I’ve been the sponsor of the school newspaper for the last two years. It’s been mostly sixth graders participating, I assume both because I taught sixth grade and because sixth graders aren’t allowed to play team sports, but I did have a handful of seventh graders this year. Two were especially fabulous and served as the editors, working with other kids to come up with story ideas, proofread, do some layout stuff…they were great. To thank them, I was going to buy them lunch at the end of the year, but it never ended up happening (other events, absences, etc, all got in the way). So we’re going to lunch tomorrow, except that I just found out that only one of them is coming. The other isn’t allowed. Why? Ah, that’s the awesome part.
These two girls (let’s call them the Chatterbox [like any middle school girl, really] and Miss Opinion [because she always has one]) have been best friends since they got to know each other at the beginning of their sixth grade year – through their mutual interest in the school newspaper, in fact!
But, because they are teen girls, they have had a number of knock-down-drag-out-crying-screaming-mean-text-messaging-and-emailing fights over the past two years. Periodically I hear about them, as I’m close with both girls and they come have lunch with me sometimes. I’m especially close with the Chatterbox, though, and she came to me for advice about something one day after school a few months ago. She’d been chatting about this and that for bit but I could tell something else was up. I assumed another fight with Miss Opinion and said as much.
“Not a fight exactly. Just…I don’t know if I can be her friend anymore.”
Usually when they fight, they are both filled with righteous indignation over how dreadfully wronged (wronged!) they have been by the other, and oh, how could she do such a thing?!? They rant and yell and talk so fast you can hardly understand a word. This was different. The Chatterbox was quiet, fidgety, sad. “How come?” I asked.
“Well…I don’t know if I should tell you.”
“Okay,” I said, and went back to grading papers. I hear about enough middle school drama without asking for more, so I wasn’t going to beg her here.
After a minute, though, “I mean, I guess I can tell you. Just don’t tell anyone else.”
“Honey, you know I can’t promise that [I tell all my kids that I have to report three things: if they’re hurting themselves, if they’re hurting someone else, or if someone else is hurting them, and that I interpret those issues loosely, but that I’m always happy to listen, as long as they understand those base rules]. But if I can avoid reporting it, I will.”
“It’s not anything like that. It’s just that she’s been calling people something that I find really offensive.”
Interesting. “What is it?”
Now, Miss Opinion is white; the Chatterbox is Latina. So I can see why she’d find it offensive that her best friend is using a derogatory term like that. I kept my voice calm. “Is she calling you that?”
“No! But she doesn’t get why it bothers me.”
“She…doesn’t get why it bothers you? She doesn’t understand that?”
“No. Well, see, she thinks it means illegal immigrant, not just Hispanic.”
“WHY does she think that?”
“Because that’s what her mom told her. Her mom has like a really big problem with illegals and she talks about them all the time and whatever, but I keep telling Miss Opinion that it means Hispanic – I even wrote it down on a napkin at lunch and showed her the letters – and she just doesn’t believe me, and it’s really bothering me.”
I know Miss Opinion’s mom slightly from conferences and stuff, and I’d always liked her, and I knew she had Latino friends, so this was a bit of a shock. And I had no idea what to do. “Well…I…um…do you want me to talk to her with you about this? I mean, I can…I just don’t know if it will do any good.”
“She won’t believe you either. It’s not like it’s a word in the dictionary or something.”
Ah, that was an idea. I grabbed a dictionary from behind my desk and started thumbing through. “Yep, here it is.”
The Chatterbox ran over and looked. She thought for a sec. “No…I don’t want to. Don’t tell her I told you, okay?” I agreed, and the matter passed.
A few weeks later, the Chatterbox burst into my room. “Okay, yes, I need to talk to her about it and I need your help!”
I looked at her blankly. “What?”
She stared back. “Spic?!?!?!?” Like, “Duh, how could you possibly not know exactly what I’m talking about at any given moment? Obviously that’s it!”
Right. “Um…okay.” We agreed on lunch that day, then I hightailed it on up to the counselor to ask if this was something I was okay to talk about with a kid (when I told her the issue, she was horrified and stunned, and thanked me for being willing to be part of a conversation about it rather than just letting Miss Opinion eventually get her ass kicked by saying it to the wrong kid, so that was that).
At lunch, the Chatterbox brought it up. “So it really bugs me when you use the word spic.”
Miss Opinion immediately started shaking her head. “It doesn’t mean Hispanic, I asked my mom, and it doesn’t.”
The Chatterbox looked at me and I stepped in. “Actually, Miss Opinion, it does.” I pulled out the dictionary and showed her the definition.
She was silent for a moment, staring at it. “Well…that’s not what I thought it meant.”
“I know. I believe that you didn’t think it meant that, but it does, and either way, it’s not a nice word. Would you go around using the n-word?”
“No, of course not!” She was truly huffy about that.
“Same thing, honey. You can’t say it. It’s not nice, and it’s going to get you in trouble someday if someone hears you say it and doesn’t appreciate it.”
“Well…fine. I didn’t know, though.”
“I know. Just…don’t say it anymore.”
The Chatterbox came to talk to me the next day. “Well, now she’s not really mad at me but her mom is.”
“For being offended by that word?”
“For telling you. Her mom doesn’t like anyone in her business and she said I got you in her business and she’ll never forgive that.”
“Are you sorry you told me?”
The Chatterbox thought for a minute. “No. I’m glad I stood up for what I knew was right. I just wish it wasn’t so hard sometimes.”
And THAT’S why Miss Opinion isn’t allowed to go to lunch with me; because I told her daughter not to use racial slurs.
I’m sorry I can’t take this girl out to lunch, because she really is a nice kid when she’s not parroting back her mother’s racist filth, but I’m not sorry I stepped in. Because I find that word offensive too, and hopefully hearing that it’s not okay from another white person might have some impact on Miss Opinion, and maybe she’ll think twice before she uses it again.
(Photo credit to The Rocketeer, http://www.flickr.com/photos/kt/309783238/)