Thursday, July 11, 2013

School Haze

A couple of weeks ago my high school graduating class celebrated its 30th reunion.  I didn’t go for a variety of reasons, but on the top of the list was I didn’t want to make small talk that didn’t include my seriously demented mother or my twin girls, one of whom is terminally ill.  Of a class of 500+ students, it’s interesting to me who I remember and sadly, the people I most remember are the ones who often ostracized me:  the awkward boy I had a crush on in 8th grade, the cheerleaders and gymnasts, the basketball players and golfers. There were a lot of really funny, talented and nice people who went to my school, but I mostly remember the ones who were catty and cruel.  All the predictable cliques that come from attending a large suburban high school in the early 1980s were present in my school and with it all the social angst and humorous anecdotes. 

On the pictures that have been posted on Facebook of the reunion, there are some familiar and welcome faces. People who I have fond memories of but haven’t thought about in a while.  But there were also faces of people who reminded me of the social awkwardness and desperation for popularity and inclusion that is infused in middle and high school interactions.  I saw plenty of faces of women who as younger girls would talk with me on Sunday at church but wouldn’t acknowledge me in the halls during the week at school. Seeing their faces again throws me back to being fourteen with massive acne and a giant pit in my stomach for not being cute enough, peppy or preppy enough, funny enough.

As I contemplated my own reactions to high school, 30 years out, I wondered who I may have unintentionally tormented or isolated.  I noticed that not a lot of the students of color or the openly (or not) gay students seemed to be present at the reunion.  I also started thinking about all the kids who were relegated to the special education classes off in some remote hall where the auto shop and technical school flunkies resided.  Did any of those former students also feel marginalized during high school? The thought of that “special education” high school ward haunts me when I think of my own child in the 21st century.  If my girls’ school didn’t have a commitment to diversity, there’s a good chance she would be excluded from her peers even more than she already is based on her physical limitations.  It is unlikely that my one child will live long enough to enter high school, but if she does, I have no doubt that there will be some of her peers who will be cruel to her and her twin sister for being “different.” 

Last month I spoke with a group of moms who have children with Down Syndrome, and one of the moms was horrified of thinking of how her younger self tormented a local kid with DS when she was a that she has a child with Down Syndrome, it makes her cringe. We can make excuses that our younger selves didn’t know better but to call someone who was different a “retard” or “queer” and not include them.  There wasn’t language about bullying or cultural inclusion; we were modeling what the adults around us tolerated and condoned.

Which is why I love, love, love the recent story of the kid in Canada who made headlines when he was physically separated from his classmates in the school picture.  The whole incident smacks of neglect, not intentional malicious, but laziness and thoughtlessness on the photographer’s and teacher’s part.  The parents advocated, the situation went viral, and change took place. It was little baby steps of change, but the kid was visually included with his classmates.  As a parent of a physically challenged kid, I welcome such stories because such acts of advocacy are good not only for our kids but for the larger public discussion of what it means to be different in a culture that wants everyone to behave and look the same.

When Kirsten isn’t on summer vacation with her lovely 7-year old twin girls, she is a professor of Communication Studies at the State University of New York.

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