My wife and I recently watched the powerful documentary on the late singer Amy Winehouse. The movie documents her life and eventual death and one cannot help but watch it and feel an incredible sense of sadness. For me, it went beyond sadness and crossed over into responsibility. Part-way through the movie, I turned to my wife and said, “My god. We killed her.”
We, this world that we live in, we destroyed this young woman. We used her for what we wanted her to be without stopping to really see who, in fact, she was. And along the way, did she make terrible choices, yes, of course. But these choices, they were made in a desperate attempt to deal with what the world at-large was doing to her. When you watch the movie, it is easy to see that these choices were made as person after person in her life began to care more about what they wanted her to be, what they needed for their own personal gain, than about what was happening to the woman who was actually standing there just trying to sing.
And part of what makes this movie so powerful is that it makes Amy Winehouse seem so human. And that, perhaps, is what is most disturbing to me. What that means is that at some point, I, and the rest of the world, did not see this woman as a human being. She was an image. A joke told on late night television. She stopped being a human being to me and perhaps to all those who surrounded her. We saw her problems. We saw her demise. We blamed her. We laughed at her. We judged her. We shook our collective heads at her. We stopped seeing her as human. And the minute we stop seeing people as human. The minute their image becomes larger and more important than the person behind that image, then a human life is already lost.
And we are just so callous with human lives.
And as I sat with the feelings that Amy Winehouse’s life and death brought on, I read an article that made our careless treatment of the lives of human beings even more obvious.
Jose Vilson, drew our attention to the following New York Post article. The article describes a memoir that is coming out from a wealthy businessman who decided that he was going to be the solution to an educational problem as he stepped foot into a high school classroom and attempted to “save” the children who he met there. He lasted one year. And then left the classroom after feeling frustrated that they did not want to be “saved.” And in his new book he describes the children that he taught.
Except the problem is, he never really seemed to view them as children. He certainly never viewed them as human beings. He walked into a room with, what I have to imagine was, a very small amount of training and he viewed the people that he encountered there as problems who were needing to be solved. And he was going to solve them.
Again, he did not see the actual people that were sitting in front of him day after day, he saw what he wanted them to be. He saw what he needed them to be. So that he could fix them. So that he could feel better about himself. So that he could say that he helped to solve the problems of this world.
And while I have not read his book and I have not heard his whole story, the words of his that I did read just all feel so full of hate. So full of spite and full of resentment that his students would not just go along with his plan. He complains of a student who was sitting in class reading a book. A book that he did not assign and that he clearly did not believe was worthy of being read. But instead of seeing a child who was so eager to read a book that reflected the life she lived, so eager to see herself reflected in the pages of a book that she was willing to read a book without having been assigned to read it. Instead, he saw a problem. A child who would not comply. And so he began to resent them.
At one point in the article he is quoted as saying that he came to “loathe” the majority of his students. Loathe. That is more than the frustration that we all feel. That is more than the anger that we all sometimes experience. Loathing feels so permanent.
And this loathing. The way he says he “despised” a particular student. It must have required him to stop seeing these children as human beings. Or perhaps he never started off seeing them as human. Because the children who filled his classroom, who showed up to school each day despite the negative messages they received about themselves from their teacher, these children did not meet this man’s definition of human. Or worthy. When they did not act in a way that benefitted him, that made his life easy, that allowed him to feel good about himself, then he gave up on them. He left the classroom and did not see the human beings that he left behind, he simply saw the problems who would not let him solve them.
And that is where I come to rest. Perhaps Amy Winehouse, perhaps the story of this man who tried and failed to be a teacher, perhaps they are extreme. But somewhere in both of these stories lies a truth that we, as educators, have to wrestle with.
We look at our students and, too often, we think about the ways that they are not what we want them to be. They are not motivated, they are not grateful, they are not enthusiastic learners, they are not passionate. They are not what would make our lives easier. Make our lives better. Make us feel better about who we are and what we are doing. They are not the things that we need and we don’t often stop to see how we did that to them, how we created the students that we now complain about.
And then, sometimes, we stop seeing them as human. We stop seeing them as single human beings. We see them as those kids and these kids. We see them as struggling readers and reluctant writers. We see them as poor kids and rich kids and lazy kids and hyperactive kids and problem kids and white kids and black kids and gay kids. And we put all these kids into boxes and then we judge them when they scream and fight like hell to break out of them. We stop seeing them as human and see them for what we think that they are. We look to solve their problems instead of just stopping to listen to their stories.
We forget that each and every one of these children is carrying a single, human life.
And we are just so damn callous with human lives.