Cruelty due to lack of empathy
For the publisher:
I thought a lot about how to respond to Katie Roland’s October 28 letter and the situations that prompted it. Like Katie, I grew up in Garden City. My teachers were a source of inspiration and I often say that I learned more (at school) at Sra. The Spanish lessons from Pantin towards my first degree in Romance languages than I did in the prestigious college I attended. Mr. DeFina kindled a love for ancient history in me, and Ms. McCavitt inspired me to see the past as a series of interwoven stories about people. Anna Lea Smith (who wrote a powerful response to Katie’s letter) encouraged families to celebrate both our common culture and our own traditions. Now in my 26th year of teaching, I think of them and so many others, every day, with gratitude.
However, I also experienced quiet horrors growing up in Garden City public schools. A college social studies teacher once dropped a dime on the floor and told me to “Take it, you Jew.” In an attempt to be culturally sensitive, another teacher told the class, “Emily is Jewish, so she knows a lot about the Holocaust. Why not go ahead and teach the class about it so that we can check it out. This is apart from all the classmates who were patting me on the head to see if my thick hair (they called it a “fro”) was protecting me from injury. This is also aside from the math book thrown down the stairs at my head by a football player who then yelled “Take that, you smart guy!” Or my wallet being emptied and filled with flour while I did my Home Ec demonstration on how to do Kasha Varnishkes.
It was normal in the 80s. I was encouraged to smile and keep going. This is exactly what I did, and I became a teacher who watches over everyone. I believe that when there is cruelty (and there is), it is due to a lack of empathy. Empathy can be fostered through conversation, example, and caring contact with people who have had experiences different from yours.
We all have memories of being excluded, of being refused entry, of being hurt. It is part of humanity. The degree of marginalization or rejection may differ, and our stories may differ. But I have never met a person who has spent every moment of their life feeling 100% included.
We also all have different degrees of access. I am a chubby little woman. It could have made me an easy target years ago, but now it’s an asset. I don’t look threatening. The children are comfortable with me. No one crosses the other side of the street when I walk past. I can’t say that about all my friends. I speak many languages (partly because of my Jewish culture), and it gives me access to intimate worlds that others might not have.
It is crucial that we move away from politicized language and emotionally charged words onto theories that most of us have not read. Instead, we need to look at each other and see what we share in common.
I have been outside. It hurt. You too.
I have been inside. It can be stimulating. You too.
How can we take our wounds and our power to help each other? And, most importantly, how can we take advantage of our collective wounds and our shared power to create a better, kinder and more connected world for our city today and for future generations everywhere?
Class of Class of 1992
Doctorate in Holocaust and Genocide Studies