Social Justice? How About Embarrassment?
It happened one fall day several years ago when I began a new job as a classroom music teacher at an alternative private school. At the age of twenty-four, I was the youngest faculty member on staff. Due to my age perhaps, the headmaster of the school fancied that I was naïve and inexperienced, and in need of her imposing, middle-aged guidance. As the year rolled on, she expressed dissatisfaction with my incapacity to enforce classroom discipline.
“Neesa, the children are unruly in your class. You must be calm within yourself. Because when you are calm, the children will be calm.”
She was a spiritualist. It was a difficult situation. As much as I loved the children I taught, I also had my hands tied behind me. The school was a place that strove to nurture the children, regarding each child as a precious seed to be gently watered and cared for. Of course, this coddling environment disabled me from adopting any sort of stern tone to enforce discipline. And yet I was supposed to magically do this.
The nature of my job did not help much. As a music teacher, my goal was to impart musical literacy and concepts by teaching charming songs, which very often had accompanying games or dances. My teaching style was derived from the widely-recognized Kodály method of music education, which I had studied for a couple of prior summers. Indeed, the children loved my classes, but again, I struggled with enforcing discipline. I could not escape from the fact that I was an energetic, youthful woman who taught a class that was fun.
To remedy my lack of classroom management skills, the headmaster sent me on a teachers’ weekend retreat, specifically geared for new teachers at independent private schools. Perhaps her hope was that I would magically transform into an old schoolmarm, whose icy stare alone could freeze any child into behaving obediently.
I boarded an Amtrak train to a green locale in upstate New York for the retreat. On arrival, I lugged my suitcase to my designated cabin and claimed my bed. The place felt rustic, with sprawling acres of lawn and trees. A promising start.
The retreat schedule began with a community meal and ended with a group afterward. The teaching staff introduced themselves as a gang of experienced teachers, who would share their tips and tricks with us. They broke the ice by asking us to introduce ourselves.
Hello, my name is Neesa. I’m a music teacher at ____in Brooklyn.”
I was pretty much the only art teacher present, other than a part-time dance instructor.
“Hey guys, I’m Bridget! I teach Spanish at the Brearley School.”
“The Dalton School.”
“Little Red Schoolhouse.”
Many of the ritziest schools in New York City were represented … and suddenly, I felt inadequate. Their physical appearance was intimidating as well. Many were athletic white guys and attractively tanned, lean girls with sloped noses and straight hair with highlights. The type of people who looked like recent graduates of East coast universities like Brandeis and Lehigh. But no matter. I had as much right to be there as they did. I was a teacher as much as they were.
Our training began. The facilitators asked us many questions about our first impressions of teaching, being green novices in the field. We raised our hands, and our comments were written on a whiteboard. After this, they affixed large sheets of flip-chart paper onto separate tables, and each paper had a question at the top of it. We were then each given a marker, and instructed to go around to each table and brainstorm answers for each question. This activity lasted a good fifteen minutes. At the end of it, participants simply read the comments that were on each page. As the session concluded, I thought to myself:
What did I actually learn here? For novices to brainstorm like this, without intervention or commentary from the experienced teachers present… how is this informative? I have not learned one iota about classroom management!
I remained hopeful, though. There was still another full day of activity scheduled. When we returned to the cabin for the evening, we were greeted with a couple of cases of beer in the living room area, by the fireplace. Some facilitator’s head popped in randomly to explain the situation.
“Here, have fun! Get to know one another!”
I looked around me and felt the inadequate feeling again. Truth be told, I have never felt comfortable around Golden Boy/Barbie Doll white types. And while I culturally identify myself to be Caucasian, I always feel awkward about my light olive complexion and black curly hair, this being a result of my half-Nepali ethnicity. I needlessly fret at times also, that these “perfect” people will dismiss me as being a bit too “brown.”
Perhaps I am a bit apprehensive here… but I admit, I am not an infallible person. I have my bouts of insecurity and worries.)
The evening proved profoundly stupid. To get to know one another, we decided to play a drinking game, and then that descended into “Never Have I Ever.” I guess this was supposed to be considered “networking.”
The next morning, we gathered into the main conference room for more training. This time, we engaged in an exercise where we were asked questions, the sort that can be answered on a 1-10 scale. For each question, we answered by standing in a certain part of the room.
