Shrinking the Empathy Gap

Mr. President, sit at the table. Pull up close. Don’t sit in the back with the slackers and scared kids. Get out front and open your eyes.

Sit up straight. Get out your pencil and get ready to write. You might need to take notes. If you think of something important to say, you can write a word or two as a reminder. You have a chance to do something in here. But if you sit in the back, talking locker room talk to some other dumb-ass, posing and whispering, you’re gonna be lost.

Listen well enough to ask a decent question. That’ll keep you engaged and activate any dormant, lethargic neurons. None of us knows everything, and certainly neither do you. Unless you are Da Vinci or Erasmus, you have work to do, so get ready.

I want to tell you about my students. Look at them, right here, next to you and across from you.  Look at them coming in here, ready to learn, open like fallow fields, their notebooks filled with clean paper. Ask them what their what they feel, what they think, what they fear. Ask them about their dreams and hopes. Come down to where they are, deep down, all the way down.

The thirteen year-old girl next to you. She’s got an Emily Dickinson poem graffitied on her binder–it says, “I dwell in possibility.” But like millions of other kids her age, she’s been exposed to language that objectifies, demeans, sexualizes or is otherwise reductive or oppressive. Her exposure to that language does not only come from her own president. It comes up around her in everyday life, from her classmates, starting in elementary school, and on up to college.  She hears it from her friends in high school, she hears it in music, in movies, on the radio, in the news, shouted at her from passing cars.

In twenty six years of teaching 7th-9th graders, nearly all of my female students’ bodies have been rated at one time or another, on and by every scale imaginable, by boys and girls. Before some of the girls have even reached puberty, they have been called cunts, bitches, whores, and skanks. They have been labeled easy, trash, dogs, ugly, and frigid. And boys, as young as eleven and twelve, they are not immune. Fag, gay, homo, retard, pussy. If you’re a boy and a virgin, you’re a fag. You’re lame, you suck. If you have a girl friend? It’s all about, “Have you fucked her yet?” If you have, or you lie and say you have, you’re a stud. If you’re a girl and you’ve had sex, you’re practically a slut. If you’re a guy, you “get some.” A girl? It’s all about whether you put out.

I presume you know all about this. You call it locker room talk, presumably language you use when not in mixed company when you want to impress your friends. But now look at this girl in our classroom. Would you say that in front of her? She is looking at you and wondering what you’re actually thinking. She’s not sure if you know. Here’s what she’s thinking: “You are disgusting, cowardly, and pathetic. Don’t ever talk to me like that. Ever. Grow the fuck up.” But she’s not sure she can even say that out loud.

Children  and teenagers find themselves enmeshed in this with each other because they are scared. Scared about who they are, and scared of who they aren’t. So they toss around the most powerful words they know. For protection, they revert to speech which wounds others, keeps others at a distance. Their words mask the fears that swirl beneath the surface. They are fearful of being small, left behind, rejected, discarded, diminished, used. They are afraid of what others will say or think. They don’t know what others think because others aren’t really saying what they feel.

So they throw these powerful words around like fragment grenades: if they create enough sm0ke and chaos, they might get out alive with their fragile egos intact. But they’ll be running from the wreckage they created, and they’ll never be seen as they truly wish. Maybe they appear strong, above it, over it, but they are running from themselves and the love and tenderness they truly crave.

Certainly, anyone who has gone through adolescence, including you, understands something about this. My students? Well, It confuses them. Sometimes it makes them not want to come to school, grow up, or even live in this world.  They feel even worse about the instances when they themselves have used those terms, or when they have been complicit by standing by in silence.

They, like all of us, want to be loved, and to have a feeling of loving another. They want to be seen and known and understood. But it is frightening to speak of the soul’s most intimate needs.

I am their teacher, and I am are charged with teaching them to wield language effectively, what the Buddhist teaching calls “right speech.” We are teaching them to be more gracious, thoughtful, insightful, considerate, and precise in how they communicate.  Like parents who must teach toddlers to use their words, we are still teaching them to use their words, all the way up through high school.

So when we sit around the table reading poetry, it’s not because I care very much about state standards or students knowing what iambic pentameter is; but because I want them to be able to speak beautifully and accurately, and to be able to distinguish poetic speech from common speech, true speech from a lie, how beauty and truth is expressed through words. If I do it right, then perhaps one day they find their way to their own truths in poetic words.


