Sally had drawn a Confederate flag picture on the cover of her writing journal that sat on her desk. She was before me in the front row of the middle school English class in a rural Virginia school where I taught. This was the same year Charlottesville, Virginia, the town where I lived, was roiled in controversy over statues of Confederate generals and Confederate soldiers in city parks, controversy so enflamed that violent riots erupted in August 2017, resulting in many injuries and at least three deaths.
That year, I taught a unit on “herd mentality,” and gave the students articles to read on conformity, including writing on the Asch experiments. I played a video of the Stanley Milgram experiment, and we read articles on it. During the black and white video, available on You Tube, a few of the 13- and 14-year-olds in my class visibly winced and cringed when the experiment participants pressed a lever, delivering an electric shock they thought was real (it was not), and the person on the other side of the partition screamed with pain. In our discussion afterwards, I told students that I thought that their discomfort while watching was a good sign of empathy and conscience.
I asked them what they thought they would do if they were in an experiment like Milgram’s, or if they lived in a town with a lottery like the one in Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story, “The Lottery,” that I had also assigned to them to read. The story raises questions about conformity and group thinking, with conformity so strong that it results in great harm. While watching the movie version of the story, more of them cringed.
We read an article from Psychology Today, entitled “The Science Behind Why People Follow the Crowd” and articles on ways to avoid herd mentality. During the discussion of “The Lottery,” I brought up lynchings in our country’s history and said that I had learned that lynchings occurred in town squares, much like the one in the downtown area of this small town where I was teaching and where they lived. Whole families, including children, came to watch, and there were even picture postcard mementos distributed, relics of our terrible past that survive today.
“But those only happened when the person had done something wrong, though, right?” asked Wilson, one of my students. In his moral universe, growing up on a farm, such a terrible thing would have to make some sense. He had not learned much about the history of lynchings.
“Oh, no,” I said. “It could happen for no reason. Maybe sometimes those doing the lynching thought it was for a crime, but it could be for anything — or nothing.” He looked puzzled and sad. This same student who did not know about the history of lynchings also loved to show cattle, was proud of his Future Farmers of America club prizes, and had an excellent memory for numbers and facts. When the class discussed the Milgram experiment, he remembered that over 60 percent of participants complied with administering near lethal electric shocks to another person when they were told to do so.
I imagine some may have told Sally to remove the Confederate flag picture from her journal or told her how offensive they thought it was or lectured her on racism or “hate symbols.” Sally probably would not have removed it nor been required to by administrators, however. Students at that school displayed occasional Confederate flag emblems on hats or T-shirts. Showing that flag was not against school board policy in that school district, yet I knew the flag had been banned in other districts.
Right or wrong, to Sally and perhaps other students at the school, the symbol meant pride in southern heritage, they had said. Maybe it represented defiance, or perhaps, as teenagers, they hadn’t even thought much about it. I didn’t much care about the symbol or the flag but cared more about students sitting before me, cared about teaching them sentence constructions, paragraph and essay writing, and about encouraging their empathy, respect, and self-expression. I cared about strengthening their reading, writing, and critical thinking skills.
I knew Sally to be a sweet, polite, hard-working student, who treated others with kindness and good heartedness, including African American students. If I had made an issue of the drawing or had made Sally into “an Other” in my mind and treated her as such, dismissed her as ignorant or racist or unreachable, I would have missed noticing her pink cowboy boots and her admirable stern handling of boys who crossed the line with her; I may have missed her staying after class to talk to me proudly about her mother’s job as a medic at the large chicken plant in town. I would have missed her describing her own training as an apprentice Emergency Medical Technician and her plans to become a firefighter or a police officer. I may have missed seeing her shy confidence at the eighth-grade dance when she wore a lavender sparkly dress and had curled and arranged her long hair.