“I use social media often.”
“I feel comfortable with learning new skills.”
If the answer was a complete yes, one stood to the far left of the room. If a complete no, one would stand to the far right. For an answer in between, a person guesstimated and stood somewhere in the middle.
Um… what am I learning here? As experienced as these facilitators are in teaching, why are they not imparting their tried and true wisdom unto us as promised? Perhaps they have nothing to offer at all, but are merely earning an extra paycheck by babysitting us for the weekend!
At the conclusion of this activity, what came next was…
“Alright, everyone! We’re going to do an exercise about social justice. But first… let’s go outside! It’s nice out! Come on, let’s go!” The bright-eyed facilitators ushered us all onto the grass. It was indeed nice outside. An Indian summer.
“Ok, so this will be sort of a game. Don’t worry; it’ll be fun! I need you all to line up in a single line, all holding hands.”
I found myself as the last person on the left end of the line. My right hand held the hand of a short woman, and she held hands with another woman and me. You get the idea.
The facilitator then stood in front of us all, slightly elevated due to standing on the slope of a mild hill. She gesticulated greatly with her hands, and I noticed she held a sheet of paper.
“Alright! Great! Now, I am going to ask you a series of questions. In response to these questions, you will either take a step forward or a step back. We’ll tell you what to do as it happens. Everyone ready?”
“Ready!” I shouted with everyone else, a smile on my face. I always like games like this.
She spoke slowly and clearly:
“If you owned the home that you grew up in… take a step forward.”
I remained stationary, while many others to my right stepped forward. Okay. No biggie.
“If you were criticized in school for being a minority… take a step back.”
Okay, I took a step back. Certainly, I remember being bullied by the numerous Asian students in my elementary school for being the tallest kid in the class. And also for having curly black hair. According to them, black hair only came in straight, so I was a weirdo.
But do I? It is true that this prejudice happened, and this truth isn’t pretty.
“If you ate meals at the table with your family, take a step forward.”
Hm… I remember always eating at the table alone. Grandma would make me a Swanson’s or Stouffer’s microwaveable dinner, and I’d sit in front of the TV as I scarfed it down, done in five minutes. My mother was never home because she was working, so she made arrangements for me to go to my grandmother’s every day after school. Being at Grandma’s also shielded me from being around my father, who was verbally and physically abusive against my mother and me.
“If you experienced domestic abuse in your home, take a step back.”
And so I did.
“If you have ever been subject to prejudice because of gender, take a step back.”
I remembered a time when my father called me a “whore on the beach.” So I took another step back.
I suddenly realized that the girl whose hand I was holding was African-American. She stood a couple of steps ahead of me, and so our arms stretched to reach one another. And as I looked at everyone to the right of me many people seemed to be ahead of me, whether marginally or vastly.
“If you have ever received an inheritance, take a step forward.”
Mostly white people stepped forward for that one.
“If your parents have divorced, take a step back.”
I stepped back, and my arm strained further to reach the girl next to me.
“If either of your parents is foreign-born, and immigrated from another country to the United States, take a step back.”
My father came from Nepal, so I took a step back…
And now, I couldn’t reach the African American girl’s hand anymore. We let go, and now I was left as one lone person on the left side of the line, disconnected from the group. The African American girl managed to still hold onto a white girl’s hand, though dragging behind.
As more questions proceeded, I saw that the Caucasian men came out in front, followed by Caucasian women and perhaps the two East Asians in the bunch. In the middle range, there was a large smattering of people who drew from various backgrounds. And near the back of the group, there were people of color, and perhaps Latinos, or other people with black hair…
But by the end of the exercise, I knew where I stood. I was behind absolutely everyone. Even behind the black people. I hate saying it this starkly, bringing up skin color and all. But this is what happened. The truth isn’t pretty.
The end of the exercise was brutish. As instructed by the bright-eyed facilitator: “OK, everyone! Now… Let’s run a race! Ready… set…”
Yeah, go fuck yourself. You and your happy facilitator smile.
When we got back inside, the facilitators prompted us to discuss the exercise. I silently slumped in my chair, feeling absolutely defeated and embarrassed.
A white girl raised her hand.