Last week a dozen or so of my students went to see “The Empathy Gap.” The film was described as looking at the ways “cultural messages short-circuit men’s ability to empathize with women, respect them as equals, and take feminism seriously…by exploring some of the key messages about manhood that boys absorb from the culture — that they should acquire material wealth, meet conflict with aggression, harden themselves, suppress all human emotion except anger, and view women primarily as sexual objects — then argues that these messages not only devalue women but also undercut men’s innate capacity for caring and empathy.”

It seemed relevant to our students and these times.

When they came back the next day, they were excited to talk about it.

“It gave me so much to think about,” said Wren.

There is so much to think about. If you sit here long enough, your brain will begin to ache with the awesome awareness that you have so much yet to understand. My students write speeches, stories, character sketches. They write self-reflective essays. When we read Of Mice and Men, I ask  them, “How is this book also about you?” When they read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I ask them, “What did you learn about your own life, and which character are you grateful to have known?”

It’s all very personal. In morning meeting they talk about what happened the night before. My parents fought, and it scared me. I don’t know what i am going to do next year. I sometimes feel lonely. I feel like I am disconnected from my class. I am not sure what is most important to me. My grandfather is going in for some tests and I I am worried about him. I feel like I am being a jerk lately and I am being a shitty friend, and I don’t want to be like that.

You see, when we talk and write and think like this, we are trying to create a new script, one that goes to where we all want it to go, to talk about ourselves are we really are.  But it takes courage to do it, to show or say what is inside and bring it out. It takes courage to say, “You know what, locker room talk is bullshit. I’m not going take part in a lie.”

But when they do that, they are standing firm and authoring their own lives.

We are trying to see the truth of things and each other. I want my students to see the truth inside themselves, and you, too. If you sit up at the table, they will wait for you to take off your mask. And if you don’t, they will ask you, “What do your fear?” If you resist, they will say, “Cut the crap. Show us who you really are.”

In case it’s not clear, this is them practicing the art of empathy and compassion.

It’s also how they bypass what they hate, in themselves and others, which is any inauthentic being. The old script? The one some dismiss as just “guy talk?” Well, they think that script is deranged.

In Of Mice and Men, the kids saw piercingly into a relationship between males founded on love and tenderness, and the explicit admission of the fear of loneliness. The bond between Lennie and George stands in blazing contradistinction to the world in which men must be fierce, cold-hearted, violent, or solitary, seeking the facsimile of love in whore houses. George and Lennie upturn the script and write a new one.

A few days later we were in morning meeting.

“Who’s got the poem to read this morning?” I asked.

Griffin raised his hand. Now understand, Griffin is pretty rough looking. He plays football. he wrestles, he hunts, he lives on a dirt road near a dairy farm. He’s not what some of his old friend might call a “poet fag.” But his heart is as big as a mountain.

“I was thinking about what we saw in that movie the other day,” he begins. “About how guys are afraid to do anything that is, I don’t know, I guess, loving or affectionate. Because they’ll get made fun of.”

He’s taking a while to get to the point, but he’s onto something true and real.

“So I want to read this poem by Maya Angelou. We read it last year and I think it’s important because it seems related to what we’ve been talking about. And I think it’s important for both girls and boys. But I am reading it for myself, I guess to remind me so I don’t forget it.”

Then he read “Phenomenal Woman,” when begins with the lines:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size.
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
the span of my hips,
the stride of my step,
the curl of my lips.
I am a woman

You’re in the room, and now you’re listening. You’re not sure what you’re hearing. It makes you a little dizzy. You’ve never heard a 14 year old tough kid read a poem by a black woman about phenomenal, uncontainable and undefinable otherworldly beauty. The kids are speaking a language you don’t quite understand, but as you look at their faces you begin to see. They love this poem. They’re smiling when he reads. They applaud when he finishes. Everyone is uplifted. And they love him. They love this phenomenal  moment in which their friend takes the sad, old script—tears it to bits and throws it out the bus window, and then writes the new one.

You sit their wondering what you should do, moving your pencil across the blank page in front of you. You are wondering about this new world. When did it come into being? The poem contains the phrase: my inner mystery. You’re wondering about that. That mystery, what is it? Your inner mystery? Where is that deep-down sun-lit vision you’ve been missing?

The boy you’ve heard read the poem, he’s not lost, he’s not mystified. He’s down inside, deep down. He’s up here in our faces, telling us what’s what. He’s tender and strong, thoughtful and sincere, imperfect but striving, listening and responding. Right in front of you a boy has worked a kind of magic. Angelou’s voice—which celebrates women, every woman—has become his. That’s a gift he gave us, and don’t you see? Now he’s giving it to you.


Author: talbirdsey

I am writing a postcard to the President everyday.

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