I was reading an article today about influential people, and one specifically caught my attention. Serena Williams had written about Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and she mentioned Stevenson’s beliefs that “every person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”
There are those who believe in “justice” as punishment and shame… as if those are the deterrents to future mistakes or crimes. In my experience (personally and with others), shame doesn’t prevent someone from choosing the wrong path. It only serves the desire to avoid getting caught. Shame doesn’t necessarily lead to better actions or choices.
What has helped me as an individual to avoid repeating mistakes is grace, forgiveness, and compassion from others and from myself. When I realized that my mistakes weren’t part of my identity, and that I could learn from my mistakes… THAT was a time when I experienced true growth.
I grew up in the religious dichotomy of “an eye for an eye” and “forgive others as you have been forgiven.” As a young kid, that was tough to reconcile. Personally, I viewed punishment as something to avoid at any cost, because I wasn’t certain about forgiveness. Again, that didn’t always translate into doing the right thing.
As a parent and an educator, however, I see the cost of a punitive society on our children… children who grow up to be our neighbors. I often ask myself why we, as a society, tend to enjoy the suffering of others so much. If we didn’t, people like Jerry Springer and Maury Povich wouldn’t have careers or celebrity. This is nothing new, though. For centuries, audiences have reveled in the “delights” of others’ suffering. Schadenfraude can be fun, right? A little snark never really hurt anyone, did it? When you’re the recipient of people shaming you, it does hurt.
Decades ago, a person with a past could move to another city or across the country and no one would have a clue. That’s impossible now. A single mistake can now be broadcast in real time and shared with millions within seconds. How does this allow us to learn from mistakes, especially in our youth? Even worse, what if our “mistake” didn’t really happen, but someone with an audience said it did? How does a person recover from that? Beyond the internet trolls that will pounce on anything, how do we shape our own reactions when something goes viral now?
In her TED Talk, The Price of Shame, Monica Lewinsky says, “Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop.” I think often about this young woman who has felt the wrath of shame to a degree that most of us couldn’t ever imagine. Was she shown grace and compassion?
How does all of this translate to children? How are children treated in their schools when they make mistakes? How do we as educators react to those mistakes?
I can’t imagine who I would be today if every mistake I ever made was broadcast far and wide for anyone to see. And I doubt many of you reading this would be able to fathom that kind of public attention. It’s not enough for us to tell kids to avoid social media or posting everything in their lives. That’s not the world they live in today.
What we MUST do is become the models of grace and compassion OURSELVES. We must show them what it looks like to forgive. That even, in the midst of a seemingly unforgivable offense, that we can show compassion. That all human beings are worthy of grace, even when we hate what they might have done against us.
Again, back to my upbringing… I remember learning “love the sinner while hating the sin.” There are a multitude of sins that might be considered heinous (and I am not the one to define what is considered a sin and what is not), but if I don’t have room in me to forgive and give grace, then how can I expect forgiveness and grace for myself?
I’ve also been thinking about Marilyn Zuniga, a teacher who was suspended because her students wrote get well letters to Mumia Abu-Jamal. The reaction to this news was swift, intense, and full of outrage. This story went viral… yet I wonder… what lesson about compassion does this really give to kids? If we teach children to be forgiving and compassionate, shouldn’t we be less concerned with who deserves their forgiveness and compassion? Is “forgive others as you have been forgiven” only reserved for those whom we deem deserving of forgiveness and compassion? Or are we back to “an eye for an eye?”
As an adult, I find this all troubling and extremely confusing. I can’t imagine what kids are trying to glean from our examples.
I remember reading articles about restorative justice in schools, specifically about how damaging zero tolerance policies are to students (this one is very good). In my experience, those who advocate for zero tolerance generally don’t want to apply the same types of policies to themselves or their own children, yet it’s ok for “those other kids.” In our school, I love that we don’t have blanket policies regarding student behavior and mistakes. Each situation is unique. Each child is unique. A standard policy cannot possibly account for every situation, nor should it.
With my students this year, we have looked at what apologies are, and how our mistakes are ours to own. When one of my students apologizes to another, the last thing he asks is, “will you forgive me?” We are prepared to understand that we don’t have to be forgiven… yet my students always answer “yes.” When I asked them why they always agree to forgive, one little guy responded, “because I want to be forgiven if I make a mistake.” From the mouths of babes…
I always want to strive to be the person who considers that there is good in everyone, and that all are worthy of being more than their mistakes. As a teacher, I HAVE to be that person; otherwise, I have no business working with children. I want to be the one to reflect on my own reaction to someone else’s transgression, real or perceived, and be the first to offer grace and forgiveness. I haven’t always felt this way. It’s been a personal journey of several decades, and I wish that I could go back to the students I had when I first started teaching to apologize for my lack of compassion. I wasn’t that person yet.
Who will you be?