Friday, July 21, 2017

Please Stop Staring

The Types of Stares

To stare means to look at someone or something in a fixed way with eyes wide open. Sometimes it can be an incredibly positive and amazing look because people are staring in awe. Individuals cannot believe what they are seeing and can't shift their eyes away. We see those stares when an acrobat performs an amazing flip or a magician makes something disappear. We can call those the AWE stares. Then there are the stares that are accompanied by a smile and sigh where people can't look away because whatever they are seeing makes them happy and fills their heart. We see those stares when we encounter an unexpected marriage proposal or see a baby take their first steps. We can call those the HAPPY stares. Then there are the other stares. The stares that are not only fixed on someone or something but are often vacant in nature and are generally accompanied by a look of shock. We see those after a terrible accident on the highway or a heart breaking story on the news. These stares do include a level of awe but not the positive type of awe; instead, these stares are often filled with pity and perpetuate a feeling of negativity. We can call those the BAD stares. The bad stares don't make anyone feel good - not the person staring and certainly not the person being stared at. Yet, the bad stares are real and pervasive in our world and we must work together to address them.

Please Stop Staring

Recently my family and I went on vacation to Aruba where we had an amazing time hanging out at the pool, enjoying the buffet and being surrounded by family and friends. The overall experience was a positive one and I cannot wait to go back to Aruba. Unfortunately, during our travels I also encountered the BAD stares and they left me feeling disappointed and disheartened. 

While I have been on the receiving end of this type of stare (I have had my share of fashion faux pas or have done something in public that I regret) this time the stares were directed at my son, Paul. Paul was born with arthrogryposis and congenital scoliosis, which have impacted his physical development and have led to certain atypical characteristics in regards to the way he walks and the shape of his spine (I have written about his journey here and here). In the end, Paul is a miracle because in the most important ways he is a typically developing and functioning kid (including possessing the attitude of a middle schooler but that is a whole other post) and he has exceeded the expectations of every doctor he has ever seen. He is smart, funny, engaging, empathetic, compassionate and, from my vantage point, pretty perfect. And while his norm may be different than others, he is a "normal" kid. Of course, when you see him you can't help but notice that there is some sort of physical issue because of his gait and the curve in his back. Fortunately, Paul does not allow himself to be defined or limited by those issues, instead he accepts them as part of who he is and realizes that they are just physical limitations not life limitations. 

In the end, Paul walks through life with a good amount of self-confidence and positivity, which serves him well but isn't necessarily visible to everyone else - especially to those who don't know him. Instead, what is visible is the curve in his spine, and the way that he walks, and these are the things that bring on the stares... the BAD stares. Now I am not sure if Paul notices the stares and just ignores them or is completely oblivious to them but I notice them and they break my heart a little bit each time. The stares bring on a range of emotions. I feel everything from anger to sadness to indifference to frustration to disappointment. And while I understand why people might glance for a moment, I don't understand why people stare - literally eyes fixed, mouths wide open and looks of shock. One time, I actually watched a person walk into a wall because they couldn't stop staring. I think the stares that I have the hardest time with are the ones that come from adults. I can't help but think - wait, you're a grown up and someone must have taught you that it is not ok to stare. Yet I see it over and over again. People stare and literally can't stop themselves; unfortunately, those stares only evoke insecurity and negativity and the time has come to stop the staring.

What Can We Do To Stop The Staring?

While I don't think schools and educators alone are the silver bullet to "fix" the societal issue that manifests itself in the form of staring (I think the issue here is a reflection of much a more systemic and pervasive issue in our world impacting people who are marginalized), I do think there are things we can do within our schools to help our students be positive global citizens. Here are 3 ideas that I think can help stop the staring...

