Safety Pins and, well, safety.

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I have found great comfort in the company of migrant birds in the past three weeks.

Ever since the election I’ve been wearing a safety pin to school. You probably know that this signifies my position as an ally and safe haven for those who need it. It felt a little silly as our school feels like such a safe place, but it made me feel better to do that little thing. I found an article on Facebook that told the history of wearing a safety pin, dating back to the second World War when the Dutch wore them covertly as a sign to others that they were an ally. One of my classes did a close read of it. I had set a little jar of safety pins on the table in the front of the room, without saying a word about it. As soon as the first boy finished reading, he got up and quietly opened the jar and took out a pin. Soon most of the students followed suit. Even then I thought it was a nice gesture, but really. My students are the ones more likely to need an ally, but still. It made me happy that they did that.

Then the other day a Caucasian boy came in at lunch and sat with me for a couple of minutes to look at his grades. The two Muslim girls who go to our school were in there, and one of them said, “He’s mean!” I disagreed with her, and it seemed like light  banter. After he left she said, “He just said, ‘you guys are going to blow us up.'” My heart sank. The next morning when I saw him, I pulled him aside and asked if indeed he’d said that. He laughed and said, “Yeah, I was just messing around with her.” So I told him that it wasn’t a joke. Not to me and certainly not to her. It was a hurtful thing to say. He got very quiet and said,”I didn’t know. I’ll apologize.” And he did. She came in with a big smile the next day and asked if I’d told him what she’d said. I told her I did, and she said he’d apologized. Whew. I was relieved about that.  They seem to be friends, and I think he did mean it as joking banter. But now he knows why it wasn’t a joke.

Fast forward two days later. The second Muslim girl, H.,  came to me during class, crying. She said,”Y. called me Malala. This is the fourth time. I ignored it before.” I was shocked that this had hurt been happening in my classroom without my realizing it. I had a few minutes until the end of class, and in that time I thought about who Malala is, and thought I should talk to H. about it, to see who she thinks she is. During the morning break I asked her what she knew about Malala. She only knew that she is a girl from Pakistan, like her. I told her more about her, and told her that to be compared to Malala is actually a compliment, even if the speaker didn’t know it. I told her that I think she is very  courageous. She comes to school every day, wearing a Hijab, knowing it sets her aside from everyone else. She wears it with dignity and doesn’t back down. I told her I respect her a great deal for being brave enough to be just who she is, no matter what. I also told her I had a book that Malala wrote, and I wondered if she had enough English to read it. She found it right away and looked it over. She said she could read it and asked to borrow it. Then she went home for the rest of the day, still shaken, I’m sure.

Later I kept Y. after class. When I’d first asked her about it, she’d said, “I didn’t say anything, I don’t even talk to her. Why would I say that?” I asked another student who had been there and he corroborated H.’s story. “She said Malala.” So I told Y. that her friend had verified what she’d said. This time she agreed that she’d said it but denied meaning it to be to H. She said she was just saying the sounds. As she sat next to her. Right. I talked about how many mean things have been said over the last few months about all sorts of people. Mexicans, Muslims, Veterans and women and people with disabilities. I told her that as a Mexican woman she was not any safer from these things than a Muslim woman, or I as a older woman. I told her that we must all stand together, to commit to caring for one another, and that we can’t afford to divide ourselves as she had done. She quietly said she would apologize.

It hasn’t happened yet, and I’m waiting until it does. She says she doesn’t know what to say, so I gave her the words. Her English is still new, but she knows those words. If she can’t bring herself to apologize, then I will take further action that she will like less. So far all of the response to bad behavior has  been handled in a quiet and loving way. But the fact remains that something hurtful was said and a lie was offered in response to it and it hasn’t been rectified in any way. That will stand in my mind until the appropriate response has been made. On Monday. No more waiting.

As I write about this, looking at the big picture of what is going on in our country, my actions seem so insignificant. Honestly, for a while I changed this post to “Private” because it seemed like such small event, really. But it wasn’t small in my classroom world and that is the only place I can reach out and have an impact. I believe we have to begin where we are. Being an ally isn’t for the weak at heart. It’s so deep and complex, and one must not compromise if one is to truly stand up for others. As I see it, no matter the apparent insignificance, the messiness, the difficulty of stepping up sometimes, we really have no other choice.

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