The ability to be heard. The ability to make a difference. The ability to evoke positive change. The ability to use your voice in the world around you. These are things I think most people value. With myself and my own family, I try to encourage each child to understand who they are, what is important to them and how to express themselves effectively.
Last week, I found myself expressing myself in a way that became very public. I asked a simple question about the appropriateness of a reading list, and now the world is debating it. Here are some places I have commented: BuzzFeed, Lagniappe, al.com, Huffington Post. In each post and in each comment I have made on social media, I have been very intentional about being respectful even in the face of very harsh criticism.
And there is a reason for that. I believe that in the political climate in which we are living, the one with hate, vitriol, name-calling and anger, most of us have lost the ability to be heard. When you lead with intention to vilify the other’s point of view, where do you expect to go from there? Do you truly believe you will lead someone to an alternate perspective? No. And that means the intention is to hurt and rant and rage. The intention is to be divisive, not unifying. And as a community and a nation, we need to get past this attitude.
I have four teenagers and a ten-year-old. They are learning how to navigate the world and how best to express themselves. I have worked with each of them to use their voices and own who they are and what they want in their lives. The funny thing about teens, is that they are often literal in their understandings. They are young and idealistc and believe they can change the wrongs they see in the world. I want them to believe that so that they will go out and invest in the future. But while they are learning, they make a few mistakes.
My oldest daughter found herself in a group text thread in which one participant was saying things that were racist and sexist. So she told him he was racist and sexist. Now, she was correct. His communication was quite offensive, but by resorting to name-calling, she was perpetuating the negative tone of the conversation. She was struggling with what we all struggle with right now. We want to stand up and let someone have it when they are awful. But is that really productive? I suggested that maybe rather than direct her comments to him, should could have directed her comments to the subjects of his harsh attitude and offered words of support and compassion. In the group text, he would have seen it and her message would have been clear without calling him names. In the name-calling, you completely lose your ability to be heard even if you are right. I love her passion. She is very involved in social justice and in her community at college. And she usually gets it right. But it is my job to help her retain her ability to be heard.
My middle son is also involved in politics. It is he who brought the reading list to my attention. He watched as the story unfolded and as he was asked for comments by news sources. He has had to be deliberate in what message he wanted to present. And so we have had a lot of discussion. He loves his school. He sees the problems in our community with inclusivity and tolerance, but he prefers to work with the school for the betterment of the community. Not to alienate anyone. It can be very difficult, because as a 17-year-old, he is very emotive and passionate. He has made the mistake of sending impulsive, angry messages before, and he wants to learn how to communicate in a way that helps, not hurts.
I recognize that the attention Mr. Ponder and the Spanish Fort High School community has received for this has not been easy or welcomed. I remained focused only on the reading list. I have seen other commentary that has brought out other issues. I have seen people calling for Mr. Ponder’s job. Here is my take on that: I do not know Mr. Ponder. I know that his list was inappropriate. I know that his listed resources were inappropriate. I do not have first-hand knowledge of his teaching.
When I spoke to the principal, he said he had not seen this list. I have to take that at face value. He took the list down, took my call and reacted how I hoped he would. I have to applaud that. From what I can tell, no one complained about this list or these resources before. Now that it has been brought to the county’s attention, I am willing to wait to see if Mr. Ponder makes the adjustments needed to present a better class and if the administration insists on that.
When my youngest daughter’s friend played games mocking other girls behind their backs and she went along with it, we had a big talk about being the kind of person you want to be, being a leader not a follower and doing the right thing when no one is looking. I asked what she thought we should do about this friend. She said, “not be friends anymore?” I told her that when someone makes a mistake, you give them the chance to do the right thing. If they continue the same wrong path, then you reconsider.
I am willing to give Mr. Ponder the chance to do the right thing. As far as any other issues, I think there are times and places and ways to go about communicating. I prefer to work within a system and within a community. You can’t bully someone over everything just because an opportunity presents itself.
There are a lot of good things about our community. And there are a lot of problems. I hope that I can become more involved in being a force for change. And I know that it will be incremental. And I welcome our citizens to join me in open, respectful and productive dialogue.