A great Canadian, Jean Vanier, who started L’Arche homes for the mentally challenged, gave us some good advice when we first went to visit his facility in Richmond Hill, known as Daybreak. He said that if you look at a person as mentally challenged, they will act mentally challenged. The opposite is true – if you look at someone as capable of doing normal things, they will be capable.
In 40 years of teaching, I will maintain that I never taught a bad youngster. Certainly, many acted out badly and needed to be disciplined, but down deep I thought they were all good kids.
One example, who I will call Greg, was a student I taught in the Jane-Finch corridor in Toronto. Many people look at that area as dangerous, and following that self-fulfilling prophecy, it will be dangerous to them. So I taught Greg in Grade 8. He was a kind, determined young man, but he had a history of skipping a lot of school. His home life was not the best. I won’t go into details, but there were certainly some family issues. After skipping school for a week, he would be determined to catch up and understand the missed work. Particularly in Math, he would be challenged. I would spend time after school with him, and he seemed really determined, but eventually would get frustrated and would start to skip school again, not seeing any real chance of success.
In later years, I read about Greg and how he robbed a gas station and took a hostage as the police closed in. The Greg I knew would never have hurt that hostage. I believe as the police moved in, out of desperation, he thought that having a hostage might secure his escape. He was easily talked into releasing the hostage and giving himself up.
Now, please make no mistake – I am not saying it was OK to rob a gas station, but I reserve judgment on Greg because I knew a really good, determined, kind side of him.
Likewise, if we see all people of one race or religion or ethnicity as lesser than ourselves, they will seem that way. As a pensioner, I sometimes run into a group of teens hanging out at a local plaza I frequent. If I thought they were just thugs and waiting to rob me, I will act out accordingly, but I see them as just good young people enjoying the companionship of their friends, and I have no fear of them.
I was fortunate to have spent time with John Howard Griffin, the author of Black Like Me. A noted sociologist, he changed his skin colour so as to understand the racial strife in the deep south of the United States. It was a real eye opener for him to see how many whites stereotyped blacks and treated them so poorly. He was the same person, except for his colour, yet, he was never treated as the same person, but as a poorly educated, unrefined human.
Today’s world holds the same dangers. A certain American president has fears about all people of the Muslim faith because of a few fanatics. I used to see prejudice when I first arrived in Canada as a five-year old. People referred to me as a limey. Later in my adult life, I felt prejudice against me because of my religion. Regardless of your ethnicity, haven’t we all been stereotyped? Italians were wops, the people from Newfoundland were the brunt of Newfie jokes, Polish people were polacks…the list could go on and on.
I heard a woman on TV tell the host that her daughter was knocked off her bike by a black boy and now had an inherent fear of black people. The host wondered if a white boy knocked the girl off her bike, would she then have an inherent fear of whites. The secret, I think, is to have an open mind and not to be judgmental.
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