“Isn’t it in our DNA to hurt each other?”
The question came from Taj, a fifth grader who is getting ready to graduate after six years at Harlem Link. The occasion was an impromptu discussion I started in his class’s morning meeting on May 21, the day after a bullying-related suicide by a 12-year-old in Queens.
Although we don’t have a bullying “problem” at our school, I told Taj’s class we did. “As long as this abuse continues to happen around the country and close to home,” I said, “I feel we have a responsibility to do something about it. This problem is ours as much as it is for that school in Queens that the 12-year-old girl attended.”
After 10 or 15 minutes of whole-class and small-group discussion, Taj had the penultimate word, and it was up to me to close the conversation and get on with the day.
But I was stunned and stung by his words. I did not know how to answer.
So I told Taj and his classmates: “That’s a really complicated question. I’m not going to answer it right now. As you grow older and learn more about the world and about history in middle school and high school and college, I hope we can keep talking about it together, because it is a really important question.”
I decided I was not going to lie and say that the world is a fundamentally peaceful place. I could have provided lots of platitudes. I could argue convincingly that humans are good, and that meanness and evil are aberrations. I know that these thoughts are partially true. I also know that the whole truth is far more complex. I don’t know if a fifth grader can understand the full picture, not as it might be drawn in a quick end-of-meeting comment.
When Taj is older, I hope he reads Thomas Hobbes and thinks about the idea of the social contract.
I hope he comes to agree with me that, yes, we all have the capacity and sometimes the will to hurt each other, but one thing that makes us human is our capacity to choose a different course.
I hope Taj studies enough history to know that war and violence seem always to be with us and that the violence he has already witnessed in his own life is only a harbinger of the lives of others that have been altered by aggressive, hurtful behavior, and nothing more than that.
I hope he comes to appreciate how damaging it is to a local community—and to the entire human family—when one person hurts another.
I hope he decides that, while violence seems always to be with us, the choice is always there, and it is clear.
“Each one of us can be a hero,” I continued. “We can summon tremendous patience, as did Nelson Mandela, to stand up to bullies and refuse to be intimidated by them. We can find within us courage, like that of Dr. Martin Luther King, to speak up when we see bullying happen and help people who feel they have no voice.”
I’m fearful that our graduating fifth graders will go out into the world and be hit with relentless evidence that the answer to Taj’s question is a simple, “Yes, of course.”
So this conversation only strengthened my resolve to keep our school dutifully involved with the lives and education of our alumni. How long will it take for Taj’s middle school to discover that he is wrestling with this choice? That he is dealing with this one particular flavor of that universal adolescent conflict, “Who am I?” And how can we help?
What would you tell him?