In eighth grade, I was a short gay Asian kid with pimples and a mullet. I was awkward, just like everyone is at that age. My weirdness mostly blended in with everyone else’s; I had good friends and people liked me.
Except Maria. She sat behind me in English class. Every day, we’d shuffle into Mr. Anderson’s room for the last class of the day, I quickly learned to begrudge the seating arrangement. Maria hated me for some reason. I may have known why at the time, but I don’t think I did. She’d say horrible things to me, whispering them in my ear. When I didn’t pass papers back quickly enough, she’d shove me in the back of the head: “Come on. Pass ’em back. What’s wrong with you?” I was known in middle school for being a smart ass jerk to teachers, using my witty repartee to put them in their place or get a laugh from the class without actually saying anything that could get me in trouble. Still, I was willing to make a federal case out of being bullied like this.
This daily assault continued until one day I snapped. She shoved me in the back of the head, calling me stupid, and I turned around and backhanded her. In the middle of English. It was one of those moments where all you here are the proverbial crickets in the background as everyone’s head quickly turned to find the source of the sharp crack as my hand met her cheek. Maria immediately started crying, and Mr. Anderson asked us to stay after class.
When I explained myself, Mr. Anderson felt I had been pushed into a corner after Maria admitted that she had been treating me horribly. He moved my seat and made us promise to treat each other better in exchange for not reporting any of the bad behavior that had taken place in his room.
As I sit here today trying to make sense of the news out of Ferguson last night and the resulting protests–both the peaceful and the violent–I’m reminded of how quickly any one of us can be pushed to that snapping point. The violence isn’t a result of one simple grand jury decision; it’s the catalyst for a mixture of volatile chemicals that has been simmering for far too long. When I slapped Maria, I wasn’t thinking. I was angry and embarrassed and I wanted to hurt her. I look back and I know it was a mistake no matter how good it felt or how much mileage I’ve gotten out of the story in the last twenty-five years since it happened. This morning as I watched the footage of the looting and the burning, I thought about how I can understand the reaction. I don’t necessarily agree with it or think it’s the right thing, but I can understand it.
That same year in middle school–I wasn’t the best behaved kid–I got kicked out of choir. There must have been about sixty kids in chorus, and all of my best friends were in the room. I would talk and talk and talk with them any chance I got. Mr. S, our choral director, would pause for a moment to chat with the pianist, and I’d zip over the sopranos to talk about last night’s episode of Twin Peaks. Mr. S was incredibly frustrated by my behavior, constantly letting out a sigh as he called me back to me seat. He often ignored the other people talking to focus in on me, and I started to feel like he was unfairly targeting me.
Then one day, I decided to make a change. I wasn’t going to talk in class today. I was going to stay focused and wait patiently in between songs. Mr. S. pauses for a moment between numbers and turned his back to the choir, which immediately burst into gossipy action. I sat quietly looking at my music. Mr. S. turned around and with barely a glance at the room he called my name and asked me to be quiet.
“What?” I was incredulous.
“I asked you to stop talking. Again.”
“I wasn’t even talking!” Now I was getting riled up, and I started yelling. “You’re always focusing in on me. I know I talk a lot, but so does everyone else!” By now the entire room was focused on me. “You’re always calling on me to be quiet and today I wasn’t even talking! What’s wrong with you?”
Mr. S. remained calm as the class listened for his response. “I get the feeling you don’t respect me.”
“Well Mr. S., that’s something you have to earn.” A few kids gasped.
“Please take a seat.”
The next day, I was informed by the main office I was no longer in choir. Mr. S. never had a conversation with me and I resented him for years, even when I saw him at a wedding about ten years later. I’m sure he didn’t feel that he’d done anything wrong. I was a talkative kid who drew focus from his teaching. As a teacher now, the kids who act like I did are the ones that drive me the most crazy, and I am in awe of how calm Mr. S. always in response to my constant pushing. At the time though, I was even ready to admit that I was a talkative and distracting kid and I felt that he wasn’t treating me the same as the rest of the class. Both of these realities existed for each of us, and maybe if we had a chance to sit down and talk about them, each really listening to the other, we might have reached a different end.
This is my contribution to the Ferguson reaction today. There are many people in this country who don’t believe the black perspective. Someone else’s point of view isn’t for any of us to believe or disbelieve; it’s for us to understand, even when its truth serves as a complete antithesis to our own. In my professional work in these topics, when someone says that they simply can’t believe a particular position is true, we ask, “Well what if it were?”
These conversations need to happen more authentically more often. And then maybe we won’t feel the need to react to perceived indignities with anything more than a measured dialogue.