Magazine Feature

Signed, Anonymous

A hateful message found in a Maine classroom inspires a lesson in tolerance.

Ninety-five percent of the students at Noble High School are white and Christian, if they profess any religious affiliation at all. One of my first priorities when I took a job at this large high school in rural Berwick, Maine, was to incorporate more diverse, multicultural texts into the sophomore English curriculum. In a unit on justice, I included a short reading about a neo-Nazi group's 1977 attempt to demonstrate in Skokie, Ill., a predominantly Jewish community.

The piece raised important issues that I wanted to discuss, including freedom of speech, the power of communities and prejudice. Ironically, one student's anonymous reaction to the piece forced my whole class and me to examine those issues in a more personal way. The experience also led me to re-evaluate my own strategies for teaching tolerance.

On the day in March when I planned to introduce the Skokie lesson, I was scheduled to speak at a conference. My intern, Kelli Eldridge, substituted for me and presented the Skokie reading to one of my classes. The discussion went well and touched on all of the issues we had targeted. After the kids left for lunch, however, she discovered a piece of scrap paper on the floor. Someone -- she didn't know who -- had scrawled "Jews Suck" in yellow highlighter across the page.

When I saw the piece of paper and heard the story, I was shocked and infuriated. I had prided myself -- perhaps foolishly -- on the safe, supportive community I had created for my students to discuss many sensitive issues throughout the year. How could someone have jeopardized that?

With a black marker, I outlined the yellow letters of the sign so it would reproduce on the photocopier. The following day each student found a copy taped to his or her desk.

"What the hell is this?" one kid exclaimed.

"Is this some kind of sick joke?" another one muttered.

Confusion and hostility reigned in my classroom, but I would not explain the handout's origin. Instead, I made my students sit and write for 10 minutes about their initial reaction to seeing it.

After they had finished, Kelli shared with the class how she had come to find the hate message, while I scanned through what students had written. When I took over the discussion again, I made it clear that I did not see our conversation as a way to ferret out the writer but as a forum to deal with an important community issue. I told them that the copies had been intended to re-create for them our feelings -- Kelli's and mine -- when we were first confronted with the slur.

Charlie, a student who had frequently been in trouble at school, spoke first. He was quick to point out that he had been serving in-school suspension during the last class. In a surprisingly articulate way, he expressed his disapproval of what had been done.

What I am urging is that teachers use the raw material of teenagers' school lives as curriculum.

He was not alone in his desire to distance himself from the transgression. Most kids seemed to feel that everyone was implicated if no one owned up to the act -- which, in a sense, was true -- and they had a tough time accepting the ambiguity of the situation.

Interestingly, several of those who had expressed the most anger in their writings were also the least vocal. Vicki, who had moved to the district only a few weeks before, wrote that for several months she had been considering converting to Judaism. She expressed disbelief at the narrow-mindedness she saw and despair about "ever being able to fit in here." Although she did not volunteer any of this information in class -- nor did I urge her to -- Vicki's disclosure made me even more certain that the issue needed to be confronted publicly, where her classmates could demonstrate to her that they did not share the feelings of the anonymous anti-Semite.

After everyone in the class had an opportunity to talk, it was my turn for the floor. As calmly and quietly as I could, I told them how angry I was, how betrayed I felt. I reminded them that religion, like sexual orientation, is an invisible difference and that they could not know from casual contact whom they were offending with their thoughtless remarks or jokes.

I asked them, "Do you know, for certain, whether I'm Catholic, Jewish or atheist -- or whether Ms. Eldridge is -- or anyone else in this room, for that matter?"

They actually squirmed in their seats. When I asked how many of the 17 kids knew a Jewish person, four or five raised their hands. When I asked who could name five facts about Judaism, only one did.

Then I told the students that I did not want to dictate what they thought. Their ideas, however much they diverged from my own, were welcome in my class, as long as they were willing to own them. But in our classroom community, for which I was ultimately responsible, I would not tolerate cowardice in the form of hateful messages. People who write letters to newspaper editors must sign their names, and so must they -- literally or metaphorically -- "sign" their ideas.

After I finished talking, I gave the class time to read the next in our series of readings about justice. No one spoke, and I sat at my desk wondering if what I had said had made any difference at all. After the bell rang, though, five or six kids came to me and told me how powerful the day had been.

This experience pointed out a valuable lesson for me. I realized, perhaps for the first time, that sometimes students say the "right" things in class because they want to please me. Presented with a text about cultural difference by a teacher whose views are no secret, they rarely say anything politically incorrect, even when they think it.

I had hoped that literature by Langston Hughes, Amy Tan, Elie Wiesel and Mary Crow Dog would help to open their minds and show them other worlds outside of Berwick, Maine. For many of my students, that literature was eye-opening. But I have learned, sadly, that even literature has its limitations, especially for kids as inexperienced and isolated as mine. In addition to reading, real experiences need to be created for them that will challenge their prejudices in a very concrete, immediate way.

I am not suggesting that teachers should manufacture scenarios by which to teach their students about intolerance. In fact, when I was urged by my students to repeat the encounter for my other three sophomore classes, I refused. I did not want the experience to be a stunt. It was appropriate for them because the slur had come from one of them. I could never have re-created that for another group of kids.

What I am urging is that teachers use the raw material of teenagers' school lives as curriculum. Treat those times when you find graffiti or hear heckling or see prejudice as teachable moments, not merely opportunities for discipline referrals. Get them out in the open and find ways to incorporate them into your classes.

To this day, I do not know who wrote that slur. I do not need to. I do know, however, that the lesson that emerged from the event made an impact on my students. In their reflective "I Remember" exercise at the end of the school year, several students mentioned the day they discovered the hatred in their midst.

"I remember how bad I felt when I came into class and found 'Jews Suck' on my desk," one boy wrote. Nobody wrote, "I remember when we read about Skokie."