Words that screamed, “I AM A VICTIM!”
The year was 1987. She was a foster child, unwanted by her natural parents, at odds with her foster mother. The deck was stacked against her. I wanted to take her shopping to buy her decent clothes. If she had a decent haircut and learned to apply a little makeup, maybe she wouldn’t draw such negative attention to herself.
But then, she’d still open her mouth. Out from her mouth came all the words that screamed, “I AM A VICTIM!” Her manner, style, and body language reinforced this image. Kennie was a scapegoat, a target for all other insecure people to taunt and use to get spare change, petty favors, and a good laugh.
One day, I watched as an older, larger aggressive girl verbally took Kennie apart and left her in pieces on the classroom floor. My directives for the verbal attack to end went unheeded. The audience was thrilled with the display the two presented. Kennie ran away. She ran out of the classroom, out of the building, and out into the street. The bell rang. Chaos ensued. I cornered her attacker. I was enraged, furious that one human being could be so cruel to another. I wanted to lay her out flat. She was twice my size.
I spoke, choosing the mildest words I could manage, given how I felt. I told her that sometimes she acted like a complete asshole! I didn’t care whether what I said was appropriate. I was angry and fed up with the abuse Kennie suffered day after day. I was at a loss as to how to help her. What I saw, however, triggered in me tremendous emotional pain, pain buried deep in my psyche, pain I could not forget.
I Was Outnumbered
It was 1972. Patched bell bottoms were the uniform. Boys’ sneakers, army jackets, and skin-tight tops were the rage. The social dress code forbade white socks. My mother, like most mothers, had set ideas on how a girl should dress. My teenage self believed that her ideas were far from fashionable. My wardrobe did not include the grungy, tie-dyed, patched clothing of the times. Some well-meaning aunts would give me bags of outdated clothes they had tired of or outgrown. Consequently, my dress was quite out of style.
One day, I was walking to the store in my 50s-style hot pink stretch pants, white socks, and girls’ sneakers. Then I saw them up ahead. Immediately, fear penetrated my soul. Pride kept me from running. They had been taunting me for weeks. There were five of them. There was an obvious ringleader. She was huge and appeared to be a few years older than I. “Hey, fag! Hey, fag with the white socks!”
The next thing I remember, I was surrounded. She was screaming something at me. She wanted to fight. I wouldn’t. I didn’t know how. There was no escape. I was outnumbered. The slap across my face stung. Angry and humiliated, I swore at her. There was no thought, just reaction. At that moment, the crowd parted. A friend and neighbor from across the street saw what was happening and summoned her older brother to help. They provided for my escape. The girls never bothered me again. I would be eternally grateful for this act of kindness.
That memory of cruelty and abuse, compounded by many, many others witnessed in the classroom over the years, compelled me to search for a deeper understanding of who I am, what I believe in, and how I could act on those beliefs. Thus emerged my philosophy.
Children are born with a wisdom waiting to unfold and manifest itself in personality. That personality, however, is directed by the environment in which the child lives. I believe that whether personality traits, strengths, and weaknesses take a positive or negative path, whether children reach their potential or not, depends on the children’s environment.
Once children have internalized the education provided by their environment, their behavior becomes set in patterns of reaction and response to that environment. This is why self-knowledge with an understanding of the origins of our attitudes, beliefs, and prejudices is necessary before we can change what isn’t working for us in relationships and consciously keep what does work.
Self-awareness and Empowerment
Only when the Kennies of the world can look at themselves, their behavior, their body language, and their appearance with insight and awareness can they begin to understand what they need to do to change from being a victim to being an empowered self.
When people are empowered, they free themselves from the victim role. They are no longer victims or oppressors. They are clear, focused, and centered in the strength of who they are.
We, as teachers of our children and our students, need an awareness of how our environment (media, culture, family values) shapes the way we think and feel. Once we have that awareness, it is our responsibility to educate our children. The alternative is to act blindly on impulses, feelings, and belief systems that have no known source or purpose.
Our culture, the media, and our individual family values have an impact on how we think.
Before they are two years old, children are aware of racial differences. By the age of three, they may attach value judgments to those differences. Between the ages of four and six, they show gender-stereotyped behaviours, and may reject children who differ from themselves in terms of race or physical disability.
How do stereotypes come about at such an early age? The first influences are the attitudes of immediate family members, often acquired unconsciously. Later, children absorb stereotypical messages from books, television, movies, magazines and newspapers.
– Susan Fountain, Education for Development
Scientific evidence presents a convincing argument that heredity and genetics play a major role in who we are. Studies also indicate, however, that our environment has an impact on how we develop. It is only when we are aware of this “conditioning” that we can act to change it.
Children are perceptive beings. If adults engage them in discussion of the conditions in their environment which affect the way they think and feel, children can learn to act rather than to react.
We adults are very aware and lament the negative influence that environmental factors such as the media and the commercial market are having on our children. It is important that we pass this awareness on to our children.
We should point out those things in the environment that condition children to accept stereotypes and bigotry, that desensitize them to violence and vulgarity, and that create in them reactive, inappropriate, emotional responses. Awareness and knowledge give them the power to make proactive decisions.