1) Put empathy and inclusivity at the center of our work in schools - and not just during SEL time! Our curriculum can no longer be just about academic skills with a special period of social emotional learning; but, instead we must place the importance of empathy and inclusivity at the center of our work whether we are doing a read aloud, completing a science experiment or solving a math problem, we must expose our students to what it means to be an empathetic individual and citizen of the world. Just think about the whole 21st century movement - both collaboration and critical thinking skills are central to this work and are also important when thinking about developing empathy and believing in inclusivity.  We must also be mindful of our actions as the educators because we can model (and even do a "think aloud" to show kids the what and why of our thinking) empathy and inclusivity. While I do believe some people are more inclined to be empathetic and inclusive (a lot to consider in the whole nature vs. nurture argument) I think we could equip all of our students with the skills to be able to exhibit empathy and be inclusive of those around them who might be different. It is another skill set we can expose kids to through inquiry and discussion if we focus on empathy and inclusion with intentionality. Ultimately the work we need to do is about emotional intelligence and high levels of self-awareness (for students and staff) and by building those capacities, we can take the conversation beyond tolerance and acceptance and help nurture empathy and inclusivity. This is not easy work but so important because when we nurture the ability to be empathetic and inclusive, we take learning to a whole other level.    

2) Use digital platforms to connect our students to people from every walk of life - we can no longer contain the learning to the four walls of our classrooms or schools! There are so many digital platforms (new ones spring up each day) that remove all barriers (geographical, SES, gender, etc.) and allow us the opportunity to learn from the world; yes, literally learn from the world beyond our classrooms. By accessing digital platforms, we can accelerate our learning because we can engage our students with people who are different than them and the result will be an informed perspective and appreciation and respect for what makes us different. We can have our students learn from people who have a different skin color, people who speak a different language, people who subscribe to different religions, people who live a different lifestyle, people who are living with disabilities, people who aren't like our students. This type of exposure and interaction will help support the development of global citizens! 

3) Incorporate literature, texts, blog posts, articles, etc. that feature characters and people who can serve as windows and mirrors for our learners. Much like the use of digital platforms (which may not be for every community), texts can serve as the gateway to an understanding of how others experience life. To that end, we must ensure that the literature, and other text based resources, available to our kids are rich, diverse and inclusive. Ultimately, empathy is about understanding, respecting, and potentially appreciating, the experiences of others. 

In The End... 

These are just three possibilities of what we can do in our schools today to help nurture the development of global citizens who are empathetic and inclusive... and don't stare. I am sure there are better ways to accomplish this goal but the problem is real and we must address it sooner rather than later because our kids, my kid, deserve better. In the meantime though, to all the adults out there, please stop staring.  


  1. Thank you for this beautiful post Tony! Paul is an extraordinary young man and we are all proud of him. Your ideas are spot on. My mother taught me early and often not to stare and to greet others with love and generosity because that's what she always did. As parents we need to set good examples for our kids.

    Thank you my brother!


  2. Hello!
    I am a teacher of color. I feel the one thing I do best in my classroom is teach empathy and inclusivity to my students because of my background. I'm just more aware of when it is not happening. We have a special ed class across the hall, and I hope I'm doing the right thing, but when they need to buddy up with a reg ed class, I purposely volunteer my class because I want my kids to really "see" these fellow students. I do not teach them to "look away" when they are acting atypical, instead I want them to learn how they can be helpful, friendly, unafraid, aware that these kids are just like them and worthy of their attention, quirks and all. We don't ignore people who seem different from us, you'd never have a chance of meeting a future best friend. I hope I am doing the right thing, because I would not want to feel that I am being insensitive, but we would be the type of class that would look at your boy, not away.
    Tammy Williams

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I think that your recommendations #2 and #3 will help support your recommendation #1. Reading literary fiction alone develops empathy in children. If children are also being exposed to diverse characters, situations, and ideas within what they read as well as being exposed to people in the world different from them, as you suggest, more empathy should grow authentically (we would hope). Great post!

  4. Well done, Tony! Staring and making comments are rude forms of human behavior that do exist. I applaud you for writing this piece.