A Tale of Two Worlds
Science period in 8th grade. Lesson of the day involves two watches taken from students and placed on the teacher’s desk. A girl whose desk is positioned right at the edge of the teacher’s desk inadvertently brushes her hand against one of the watches. Later on when casually strolling through the locker room she notices something very bizarre. Two girls are standing by the sink repeatedly washing the watch which she touched. She thinks back to a few hours earlier when she was surprisingly told, “Why are you following me everywhere?” by one of these girls. Only then did she realize that her locker was next to this girl’s locker, something she never noticed before. She speculates but then tells herself “it can’t possibly be true.” But she has a burning desire to know what is actually going on. “Why are you washing the watch? Is it because I touched it?” She receives an answer in the affirmative and then unable to restrain herself asks again, “But why? What did I do to contaminate the watch?” She receives the answer she already knew she would get – so brief and sharp that she feels that she’s being physically stabbed with a knife. “It’s because you’re you.” The girl almost never cries, she prides herself on her ability to remain invincible even in the most trying situations. But as much as she desperately tries to control the tears on her way home from school, the tears just won’t stop. Her eyes are puffy and red by the time she comes home and her mother repeatedly asks her, “Is everything OK?” She lies each time when she says, “No, there’s just something wrong with my contact lenses.”
Kitchenette at work in Tel Aviv. Two girls are preparing a hot dog bun for their lunch break. A girl walks by and comments on the savory smell. She uses the singular form for hot dog in Hebrew and says nakneik. Both girls laugh and say naknekiyot, using the plural form. She knows these are super nice girls and doesn’t think anything about it, in fact she completely forgets. Fifteen minutes later the two girls walk over to her department and wait five minutes for her to finish a phone call. They sensitively and apologetically tell her “We wanted to make sure that you didn’t think we were laughing at you. We were laughing because we both said the same word at the same time.”
A girl is ecstatic. For the first time in her life her mother took her to buy shoes in the Beverly Center at Nine West. Up until then her mother bought all her shoes from a boutique store called Kids’ Only. While shopping in Nine West she noticed there wasn’t much of a selection and so she bought the only sensible closed shoe that was acceptable to wear in school. She was so excited to show off her shoes the next day. But unfortunately, no one ever handed her the memo that said “Thou shall never wear the same pair of shoes as a girl who deems you inferior to her.” Her day turned into a living hell. She was taunted non-stop all throughout the day.
A girl walks by a coffee shop. She sees two of her peers chatting over a cup of coffee. She’s overtaken by surprise when they invite her to join them. A good conversation was had by all, and she felt that her company was genuinely appreciated. It’s a casual encounter, but one that she’ll never forget because of how authentically nice the girls were.
Literature class with seventeen and eighteen year olds. The teacher asks a student who arrived a few months earlier from Iran to read aloud from the book assigned to the entire class. She reads perfectly, but with a super thick Persian accent. A girl looks around the classroom and is flabbergasted. Every single girl, with herself being the only exception, is unsuccessfully desperately trying to hide their uncontrollable giggles because apparently there’s absolutely nothing funnier than one of your peers who speaks with a thick accent.
The last story involves a little autistic boy. He burst into a classroom and started talking about how good he was at playing with his PlayStation. All the boys in the class stopped to listen to him. They said “Wow, it’s so nice that you’re sharing this with us.” Not one boy teased or laughed. They listened to him wholeheartedly and made sure he would feel included.
The reader has by now evidently noticed the apparent distinction and the juxtaposition of very different types of stories. If it wasn’t yet discernible, I’m the subject of each story with the exception of the last one. None of these stories are products of my imagination, and every single detail is true. You may legitimately ask what my purpose is in rehashing all of these seemingly unrelated incidents. There are many answers to that question, but the primary answer is because I think that it’s a conversation that for whatever reason has never been given priority. There are activists for many different causes, but there are no well-known activists who educate about sensitivity that really matters. When a person is attacked for the crime of just being themselves, it’s so much more hurtful and personal than blanket racism or anti-semitism.
The good news is that there’s a very simple answer to ensure that your kids won’t behave like despicable human beings. It’s not even remotely complicated. There can be many neurological disorders which may cause a child to have severe behavioral issues. There’s no neurological disorder which causes a child to snub their nose at another child. It all ultimately comes straight from the chinuch they were given at home. And if your child doesn’t have basic derech eretz, all the mishnayos he knows by heart are fundamentally worthless.
I want to leave on a positive note and educate parents, teachers, and mentors alike on how to raise good children who are sensitive to the emotional well-being of others. There’s three rules of thumb which every parent and educator should adopt. One, never ever laugh at someone else in their presence. It’s OK to laugh with someone, it’s never OK to laugh at someone. Two, be open to people who are different from you, try to make friends with people who come from radically different backgrounds. This way you’re subconsciously sending a message of diversity and inclusion that actually matters to your children. Three, always model inclusivity. If you’re making a birthday party, invite the entire class, even if it’s more expensive. Encourage your child to occasionally expand out from his friend group and get to know other children. It’s the miniscule acts of compassion and kindness that make the world a better place for each one of us.