Like most high school students, a personal goal of mine was to fit in. I was not an athlete, a sore point for me as a teenage boy, but I was involved in one of the larger youth groups in the country. To its credit, the youth group and the relationships that I made with both peers and adult advisors grounded me, offering a space to develop my strengths, my voice, and myself. Throughout high school, I had several leadership positions, and in this organization, leadership was taken quite seriously. It held formal annual elections with rigorous campaigning. Because I had been a chapter president more than once, I decided to run for a regional position in May of my junior year.
Coincidentally, my high school principal was also the director of the youth group. Known for his charisma, sharp, self-deprecating humor, and mesmerizing speaking skills, he had the ability to capture 1,000 people with a story, reducing them to tears. As my high school principal, he frightened me. As the national director, he awed and inspired me.
On the day of the election, he had found me stumping in front of a group of kids. He asked me to take a walk with him. He put his arm around me, and in his familiar, nasally voice, asked, “You’re running for vice president, is that right?”
“Yes!” I replied enthusiastically.
“So, you think kids will vote for a faggot like you?”
Understanding rhetorical questions, I retreated in silence and shame. I lost the election. It was not until many years later that I fully understood the scope of this man’s abuse.
I recently thought about this story when, on Tisha B’Av night, I led a session for eighth grade campers and their counselors. In it, I introduced the famous “Brown Eye/Blue Eye” exercise that Jane Elliot, a teacher in the small town of Riceville, Iowa did with her third graders in 1968. In order to give her students a taste of what discrimination might feel like, Elliot split them into two groups based on eye color. She told them that people with blue eyes were superior to those with brown. Blue-eyed people, she explained, are smarter, more civilized and better than brown-eyed people.
It worked, and in just a few hours, the blue-eyed children began teasing the brown-eyed students. Brown-eyed children, wearing collars so that their peers could identify them from afar, began to lose their motivation. A fist-fight ensued among some kids in the class.
The next morning, Mrs. Elliot surprised her class when she told them that she had lied to them. In fact, she said, it was the brown-eyed children who were worthy of praise and attention. With the roles reversed, the blue-eyed children quickly found themselves fallen from grace, experiencing the same discrimination and marginalization that they had inflicted on their peers just the day before.
The video, easily found on YouTube, is remarkable and worthy of consideration. Before we started watching, I offered a brief background and historical context, explaining that this recording, taken in the immediate wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. looks and sounds vintage. The children, their clothing, and even the words they used to reference people of color were from an entirely different era, relics of the past. I then challenged our young campers to consider how it might still be relevant in the 21st century.
Of course, it wasn’t hard for them to make the cognitive leap to connect this video to their present day lives, especially on Tisha B’Av. When I divided the campers into small groups and asked them not just to unpack what happened in the video, but also to consider why it matters to them, their responses were lucid and insightful.
What interests me, however, was that they were also vulnerable and brave. Children shared times that they themselves have felt bullied or excluded or have witnessed someone they know treated poorly, either in person or online, because of their differences. When I followed up and asked them what we could do about it, they called their communities and themselves to task, noting that the Brown Eye/Blue Eye Experiment was frightening because it was recognizable.
Although I didn’t share my story with the children, while facilitating the session, I unintentionally transported back to that exchange with my high school principal. And it hurt. I hadn’t planned for it, but in retrospect, I understand why it happened and why it mattered that it did. In order for us to inspire cultural change within our communities, we first find ways to make the lessons and values we teach relevant, to them and to us. Few are strangers to exclusion, to feeling isolated, minimized, or lost. When we tap into those moments, even if we keep the private details of our lives close to the vest, we model the importance of identifying and connecting to something personal within ourselves. When authenticity surfaces, despite how challenging or painful it may be, it gives the people we lead permission to recognize how their own stories strengthen their empathetic connections, positively impacting the relationships they have with the people in their lives.