Sunday, October 7, 2012

You don't say...

We always talk about how our words can cause reactions around us. We may say something silly, it elicits a chuckle. Something stupid, it also, elicits a chuckle. We may say something with gut-wrenching seriousness, and it may cause the listener to become nervous, uncomfortable, and outright disturbed... and so on a so forth.

This post is, however, about what we don't say.

I am a person, who will respond if I feel the environment will not respond. First, I will take 10 seconds to wait for someone to say something.... and then I will speak. Especially while I am teaching.

An interesting thing occurred about a year ago, I even posted a status about it. A student, who happened to be Arab, made one of the most discriminatory statements I had ever heard in my life, about homosexuals. I was, at first, stunned into shocked silence. Then, after about 10 seconds, I had chastised the student and asked the class that if one was to express their opinion in class, they must do with so with respect. However, the tension in the classroom escalated to a point that I almost considered calling campus security. People argued with physical distress, hands pounding on the table. I even had 3 students who were on sports teams, volunteer to stay in the room until tensions reduced. Within 10 minutes, the topic at hand was resolved and the class resumed.

However, one thing occurred. During those 10 minutes, a student slipped out of the classroom out of anger and frustration. The student returned after 10-15 minutes, until they cooled off, but never returned to future classes. Immediately after class, I spoke to the student who made the statement, and discussed the need to be culturally sensitive as well as understand that there is no one way to live one's life. People live the way they choose, and we must be tolerant regardless of our personal biases. This student gave me trouble the rest of the semester, in terms of respecting the rights of others, not only in terms of sexuality, but class, race and religion (including my own).

The other student, who I had known was openly gay, had asked with polite frustration in his voice, that we be more respectful when we discuss such issues in the future. Before, I could speak with them in person, they left classroom. So, I followed up with an email, apologizing for my inability to adequately handle the situation. Despite the fact that I had handled it to the best of my abilities.

Later that day, I had spoke to my advisor on how to handle such situations, and my advisor had stated that the way I handled it was the most efficient. Who knows, you never really know, until the situation arises.

This occurred about a year ago, yesterday my student (the one who left my class to never return), emailed me in a very impersonal email. They stated that they had dropped out of school because of my lack of immediate response. I will do everything in my power to get this student back and active in school again. However, a lesson must be learned for anyone who is reading this.

I'd like to point out, some people take time to respond to things, I am one of those people. But what you don't say, can seem like the worst kind of indictment to another. Silence is equally as painful as an insult, especially when misunderstood. I wish wish wish, I had instantaneously spoken, but 10 seconds can sometimes feel like 10 years for a person. Those 10 seconds of silence, felt like half of a second for me, but felt like a decade for my student.

I have learned that when in a position of authority, you must MUST MUST, respond immediately, with care and wisdom. 10 seconds can completely turn into a year for someone, and they may lose many opportunities along that time frame.

My student emailed me yesterday, I cried. I could not believe that my belated response could have taken such a toll. That event, until this day, has been a story I had openly shared with many of my co-workers and friends, because of how fast everything transpired. I always tell them, you need to try and dismantle escalating tensions as quickly as possible. I use this incident to explain how bigotry, biases and ignorance are detrimental to the stability of humanity. I have recalled this story maybe 20 to 30 times to people, so that I can share my experiences on how to handle high-stress situations in the classroom.

But, losing one student, a sincere and honest student, that is the biggest heartbreak of my life.

I wish I could turn back time, to that morning in the first couple of weeks of class, and just harshly chastise that student who made the comment. But at the time, I wanted to ensure that my students could openly express themselves, while maintaining respect. So, I sought to respond respectfully, while chastising. Maybe I should have been harsher.... I don't know. All I know is things unfold the way they do.

But now... I have learned that silence... is equally as dangerous as words, especially when silence is misinterpreted.

Pray for me.


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