video to watch but I think it needs to be watched by everyone. Bullying is always under looked and that needs to stop immediately. Teachers, parents, and students all play a roll in bullying. If one sees someone being bullied they need to stop it or report to higher officials. His message that it does get better is really important for children to remember and I hope his message helps save childrens lives.

Michelle said...

Another amazing post, Ira. Well done.

A response to the reaction of "It gets better..."- I think every kid needs to hear this. I know there's criticism: what about NOW?

I think every child, especially in mid-teens, goes through a part of his/her life when everything seems hopeless. Whether it's bullying, body image disorder, depression... ANYTHING that makes a child feel like a misfit: they have to know that there are people there to listen to them and that, yes, things will get better. From what we know about the brains and impulsive nature of the adolescent brain, they must always be reminded that someone can help... and that no matter how wretched they feel at the time, the next day is a new opportunity.

In addition to seeking out those children to become their sounding boards, we also have to stand up to the adults, such as the teacher in Ira's example, around them to let them know it's not okay to use their power against these kids.

I teach elementary music, and I can't get 7 year old boys to sing in their natural, beautiful singing voices... because some adult males in their lives have told them to stop "singing like a girl." Ugh. Vicious cycle... but I'm not giving up.

Stephanie Dunaway's EDM310 Blog said...

Hi, I am a student in Dr. Stange's EDM 310 class at the University of South Alabama. This was such an amazing post!!! I was so touched by the video and I truely wish that every single school across the nation would be required to show it to all students. I believe that this video could help establish so much strength in the victims of bulling when they feel that there is no reason to continue living. I also think this video could be eyeopening to bullies as well. It MIGHT help them to realize the pain and heartbreak that they cause for victims and families and possibly cause them to rethink their actions. I completely agree that this truly needs to be stopped, children shouldn't have to live their life in fear, pain, and embarassment because of heartless other students. We need to all continue this fight against ALL bullying once and for all!!!

Thanks for this wonderful post, I will definitely pass it on!

Stephanie Dunaway


Cereus Sphinx said...

I totally agree with you, it does get better. But we also need to make it better now. There's no reason why it's as bad as it is.

There's another project inspired by It Gets Better and making it better now: