I will never forget that moment. The moment my son's friend used the word gay in a derogatory way as I walked by them. The instant I heard that word as my son clearly heard it too and our eyes locked on each other and then there were no words. Silence. Just silence between two people who were uncertain about how to respond or how to handle the moment.
Yes, this did happen and although it left me feeling a variety of emotions (it was an unsettling experience), it also gave me this amazing and important opportunity to engage in a conversation with my son about how he felt in that moment. Was he uncomfortable? Was he upset? Was my sexuality a source of discomfort for him? What did he wish happened instead? We also talked about how he might handle a situation of that nature when it happens again... not IF, but WHEN because it will definitely happen again.
You see, from my perspective and experiences, the derogatory use of words like gay or faggot (or retarded or girly or the dozens of other terms) is common place in our society, especially for children in their intermediate schooling years. Heck, I was guilty of using this type of language too when I was his age. But, what words could I help my son access today so he could handle that moment of discomfort when it arises again in the future? We discussed possible responses that he was comfortable with that would communicate his feelings about the specific term or situation. We even role played and practiced using certain words or phrases. We took a potentially painful situation and made it a teachable moment that hopefully empowered my son to successfully navigate an experience of this nature in the future.
Unfortunately, I am not sure if all the children in our schools have the words to handle uncomfortable situations, personal attacks or just ignorant behavior on the part of their peers. With all this talk about college and career readiness and the implementation of the common core state standards (a questionable experience thus far) and the focus on high stakes testing, I am worried that we are not attending to some of the "life skills" our children need to navigate certain situations and experiences. Specifically, I am worried that we are not taking the time to expose our children to the words they may need to handle a challenging situation. Yes, there is a lot of emphasis on the social and emotional literacy of our students. We talk a lot about perseverance and grit and how if our kids were taught to embody these attributes, they could meet with success regardless of the obstacles life threw their way. We also talk a lot about things like anti-bullying programs or the Bucket Filling philosophy or the importance of our children being UPstanders and not a bystanders. But, in thinking about how these programs/ideas/concepts generally manifest themselves within our own schools, my concern is that we are focusing too heavily on what not to say or do instead of devoting the time to the words our children may need to handle a difficult exchange, peer or situation.
From my narrow and limited perspective, I think our children need words. They need space to think, reflect, discuss and deliberate. They need the opportunity to role play about how to handle derogatory statements that belittle someone because of their race, class, gender or sexuality. Our children need the words to give voice to themselves as individuals. Our children need the words to express their comfort and discomfort. Our children need the words to successfully question and engage with people or contexts that are unfamiliar to them. Our children need the words to advocate for themselves. Our children need the words to communicate their feelings and needs.
Do I think equipping our children with words is solely the responsibility of our schools? Absolutely not! I see this as a joint venture between home and school... between families and educators... between adults and children. If we want our children to be college and career ready... actually, scratch that because college and career are just a fraction of our lives; if we want our children to be life ready, we need to give them access to the words.