Below is a guest post by my friend, author and fellow SCBWI Team Blogger Martha Brockenbrough.
Her story inspired me... and I know it will inspire you, too.
Qui tacit consentit. Through silence, consent. I first encountered this expression in college and it struck a deep chord with me. It summarized that feeling I had in high school when the cool boys in the cafeteria were ragging on one of my friends for being gay. It also echoed what I’d learned much earlier, when reading “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
It resonates with all of us on some level. Why else would an expression in a dead language live on?
In the twenty years since I first met the words, I’ve tried to live by them. It’s sometimes harder than others. On Facebook when I post things in support of my gay, lesbian, transgendered and otherwise “other” friends, my own friend count goes down. Good riddance, I think. They were never my friends to begin with.
It’s a bit harder in real life. Do you speak your views at work? What about at your kids’ school, where they might suffer the consequences? My livelihood depends on my having readers. My kids’ success in life depends on their doing well in school.
And yet, the truth remains: through silence, consent.
So I start conversations, sometimes in person, and sometimes via emails like this one, which I wrote after watching a play put on by the kids in my daughter’s fourth-grade class:
That was so much fun and such a great way to celebrate what the kids have been studying. I was amazed at the risks the kids took on stage. They were so gutsy and it really worked.
There is one thing, though, that I've been continuing to think about all weekend, and that was [a particular student’s] tall tale. It was cute and clever, but the bulk of the humor relied on certain gender stereotypes. Boys aren't supposed to like dolls and flowers. It made me think of a boy in one of the lower grades who really loves playing with dolls and traditionally girl things, and how he has sometimes suffered as a result. Putting that on stage, in a way, legitimizes mocking kids who don't fit gender and possibly sexual identity norms. The resolution defied that somewhat, though it was more his size and less about his interests that drove the conclusion.
I'm sure this wasn't intentional on [the student’s] part. She defies a lot of stereotypes herself, and regularly has to defend her interest in cross-gender friendships. I think it's more a symptom that the kids know what's funny--and to a certain extent at this age, funny = making fun of differences.
I wouldn't have changed a thing about the roundup. It was truly brilliant.
But it might indicate the kids are ready to examine certain types of humor. What makes something "funny" can often be quite hurtful when stereotypes are at the heart of things. It's nothing new. Aeschylus made fun of the disabled in his plays--that was standard. There are alternative forms of humor, though. The kids might enjoy learning about them, and it might save some truly vulnerable children a bit of pain.
I sent the email to both fourth grade teachers and waited in vain for a response. They didn’t acknowledge the email. They did not speak to me about it on the class overnight the next week. They haven’t spoken to me about it in the times we’ve run into each other at the store or at community events. It’s as if I’d never spoken up, as if what I have to say doesn’t matter.
This is, I know, a taste of what it’s like to belong to a minority group. There’s a certain kind of unpleasant invisibility—the feeling that the contents of your heart aren’t important enough to be acknowledged. There’s a definite message that you should be silent. Go along or shut up.
It was a disappointing experience, to say the least, and one that made me that much more sympathetic to the people who are always being asked to keep themselves and their lives hidden away.
I don’t belong to any particular minority group myself. I’m a middle-aged, middle-class mom with two kids and two dogs. I’m a Y-chromosome away from being The Man, actually. This makes it all the more important that the likes of us speak up. The more we do, the harder it will be for people to keep silencing and marginalizing people who aren’t in the majority. I can’t control whether anyone listens to what I say, but I surely don’t have to consent to the mistreatment of my fellow human beings.
Ultimately, we took both of our children out of that school, not because there was anything wrong with the classroom education they were receiving, but rather, because the culture permitted rampant unkindness, including the mocking of people based on their differences.
It wasn’t the school’s official position, of course. But it was the one people slouched toward, because it takes more time and energy to stick to standards than it does to shrug off or ignore bad behavior. It's uncomfortable, and people would rather avoid their own discomfort than acknowledge the far deeper pain of others.
Our departure won’t change the school in any way, I’m sure. But that’s beyond my control. It always was. The more important thing was that I didn’t let the school change me. I did not consent to anything I knew to be wrong. In the process, I’ve shown my kids there are always other choices than to consent—and that the world, instead of getting smaller for what you’ve left behind—expands accordingly.
What an amazing woman - I'm really proud to know her. Thank you Martha!
And f you're considering coming out, the Human Rights Campaign has a lot of online resources to help. (And yes, they even have a guide for straight supporters!)
Happy National Coming Out Day!