Karma matters.

The incident with two students repeatedly punching a third left me crushed. That it could happen in my classroom, whether or not I was there, that a third of the class saw it happen and said nothing, that the student being hit felt too afraid to say anything until under duress…that broke my heart. No one should be unsafe at school. I know that plenty of kids feel unsafe every day at school, but they shouldn’t. Plus I believe in karma – what goes around comes around. I want my kids to have good things coming around for them. I couldn’t just let it go.

So despite the pressures of the pacing chart before our state tests, I decided to take a day to address it with the class. I wanted to use some sort of video or text that they would relate to, rather than me just sitting down and lecturing them about it. What to use? My favorite, of course – The Freedom Writers Diary. I went through the book, searching for excerpts that would address the biggest issues: that kids don’t want to rat each other out, that they’re afraid of consequences for doing so, and that in the end, violence doesn’t solve anything.

Two of the stories were perfect for what I wanted. The first I chose was by a student who was being bullied by three boys, and he lashed out and almost killed one of the bullies in his rage. He ended up in juvenile hall for several days and had to do community service and pay a large fine. He deeply regretted and was ashamed of what he had done.

The second was about two boys from the Freedom Writers’ school who had gone to Las Vegas; while there, one of the boys murdered a little girl while his friend watched him kidnap her and then walked away without doing anything to prevent the crime. I had admin approve the selections and the lesson. Then I told Mr. Sincerity what I was going to do and gave him the choice to be there or to go to the library for the conversation; he chose to leave.

Here’s how it went. I started by talking to the kids about what had happened, that two of their classmates had repeatedly hit a third and that no one had reported the situation. I said that regardless of why it happened (because I knew that the kids probably believed that Mr. Sincerity deserved it – he’s not very popular while the Goofball and the Fidgeter are), it wasn’t okay with me. So I asked for thoughts as to why no one would say anything in a situation like this (that way it was sort of hypothetical as opposed to a direct attack on their personal choices).

The answers included: they thought the boys were just messing around; they didn’t want their friends to get in trouble; they didn’t want to get beat up themselves; they didn’t think it mattered; they didn’t want to get involved; and, of course, the ever-popular they didn’t want to be rats.

I hate the whole don’t-be-a-rat thing. It infuriates me to no end that society tells us that you shouldn’t be a snitch about anything, when really, it just means that thugs and criminals get away with dangerous behavior more easily. And with the gang activity at my school and in the neighborhood, the gang members push that concept HARD.

We read the first essay and talked about what would have happened had anyone told the bullies to stop bullying, or had anyone reported the situation to the school or the police; the kids pointed out that the writer would never have ended up in juvie and that the bully wouldn’t have been almost killed. They decided that because no one got involved, the situation got a lot worse when it didn’t need to.

Second essay. This one ends with a line about how David, the friend who walked away, had a chance to save two lives that day. We talked about that line a lot. The kids realized that it meant that both Jeremy and the little girl would have been saved if David had only spoken up.

I asked them if they thought it would be hard to tell your friend to not do something that you know is wrong. Almost all said yes, it would be really hard. I agreed with them. But are hard things important to do sometimes? Yeah, probably. We talked about how this probably wasn’t the first time that Jeremy had done something wrong, but that it doesn’t start big – with friends, it starts small.

It starts with your friend cheating on a test, and you don’t tell because they’re your friend and you don’t want them to be mad at you and it’s not that bad. And then they start pushing a kid around in the hallway and you don’t tell because they’re your friend and you don’t want them to be mad at you and it’s not that bad. And then they start shoplifting clothes and you don’t tell because they’re your friend and you don’t want them to be mad at you and it’s not that bad. And where does it stop?

Yes, it would be hard. And yes, it might end the friendship. But at the end of the day, you have to be able to live with yourself. We talked about the word karma then.

Did they all get it? No. Did they all agree? Certainly not. But it went well enough that I decided to do it with all my other classes the next day, and that was the day that my student Sparkles made a tough choice.

When the Goofball and the Fidgeter got back from being suspended, I did the same thing with both of them. I acknowledged that I didn’t believe they were the only ones at fault, but that they still made dangerous choices. With them, I talked about how if they’d gone to the sub to say that Mr. Sincerity was making racial slurs, they’d have been able to avoid the rage that led to the violence, and that they then would not have gotten suspended. Report it, I said. When someone’s messing with you, make sure that you’re protected so the consequences go to them, not you.

Will they always do that in the future? Probably not. But maybe they’ll do it once and avoid one future suspension. And that’d be a good thing, right?

(Photo credit to consumerfriendly)


"I'm a dreamer but I ain't the only one Got problems but we love to have fun" -K'naan, "Dreamer"

I teach eighth grade Language Arts at an urban school. My kids kick ass and will change the world. I want everyone to know.
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