It was a middle school Spanish class. Probably around mid-day, one or two periods before the end of school and kids were getting anxious, ritalin was wearing off and talk of verb tenses veered off into sexism. That might not sound like a typical tangent but I did go to school in the South.
I remember the kid’s name: Drew. He had one of those stereotypical jock smiles that typically showed just as many teeth as he had brain cells. He thought he was hilarious and the other jocks would laugh with him if for no other reason because they didn’t want to be left out of the joke. I mean, is there anything worse than not getting it?
At this point in my schooling, I was already well known as few people’s friend, “that weird kid,” you know the one that takes theater and actually likes it. I was outspoken about activism which at that time was primarily environmental. We were still a few years away from the Iraq war and my socio-political spelunking hadn’t yet followed the red thread of oil spills to the red blood in far off deserts. Regardless, I was an outcast. I was a hippie and felt an odd blend of pride and shame for this. Middle school was rough enough without the realization that one of the reasons I was made fun of was because I chose to be different. If I just stopped with that activisty stuff, maybe I’d have more friends. Still, it wasn’t something I often entertained, particularly in times like this one.
So, on this hot spring day, Drew decides to make a comment soaked in sexism. I can’t remember exactly what he said but I remember opening my mouth to retort. I can’t be sure of what I started to say but I know that the teacher stopped me. She was a middle-aged woman, sweet and calm, with an affinity for Spain and cupcakes. She stopped me as I attempted to tear him down from his patriarchal pedestal, probably relatively sloppily as I had more anger than pointed arguments in those days. But still, even though I can’t remember what he said or indeed what I said, I will always remember what she said.
“Eleanor, there’s no point. He’ll learn someday.”
I remember being struck by the oxymoronic quality of this statement. Either there is no point because he’ll never learn or there is a point because he will learn, and therefore you could teach him, like, right now. I didn’t say this thought out loud, however. At the time, I snuck back into my adolescent shell feeling deflated and outnumbered. Today I would’ve happily engaged her and him but alas, hindsight to middle school is like giving your 20/2o vision a telescope.
No point? He’ll learn? I can remember him laughing at this and saying one or two more things before she shifted the conversation back to conjugation or something equally useless that we’d all forget after test time.
She just missed an opportunity to do what she was actually paid to do: shape minds. She just swatted away a chance to put a budding bigot in his place. And what did she do? She opted to instead support his viewpoints by giving them no rebuttal and indeed by slapping mine down. His sexism was therefore vindicated, justified and supported – by a woman no less!
Now, I’m not sure why this story popped into my head at 10pm on a Monday but perhaps it has something to do with apathy – as you might know, my arch nemesis. And as the fight for rights rages on in streets, tweets and the in-between, I can’t help but think of what people could be doing to help.
And so I bring this story up here, digitally remastered, for three reasons.
One: There is always a point. Allowing bigotry, sexism, racism, anti-civil rights, anti-planet, anti-humanity thinking to pass unopposed is to side with it, to give it rise, to give it a silent but strong thumbs up. As Chris Hedges says, “I do not fight fascists because I think I will win. I fight them because they are fascist.” Say something, Do something. Because it’s right. That is the point.
Two: People don’t learn unless you teach them. A lot of people are willfully ignorant and will go to their graves cardinal assholes. Again (see above point 1), you should still say something. You can’t change everyone but you have a much bigger chance if they’re young and impressionable and surrounded by a group of peers whom you may also be able to reach. Intelligence spreads just like stupidity. Don’t pass up a chance to engage someone in truth – you don’t have to be a dick about it like I probably was at that age, but again, don’t expect that someone will just wake up one day and not be a dumbshit. Take the chance to help people see, to help people learn. For fucks sake, that’s how you came to know what you know and that’s how we all come to know more.
And lastly, and perhaps most importantly – do not ever put someone down for trying to speak out against injustice. Sure, his sexist comment wasn’t akin to him beating me but it set a strong fucking tone when she, a woman and an elder, someone I was taught to respect and look up to, put me in MY place for speaking out against sexism. Now, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by other teachers, parents, friends and mentors who shaped me to know that that’s bullshit. But let’s say that I hadn’t. Let’s say that this interaction shaped my understanding of a woman’s place in this world. How horrifying!!
So, whether you’re an actual teacher or just someone who knows something that could share that knowledge with the world, do it. It’s worth it. There’s a point to it. Speak truth because it’s truth. When you hear truth, amplify it, don’t stifle it. Don’t leave it up to anyone else. You are that anyone else. Say Something. Do Something.