Saturday, December 17, 2011

Let's Work Together

One of our alumni students is having a bad year. As a boy with a summer birthday, his parents determined he wasn't quite ready for public kindergarten and so sought out a transitional program (often called a 5's program). They chose a place with a solid reputation and a play-based curriculum.

Within the first month, however, he began to come home with reports that he was afraid of some of his classmates, and of one boy in particular who was apparently hitting and otherwise hurting him. His own efforts to stop the behavior were ineffective and he wanted help from adults. All of this, I have to say, sounds fairly normal, at least to me as a preschool teacher. Not good, but normal. 

These are photos from inside a vacant warehouse occupied a few weeks ago by protesters.
 As it turns out, in my opinion, it was a misguided endeavor, a mistake that detracted from
our core messages of getting money out of politics, income disparity, tax fairness, and 
re-regulating corporations.

Every year there is a kid or two who is still figuring out this hitting business (for the sake of these posts I generally just use the term "hitting" to refer to whole range of behaviors that include kicking, scratching, biting, etc.). Sometimes it's a misguided attempt to play with another child. Sometimes it's done out of anger. Sometimes it's done simply as an effective way to get what they want. I'm not in the classroom to know what's going on with this kid in particular, but I do know that it's very, very rare in a 5-year-old. Two's and 3's, yes, but when 5's are hitting, alarm bell start to go off for me. I still don't call this behavior "bullying," which requires intent and a full understanding of the harm being done, but if left unchecked, if left un-investigated, if the adults don't step in, it's going to get worse.

I understand that I'm only getting the part of a story told second-hand, infused with the emotion of a concerned parent, but the worst part has little to do with the children, but rather the response of the adults. The school's teachers and administration have apparently defensively circled the wagons, insisting that despite complaints from other parents, despite this boy having to receive medical treatment for one of his injuries, that they are already doing everything they can, that this mother and her son are exaggerating, that it's not such a big deal. And that this family should find another school.

There were hundreds of people here for most of the evening, but only about 20 planned to 
remain for the night. During the wee hours, a Seattle police SWAT team
 commandeered a fire truck, used the ladder to enter through the roof, and stormed
the building with weapons drawn to arrest them. This over-reaction to a 
situation in which no one was being hurt or threatened was also a mistake that
 unnecessarily endangered the lives of both protesters and police.

Hitting happens in preschool. There are proven ways for adults to deal with it. Sweeping it under the rug, defensiveness, and denial is not part of it.

And this brings me to the point of this post. As anyone who has been reading here very long knows, I'm active in the Occupy Wall Street movement here in Seattle. I'm fully aware of our imperfections and mistakes, but I'm even more aware of how money has perverted our democracy. For the past 20 years, many of us have been working within the system to make changes, but it has only gotten worse as more and more of our government falls into the hands of those with the cash to buy it. I worry that this is our last, best chance to affect meaningful change and return our democracy to the hands of we the people. I've met few people left, right or center, who disagree that money in politics is the problem. If you have a better idea about how to get it out, I'm eager to hear it because what we are doing right now is hard and frightening, but it feels like the only option left.

I've found myself several times during the past couple months standing face-to-face with a line of Seattle police officers, arrayed in front of us in tough-guy poses, dark sunglasses on cloudy days, doing everything they can to look menacing and military, the opposite of what one would expect of someone charged with keeping the peace. I'm sure that some on our side have crossed the line, but I've been shocked at the violence and excessively aggressive behavior of the SPD. I've seen elderly people, pregnant women and children pepper sprayed for merely standing in the wrong place. I've seen people punched in the face by police officers. Just last weekend, I watched a passive man who looked to be in his 70's thrown to the ground by 3 burly officers, and a knee jammed into his back, all for the "crime" of walking into the street with a protest sign. I've had a bicycle thrown at me by an officer. I was standing on the sidewalk breaking no law of which I am aware. I've heard that internally at the SPD, Seattle citizens are often referred to as "the enemy."

I'm a white, middle class person in America. For years I've heard complaints of police violence from people of color and it sickens me to reflect on my response up to now: I've always assumed they were exaggerating.

Now I know better. Yesterday, the US Department of Justice released a report highly critical of the Seattle police, accusing them of engaging in a pattern of widespread, unconstitutional use of excessive force. Needless to say, after my experiences of the past two months, I'm not surprised. What I am surprised about is that instead of stepping up to commit our city to fixing this long-standing problem, one to which our former police chief Norm Stamper readily admits, our current chief and the mayor seem to be scrambling to circle the wagons, insisting they are already doing everything they can, that we are exaggerating, that it's not such a big deal.

I'm sure it's true that a majority of the SPD are fine, honorable peace officers, just as I'm sure it's true that the teachers at that preschool are dedicated, concerned professionals, but that doesn't give us the right to close our eyes to flaws, to sweep things under the rug. People cannot self-govern without an open and transparent government any more than children can be educated without an open and transparent classroom.

This is what comes from a culture in which we've come to believe that mistakes are shameful, that transgressions must be punished, that we are bricks in a hierarchical pyramid rather than equal members of a community. It makes people conspire to hide things, to lie, to cheat, to circle the wagons out of fear, when the natural response should be to say, "Oh no, this is not good. Let's work together."

Fortunately, our alumni family has options. They will be fine, but I'm not so sure about the school and the children who they are leaving behind in that circle of wagons. Hopefully, our mayor and his chief of police will get over their initial defensiveness and come around to understanding that we need to work together, openly and honestly, all of us, to create the kind of city in which our civil rights are respected, and in which the police are taught the habits and skills of non-violence that we strive to instill in our preschoolers.

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Marla McLean, Atelierista said...

A very sad post Tom. In both scenarios, victims are punished. Thanks for protesting and witnessing with the occupy movement in Seattle. Keep doing what you do. Seattle is lucky to have you.

Carrie said...

Wow talk about enabling the bully... in both cases really. I've seen this time and again where teachers feed into what the aggressor is doing making the victim more victimized. A child is screaming because a toy is snatched and is then told he shouldn't be crying and has to share his toy. Wait...what? You want me to give in to someone who just took my toy? Maybe, just maybe if we can reach the preschoolers we have with appropriate skills, some of the society woe's will lessen. It's going to take these children to turn some of this around.

mamatoelijah said...

best post I have read in a long time, thank you for this!

Anonymous said...

Helpful to read the similarity in the two scenarios here~ Thank you


Unknown said...

Everyone needs to know one thing.

What does being wrong feel like(before you know you're wrong)? being right.