Thursday, January 3, 2013

Steubenville, Ohio: It's not just their problem, it's ours.


     For years, I taught high school theatre. While I had many students who were part of the “in” crowd, I also had a collection of “misfits,” “outsiders,” “loners,” kids who just didn’t fit the mold of the “in” crowd. Often troubled, because of the shunning and bullying received at the hands of the “in” crowd, they carried heavy burdens. Adolescence is difficult enough, without piling on the social stigma of being different. Add to that the malodorous modern culture of athletics that dominates schools like mine  and it gets exponentially worse to be one on the outside looking in.
     The prevailing attitude is that these “misfits” are the problem, the ones grabbing guns and shooting up schools and theatres. Part of this statement is true. The shooters are usually found to be “troubled students,” “loners,” “different.” It did not escape my attention that the Columbine shooters were theatre students. But, and that’s a big but, I am of the opinion that the root of the “problem” is not the kids on the outside looking in. The seed from which every one of these horrific tragedies began was planted within the social structure of the “in” crowd.
     My kids, and I call them that because I did consider each and every one of them my children, were the most loving, accepting group of human beings I’ve ever been associated with. They genuinely cared deeply for each other, rejoiced in their individual idiosyncrasies, and showed immense respect for one another. Yes, there were leaders and followers, but everyone’s voice mattered. They instinctively knew how to row the boat together, taking turns sighting the course, and above all getting to their destination with all hands safely onboard.
     I was also witness to the inner workings of the “in” crowd, which at my school revolved around the athletics department. (Don’t forget to include the cheer, pom, and dance teams here, a major component of high school hierarchy.) Full disclosure, I was voted female athlete of the year when I was a senior in high school. I’m not down on athletics. I am a livelong sports fan and wholeheartedly believe in the benefits of athletic participation. Being an athlete gave me self-confidence, taught me discipline, and the value of teamwork, not to mention rockin’ muscles I miss in my waning years. I was part of the “in” crowd, voted Student Government President, and had a blast all four years high school. So, my argument is not a deep seeded reaction to past hurts. What I do not support is the tendency to allow the athletic abilities of an individual to negate the requirement of basic human decency. 
     My perspective changed after becoming a teacher. Observing the culture of athletics from the point of view of my “outsider” students, I could empathize with their frustration. One of my students doodled a drawing in class, years ago. I saw it and asked if I could have it. It hung on my office wall from that moment on, until I retired from teaching. It depicted a herd of sheep with monkey faces, slowly moving along the hallway of the school. The caption read, “Sheep monkeys.” That’s how she saw the “in” crowd and I had to agree with her. I witnessed the social games, the “mean girls,” the hormone infused bullying, the weak and unique weeded out like ugly ducks, the pressure to fit in and blindly follow the leader permeating the air. Sometimes I wondered if my “misfit” students weren’t better off. After all, they did not spend their days trying not to be kicked out of the herd; they were already making their own way.
     This morning, I read the article and watched the video concerning the rape of a young woman by a group of athletes in Steubenville, Ohio. (Linked at the bottom of this post.) In it, I saw members of the Steubenville “in” crowd laughing and joking about raping a young woman, who by their own admission was unconscious, “dead” drunk. In the background, a few voices can be heard objecting to the rape and the callous way the main speaker is portraying the events. Why were the objections not louder? Why were more of these young men not appalled by this behavior? Why didn’t someone intervene on behalf of the young woman? I’m quite sure fear of standing alone outside of the “sheep monkey” herd had a lot to do with it.
     The crime itself was horrendous. The behavior of the witnesses was atrocious. Steubenville has to be asking itself why not one of their young men and women came to the aid of the victim? They all had cellphones. Why didn’t one single person call 911? What kind of culture have they created, where no one had the strength of character to go against the “in” crowd? And above all, when the crime was uncovered, backed up by videos and pictures of the event, how in the hell did the victim become ostracized while the perpetrators were turned into martyrs. When did being a part of the ‘in” crowd become more significant than basic human values? Steubenville should not be the only town asking those questions.
     The same “go along to get along” mentality is at the root of the bullying, shunning, and yes, criminal behavior that goes on in schools across this country every day. Children are not the only victims of this attitude. Adults are equally guilty of suppressing their moral character in order to remain within the status quo. Quite frankly, I have more respect and admiration for “outsiders,” those that dare to be different, standing up for what is right against a sea of “sheep monkeys.”
     I think it is time to look long and hard at the “in” crowd. Stop placing all the blame on the “outsiders” and “loners” for the violence. I am not absolving mass murderers for their crimes. What I am saying is this; I have observed firsthand the healing powers of acceptance and belonging. I have also witnessed the empowerment of an entire group, when all the voices are heard and given value, when differences are embraced, and mutual respect is a given. Had any of those qualities been present the night of this tragic event, a young woman may have been spared such a vile assault. Basic human decency was nowhere to be found that night.
     Wake up America. The moral character of the “in” crowd is diseased. The term “moral majority” is an oxymoron. When our children don’t have the courage or decency to stand up for what is right, we have done them a great disservice. They must be taught that to stand by idly while bullying, hate, and yes, rape is taking place is immoral. They must be empowered to speak up, to be the voice of dissension, when no one else is brave enough to say it. I think this Edmond Burke quote should be in every classroom in the country and recited every morning: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The perpetrators of this crime should be punished to the full extent of the law. The witnesses who stood by and did nothing should suffer the same fate. Maybe the next time, being in the “in” crowd will be less important than displaying a little moral backbone. 

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