Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Respect and Responsibility – What We Should Have Learned in Sixth Grade

Over the last year mass killings; police shootings; immigration bans; racial, religious, and LGBTQ discrimination (to name just a few) have tested and shaken the social fabric of our society. The current tsunami of sexual harassment allegations against people in positions of power and leadership are the most recent addition to the growing list of societal traumas. All of these events brought back memories of an episode in my life from 60 years ago. Although that decades-old event was not specifically about any one of these issues, it was in fact about all of them.  It was about power, leadership, social norms, and accountability – some of the principal issues behind all of these disturbing events. That grade school experience also points out how much better our society would be if we all had learned and internalized childhood lessons about how to treat people. 

Bobby was a sixth grade classmate of mine. He had some developmental and behavior issues that made him different from his classmates and the object of frequent teasing and ridicule. Sadly, I often joined the crowd in harassing Bobby. I thought it was funny and just part of the normal behavior of the “in crowd.”

My mother learned of my behavior and immediately sat me down for a “talking to.” Deep down I knew that what I had been doing was not right and that my “everyone was doing it” excuse would not fly, so I expected a severe scolding and some form of punishment.  Instead, I got a lovingly delivered lesson, possibly the most influential one I ever received. 

“Buck (my childhood nickname), you have been blessed with many gifts. You are smart, talented, healthy, and popular. (She was my mother after all.) You are very fortunate because things could have been much different.  The skills and abilities you have are not because of anything that you did.  They truly are gifts for which you should be grateful.  Your gifts are also very powerful and they will provide you many opportunities that others may never have.  However, they come with some responsibilities and those responsibilities last a lifetime.  Your gifts can be used for good or evil so you have to use them wisely.  I hope that you learn how to use them humbly, respectfully, and responsibly.

“You know as well as I that what you are doing to Bobby is not the best way to use your gifts. You may not be able to see it but you are hurting him in very painful ways. Because you are a leader in your class, he wants to be your friend so he will probably never say anything to you.  Only you can make the pain that you caused go away – by treating him with kindness and respect.

“But your responsibilities are even bigger than that. Your classmates look up to you and my guess is that if you start treating Bobby with more kindness, others will follow your example. Who knows, they may even stop teasing other kids who may be feeling what Bobby is feeling.  

“You should also be aware that Bobby too has some gifts. They are much different from yours but look for them because I think Bobby has some things that he can teach you.  

“Lastly, you know what I always say: ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’ You have been given some special gifts and they will provide you some opportunities others might never have. I hope you take advantage of those opportunities – not just for your own benefit but for people like Bobby. I trust that you will use your gifts well.  Now go finish your homework and then go out and play.”

The next day I apologized to Bobby and began treating him differently. Eventually, he became a good friend. As my mother predicted, my other classmates also started to treat him with more respect.  Surprisingly, Bobby started to do better in school and ended up contributing a great deal to our class and to my education. 

My mother was a teacher but I think she was also a public health person because she put into practice Geoffrey Vickers’ definition of public health (“the constant redefining of the unacceptable”) and the Institute of Medicine’s definition (“assuring the conditions in which everyone can be healthy”). She certainly reminded me over and over again about what was acceptable behavior. She also drilled into me the responsibility of using my talents to help everyone thrive.

The parallels between my sixth grade experience and many recent traumatic events are clear. Many people who are in powerful positions due to their talents and skills are not using their power in a respectful or responsible way, but are acting in ways that are hurtful and painful to others. There also continues to exist a large “in crowd” with a social norm that encourages and allows abusive, hurtful, and disrespectful behaviors to occur. Too many people are acting like sixth grade boys. It is obvious that a large number of boys missed, ignored, or have forgotten a major lesson from their parents and respected elders.

However, it is never too late to learn that “to whom much is given, much is expected.” Respectful and responsible behaviors are the expectations – for everyone but especially for those entrusted with power and leadership.