If I had shamed Wilson in front of the class about not knowing the history of lynchings, he may not have shared with me how, after school, he took care “bucket calves,” who have to be fed by a bucket when their mother can’t take care of them. I may have missed the way he turned his body in his seat towards me while he did his silent reading comprehension assignments, in what may’ve been a gesture, seeking comfort and stability from me, as his reading level was very low. His reading strength grew steadily as the school year progressed.
In these times of summarily rejecting people we disagree with or treating those with differing opinions as dangerous or diseased, I have felt led to remember what I would have missed if I had rejected certain people with whom I disagreed on significant issues but from whom I had also received wonderful gifts.
I disagreed with a minister and counselor, Norman, on a significant issue. Also, I had come to depend on him for guidance and support in hard times. As painful and regrettable as it may be, I think deciding to terminate a pregnancy should remain legal and a private matter. My minister and counselor opposed it. I knew this because he had written and published on the topic. We had not discussed it, and I did not plan to discuss it with him.
I knew many women who had to face that harrowing situation and choice and often had to face it alone. I had also known women who had felt forced or pressured by a boyfriend or husband to end a pregnancy. I did not think that was right either. The god I believe in has compassion for the woman facing that decision, one that no one likes, of course.
Yet, if I had rejected Norman for his opinion on that issue, an opinion I did not share with him, I would have missed the deep and abiding compassion for me in his eyes when I told him what I thought too painful to even talk about – a time when I had been betrayed and assaulted by a man about his age, a man I should have been able to trust. The way Norman listened to me — the way his eyes looked as he listened — has healing power for me, even now as I remember.
There is much I would have missed if I rejected a neighbor and fellow mom for her differing background and beliefs. As a Quaker and peace activist, I trained as a volunteer hotline counselor for active-duty military members who suffered assault or harassment, some of whom were suicidal. As a hotline volunteer, I listened to and tried to help people who felt pressured to sign up for the military and then wanted out or wanted out because their thinking on war had changed. I learned about deceptive military recruitment practices and worked with others on counter recruiting and peace education in schools.
My neighbor, Mindy, who lived down the street from me when my children were growing up was married to a war veteran who got a job as a military recruiter at a college. Mindy was Morman, another difference we had. I had heard members of my own faith community, sadly, make fun of Mormons for some of their practices or what some thought of as their pro-military, nationalistic stances. Mindy had eight children with six still at home. She had a sign above her kitchen sink that said “Love at Home.” Her cluttered house usually smelled like a meal she was cooking.
Her youngest child, Jordy, was in the same Kindergarten class with my youngest son. They played in the same soccer league that Mindy helped me find. Jordy often rode his bike to our house, knocked on our door, and asked my son to play.
In the last few years, I have seen and heard people in my faith community and other faith communities, summarily reject others from a political party not their own, or with beliefs and affinities they find objectionable, as though those people had some kind of genetic defect or were so ignorant or backwards that they were beyond dialogue, were unfit for even the slightest consideration of their humanity. These trends have saddened and troubled me deeply. These divisive trends seem to be very strong now, creating divisions deeper than I have ever seen.
Mindy and I never discussed politics, the military, or even our churches, though she had warmly invited me to hers a few times. We talked about children, the soccer league, children’s homework, after school activities. If I had rejected her for her opinions and experiences that differed from mine, I would have missed her kindness and her friendship.
As busy as she was, she was always cheerful, tired but smiling, and whenever I asked for her help, she was always there, more so than most – to let my son go to her house after school when I could not get there in time to meet the bus, when I asked her to drive me to pick up my car after it was fixed. She shared that the god she believed in, “Commanded her to do good, to help those in need.” As a single mom, I often needed her help.
When I was at some of my lowest times, scared and working three or more jobs, trying to make ends meet, she said words of encouragement like, “Your heavenly father will provide you with the miracles that you need.” She was right. That has been true, and I have not forgotten her words. She helped me persevere.
If I had dismissed Mindy – or others — for ways they differed from me, or for qualities about them I may not even fully understand, then I would have missed the grace and goodness of them, the gifts from them that I still remember.