“Well, I thought it was really interesting. It was great to hear all the questions because I hadn’t considered some of these things as things that could influence a person’s living situation.”
A naïve response, but one with a genuine sentiment.
Another comment: “It just really reminds us that we need to be mindful. You can never tell what a person has been through, or what they’ve seen.”
And another: “I took a lot of steps forward, and that made me realize that I’m better off than I thought I was.”
With each comment, I grew more and more ashamed. My eyes became a bit teary too.
This whole exercise, and the embarrassment it has now caused me… it’s completely unjust and immoral to expose me in such a way…
Inside I was boiling. I decided to myself right there that I sure as hell was not going to remain silent. So I raised my hand to speak. When I was called on, I tried to remain calm and collected, yet my voice trembled, and my eye was wet…
“Excuse me. I just want to say that this experience has been incredibly negative for me, and that this exercise we just did is an absolute disgrace. When we did the exercise, and these questions were asked, I found myself falling further and further behind everyone in line, until it got to the point where I was behind every other person here. And as I took each step back, I was forced to recollect an unpleasant time in my life, or perhaps a time when an opportunity was denied me.”
An electric energy of discomfort suddenly charged the air.
“And while this exercise might have been interesting ‘food for thought’ for some people, it is not entertaining or enlightening for those who actually have lived through unfortunate situations. Even when we were just out there, it was humiliating to stand in the back of that line. If someone was to turn back and look at me, way behind… that person could potentially see me as inferior, or maybe feel sorry for me at best. It is absolutely disgusting that I was put in so vulnerable a position.”
“And yet, in spite all of this, I just want to say that I am proud. Proud because I have earned my right to be here. This exercise starkly shows me, how much harderI have had to fight than everyone in this room, to simply sit here in this chair with everyone else. But you know what? None of you need to know my past. None of you have any right to know what I’ve been through. My struggles are my personal business, and they should not be put on display to be simply ‘interesting food for thought.’ This is MY LIFE.”
To the facilitators, I gave a reciprocal cruel eye:
“You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”
Many of the young teachers in the room appeared moved by my speech. And even the chipper facilitator now looked embarrassed. She smiled still as she responded to me, remaining cordial:
“Well, I’m very glad you’ve spoken up so honestly. I totally understand your dissatisfaction with this exercise, and so we now know not to use it again. Thank you for your honesty.”
I appreciated her sensitivity towards me; certainly, there was no sinister villain in the room. And now, others began to chime in, in response to my comment.
“You know, when I did the exercise, I noticed that I was going further and further ahead, and was almost ahead of everyone. And because of that, I saw fewer and fewer people next to me. What if we reversed the exercise, and had the people who went forwards go back, and vice versa? That could have conveyed the message more clearly.” This, from a handsome, white guy with glasses.
When people brainstorm solutions aloud, as this guy just did, I get very glad in my heart. To vocalize an idea, though not fully formed, or “perfect,” without any agenda attached to it … that is the pinnacle of vulnerability; I have learned.
“I really agree that this exercise was unfair. It didn’t strike me when we were outside, but it has now. I just want to make my opinion known. This exercise shouldn’t have been done.”
And another: “I don’t even understand the point of this exercise. How did this activity demonstrate the concept of ‘social justice?’”
There was another guy who tried to diffuse the tension in the room:
“I just find it really fascinating here, how some people have seen this exercise positively, and others negatively. It’s created a lot of great debate and discussion here.”
That guy kind of annoyed me, although in retrospect, I admit he had a point. The room was filled with vivid discussion.
But, is it necessary to actually scapegoat a person, to learn about how not to do it?
When I returned to work at the private school, I reported the inefficacy of the weekend, from the social justice exercise to the cases of evening beer. The headmaster was mildly disappointed in my having learned virtually nothing, but instead had another answer for me.
“This exercise they have done… I have heard of it. It is typically an approach to try and demonstrate awareness about racial and socio-economic status.” I admit, she was placed in a delicate situation. What could she possibly have said, to express that my training had been a waste of time?
Looking back, I am proud of myself. I choose to recall this memory not as an episode of humiliation, but instead an example of personal triumph. Despite having suffered from domestic abuse, and financial hardship, and discrimination based on race and gender, I am still standing strong. I am still confident in myself…
I am taking my steps forward these days. Better late than never.