Letter from South America

Tolerance = a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, beliefs, practices, racial or ethnic origins, etc., differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry. … a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions, beliefs, and practices that differ from one’s own.

Dear Bob,
I am always dealing with students being unkind to each other, and it always puzzles me why we can be so inhuman. I know sometimes it is difficult to accept differences.  But it in the end we have to accept them if we want to live in peace. The problem is how we go about doing that. I find teenagers to be especially severe with their judgments of others. I have a student, Sam, cute and smart 13 year old but brutal with a teacher who appears to be homosexual. He is equally bad with a classmate whose skin color and thinness are the objects of his derision. Sam shows no respect. Another example is my student Val who considers homosexuality the ultimate state of debauchery.
Being overweight or the opposite, being quiet, being homosexual, having some disability or whatever difference from the majority, can be hell in school. I am a teacher and I hear the students’ stories in my class all the time. This is because my class is very small and they feel at ease saying all these things in front of me.
So is this intolerance due to our evolutionary make up? Are we programmed to reject difference? Do we want to see a mirror not something unknown? Different means threat? Or are these phobias all fed into the kid’s mind by parents, friends, religion or simply a natural reaction? As a teacher, I wonder what I can do to help. Last week I asked Sam if he thought he could have a best friend who was black. He replied that obviously he could. It is not that he hates the difference; it is that he finds the special feature of his classmate a good chance to tease and he feels good when he bugs this kid.  I don’t want to get angry (as I find this behavior so obnoxious and repellent) but I want to stay positive and do something that gives them insight. I don’t pretend that we like every person around us, but only that we accept and don’t feel the need to tease, humiliate, annihilate.
I would like Sam to feel what the other kid does when he is being teased and called names. I guess this is possible through a play or movie. Something that makes him feel the pain of rejection. That pain he feels through the story could be that pain of his classmate. Perhaps the best way to get rid of this impulse to tease is to travel and see people all over the world, so you find differences natural. I think this is what Natalia Ponce de Leon experienced in New York. Natalia Ponce de Leon was the victim of an attack with acid that left her face badly burnt and deformed. She has undergone many plastic surgeries. She became famous because she went to congress with an initiative asking for severe punishment for perpetrators and ordering the health system to cover all expenses of reconstructive surgeries for the victims (the surgeries were considered non-essential treatment before). She won and is not afraid to appear in public. But she says that just before she decided to appear on TV for the first time after the attack, she visited New York by herself. That it was liberating. No one stared. No one laughed. No one teased. She took the subway, she walked around Manhattan, she entered restaurants, museums, and shops and she felt it was no different from when she had her old face.  New York is liberating because one is among diversity. We need diversity to understand diversity, I suppose.
We are cruel to that one who is different from most. But surely, being different could be a way to get stronger too (“A Boy Named Sue” comes to mind J ). So many people look for a way to be different so they can find identity. Did you hear about 10 year-old Joe Maldonado? He is the first transgender kid to join the Boy Scouts in the US. He was expelled when the institution found out he was transgender but a court ordered the Scouts to accept him again. He is amazingly strong and understands why his friends would tease him at first – he says friends were just ignorant.
Tattoos, dyed hair, piercings are just ways to look different, and doing these things to your body has the risk of rejection and bullying. Difference is richness; I know that. And I know everyone would acknowledge that a world of infinite colors is better than a black and white one. How can we live and teach others to live a life that truly honors that true statement? I am just not sure how to handle this problem with my students, or with anybody for that matter.