This is a glorious day in the Christian calendar, but I’ve looked into my past. Christ’s suffering was cruel, His sacrifice profound. I find myself contemplating His suffering and the part I have played in it. What do I know of suffering?
One of my most instructive experiences of cruelty happened to me when I first started teaching. I’ve had people be hateful to me my whole life for all sorts of reasons, about what anyone might have experienced in the cruel fields of childhood, but one of the worst things that was done to me as an adult was done by a group of girls. These girls, three of them, were all having trouble in my class. I spent a great deal of effort and extra time helping them. I tried my best to make them strong students, not just in my class, but all their classes. Their grades went up, and their reputations as students among the other teachers improved as well.
One day one of the members of Drama Club, a club I sponsored at the time, told me that the same group of girls were making fun of me and saying hateful things about me in the lunch room in front of other students.
This just rocked me. I could not help, in those early days, being cut to the heart by them doing this. I fumed and moped about it. This experience began the scarring process that goes on to this day. I learned, and am still learning, that often kindness and generosity are repaid in cruelty and betrayal. A genuine interest in helping others succeed and grow can result in those same others turning on their benefactor.
What should be the consequences of such an act? What punishment would be proportionate to this act?
The worst punishment I can think of must be administered by a parent. It is called “Withdrawal of Affection.” I blush to remember my version of it, which I once (and only once) applied to a student. Here is the essence of the process. That child who has fallen out of favor, does not exist anymore as far as the parent is concerned. That child will no longer be subject to the gaze of the parent either in love OR anger. The child becomes a stranger. The child may ask a question, but the answer, if given, is given as it might be to someone who has no relation to the parent whatsoever. The child has the foundation of mattering and identity pulled from under his or her feet. The shunning creates an isolation so profound that physical punishment would be preferable, even to the point of scarring.
The thing is, I don’t think anyone deserves this, or all people deserve this–both at the same time. The worst thing a person can do is be cruel. The effect matters less than the intention. When a person seeks to make another person suffer out of some perverse pleasure, that is unforgivable. At the same time, I know cruelty springs up easily in the human heart. We all can be cruel.
Those girls that were saying unkind things about me after I went out of my way to assist them were being cruel. I wanted them to pay in some way for what they had done. (Does it matter they were cheerleaders? At the time it mattered to me that they were cheerleaders.) As I circled my feelings and considered them in various lights, I began to recognize two more subtle puzzles springing from my original pain. The first was the student who told me about what the girls did. Why did he do that? What purpose did his action serve? Was telling me an act of kindness? Was he warning me to guard my heart against caring for people who cared nothing for me? Or (what seems more likely) was he jabbing a sly knife of pain into my happiness? He did not like those girls, and I clearly seemed to appreciate them. He wanted me to stop supporting those girls, and it worked—in a way and for a time. I never was able to relax around them again. I continued to tutor them, so they would have success in my class, but my smiles for them were guarded and false ever after. I never again enjoyed seeing their growth, their learning, their benefit from my help. I did not stop helping them. I stopped enjoying helping them. So…I was doubly punished.
Another subtly eventually floated to the surface. At the end of the year, I confronted one of the girls directly about this. She came into my class wanting another type of favor. I don’t remember what exactly it was, maybe something to do with fundraising, but I do remember saying, “You can stop pretending that you like me. I know you don’t.” She had been smiling and as sweet as pie. When I made the comment, a comment that just skirted being rude in tone, more of a passive aggressive delivery (if you can imagine the tone I mean), she looked abashed. She asked what I meant, and I explained how someone had told me the things she had said. She protested, but there was in her every gesture and glance the truth of what she had done. She was caught in her ugliness. Still, there was also evidence in her reaction that it had been quite some time since she had said or done anything that was insulting to me. She clearly had forgiven herself for what she considered a small sin, and I (because I was a competent enough actor to fool a teenager) had continued in the style of kindness as was my required wont, that her disrespect had evaporated into simple acceptance of me and my help as common place and beneath notice or comment or dislike. She had stopped faking her acceptance of me, and it had become (to some extent) real. I wonder if the effect of my holding her unkindness up to her notice stayed with her after she graduated. I wonder if it ever occurs to her.
All sorts of things come back to me these days, and as often as not, they are the moments that I too was cruel or unkind or foolish. They pain me, but they offer an odd reassurance as well. Being a great teacher, a truly exceptional teacher, is a dangerous game. Consider Socrates. He was not sentenced to death for a sexual proclivity for young boys. He was sentenced to death for being an effective teacher. He chose to carry out his own sentence, but that was fanaticism, right? Consider Laozi, born old and doomed to understand only the decay of his culture and his followers. Consider Christ, the best of us all. I sit and observe my failures as a teacher and a person and I think, well, they won’t kill me for that. That was terrible.
Have I forgiven the students and colleagues, family and friends who have hurt me through unkind words and actions? I think I have. I hope I have. Just don’t tell about any of which I don’t already know, or that I haven’t surmised. I think enough about the evil I suspect in others, and I blush plenty at the evil lurking in my own all-too-human heart. I would like to take back those thorns my own weaknesses added to the crown, but I can’t. All I can do is try my hardest not to add any more to the world around me. Late entry tonight, and far too long.