I was in fourth grade the first time I ever really got into trouble at school. There was this kid, his name was Jeffrey, and he was … odd. Smaller than the rest of us, with bright orange hair, he used to sit at his desk, pick his nose, and eat it. Like he didn’t even notice other people could see him. Or like he didn’t care.
On the whole, Jeffrey was pretty picked on. Grade school kids can be brutal, and I was no different. I still distinctly remember the day, way back when, that my friends and I were making fun of him — singing some song we had created about booger eaters — when our teacher yelled our four names and summoned us outside the room.
Shaking with anger, she asked us to think about how we had made Jeffrey feel.
We started to argue, “But, he’s so weird …” and she stopped us, before we could say another word.
“Who cares if he’s weird? Who cares if he does something you don’t understand? Is he hurting anyone?” We all stared down at our feet, shame rising to our cheeks, quietly shaking our heads no. “So why do you think you have the right to hurt him?” She demanded.
None of us had answers. This was one of my favorite teachers, and seeing how disappointed she was in us — I was crushed. Knowing she was going to call my dad only increased that shame, because incurring his disappointment had always been the consequence I feared most.
My father worked hard to teach me two main lessons in life. The first had to do with the importance of honesty, and the second was that it is always better to be a good person than to be popular.
He had taught me to stand up for the Jeffreys of the world, not to be one of the lemmings throwing stones at them. And I had let him down that day.
I never made fun of Jeffrey again.
It wasn’t enough to just not be one of the bullies, though. My dad also drilled into my head that the person standing by and doing nothing while hatred and injustice went on around them was just as guilty. He taught me that I had a responsibility to use my voice when others couldn’t, and that it was always the right thing to do to speak out against hate.
He is one of the most ethical people I know, and he raised me with a set of values that shaped who I am today — a set of values I now work hard to impart upon my own little girl.
And it is, perhaps, because of those values and this little girl I am trying so hard to shape into a good person myself, that I struggle all the more today with the hate and injustices I see in the world around me.
Between Caitlyn Jenner and the recent influx of gay marriage legalizations, it seems as though the bigots of the world have been flushed out of hiding, spreading their hatred more than ever before in response to these shifts in society they are clearly uncomfortable with.
And it turns out, I am intolerant when it comes to intolerance.
I am a live and let live kind of girl. I hate the mommy wars and rarely question the personal choices other people make. The question that teacher asked me that day way back when, “Are they hurting anyone?” is always in the back of my mind when confronted with people living in ways I don’t necessarily understand. And whenever the answer is “no,” I am quick to remind myself that it isn’t my place to question or judge.
Unfortunately, with bigots, the answer is rarely ever, “no.” Because when their bigotry translates into online bullying or fights against equality, people are absolutely getting hurt. The increased rates in suicide among LGBT populations alone shows how devastating that intolerance can be.
And when I am confronted with hate of any kind, be it in the name of religion or simply ignorance, that voice from childhood is always there, and every instinct I have tells me to fight against it. No matter who it is coming from.
This is particularly true as a mother now. I love my daughter with an intensity I never even before knew was possible, and the idea of anyone ever hurting her for who she is makes my blood boil. She’s only 2. I have no idea who she is going to grow up to be. But it is absolutely important to me that she know she has the support of me and everyone else in our little world, no matter who she may one day love, what religion she follows, or what gender she identifies as.
I especially won’t tolerate intolerance in the people I am teaching my girl to love and rely on. Because those are the people who will have the power to hurt her the most if she grows into someone who doesn’t meet their narrow version of “right.”
But that’s the problem: you can’t always control other people. And they will surprise you sometimes, with hints of hatred sneaking out when you least expect it.
I imagine we all have at least a few people like this in our lives. The grandparent who is still clinging to racist ideals from a lifetime long ago. The aunt who insists all other religions but hers are of the devil. Or the husband of a close friend who has been known to drop a homophobic slur or two after one too many drinks. People you can’t necessarily separate yourself from entirely, but whose values tend to veer far to the other side of where yours lay.
We’ve got those people in our lives, just like everyone else. And the older my daughter gets, the more I struggle with how to deal with them.
Or how to avoid exposing her to their hate.
Do you stand up to the people who you know will never change? Are you that voice, even when it will fall on deaf ears, likely causing tension and bitterness at every exchange? Or do you bite your tongue, maintain the peace, and surreptitiously pull your child aside after every encounter with the reminder that anything they may have heard bordering on hatred is ignorant and wrong? Hoping that your lessons are the ones they will listen to — not those taught by the bigots in your life you can’t escape.
All the while ignoring the other lesson you have tried so hard to impart; that being a good person often means being that voice. Even when it means losing favor with those you are speaking up to.
When my daughter was just a few months old, we went on a weekend getaway with a large group of friends, all the kids in tow. One morning, one of the toddlers got in an argument with another and called him a name. “Hey,” his mom reprimanded from across the room. “That wasn’t very nice. Are you being a good person?”
I was immediately struck by what a profound thing that was to say to a child so young.
Are you being a good person?
But I was also immediately grateful to be raising my child in a close-knit group of friends who share my values.
Who believe that being a good person should trump all else.
And so, on those rare occasions when I am exposed to something else, or when words of hatred are expressed around my daughter … I struggle. And the older she gets, the more aware I am of the messages certain figures in her life send.
And the more I realize … I just can’t. I can’t be around it. I can’t ignore it. And I can’t elevate anyone who expresses it to any kind of role of importance in my child’s life.
Because I am working too hard to raise her better than that. To raise her with the same values my own father worked so hard to instill in me.
Which means that my tolerance for intolerance has gone way down. And the bar for being a part of my life, and hers, has been raised.More On