I’ve always thought that an essential key to being fully human is empathy. In teaching, and later in creating educational materials, my goal was getting kids to see that the person they were dismissing, hating, or attempting to exploit was on the inside the same as them – full of thoughts and emotions like fear and the need for affection. Too many adults either lack empathy or suppress it to gain power, money, or votes.
When I taught English in a small-town high school, one 10th-grade class included three tough girls. Theresa was bright and literate but she hung out with Laura, who was attractive, hard as nails, and totally uninterested in anything I had to say. The third member of the trio, Charlene, had neither Theresa’s intellect nor Laura’s looks. She was actively resentful of any attempt to interest her in books or similar objects of instruction.
None of the three was openly defiant, but their looks of “Why don’t you get lost?” when I tried to suggest the joys of literature or self-expression were discouraging. At the same time, I couldn’t mind their resistance too much, since this was the 1960s and I was engaged in my own rebellion against established notions and directives.
Also in the class was Margie, who always looked sad and defeated. She was overweight, afflicted with acne, and friendless. While the rest of the class merely ignored her, the tough-girl trio made faces to each other on the occasions when Margie dared to speak up in class.
One time I heard Charlene in the corridor telling Margie, “Out of the way, Lard-ass.” I glared at Charlene, and Charlene glared back at me.
In a couple of years of teaching, I’d found a few ways to get students, even the least motivated, to do some writing. That winter I assigned them in pairs to interview each other in order to write each other’s profile. Since this meant talking to each other instead of listening to me for two or three class periods, they settled down quickly to getting details, as assigned, about families, ambitions, accomplishments, and worries—whatever would make their interviewees interesting to read about.
I had explained that I was matching up the pairs from the class roster, first on the list with the last (Adamic and Woolsey, Atkins and VanDam, and so on). Margie’s and Laura’s last names were somewhere in the middle, so with a little underhanded manipulation, I assigned them to each other. Laura, when she heard whom she’d be working with, smirked, but she liked talking and liked the chance to act like a professional, so she set to work interviewing the apprehensive Margie.
The day the papers were handed in, I didn’t have a chance to look at them until the evening. I leafed through the pile until I came to Laura’s. It was the clearest, most accomplished work she had ever done. More importantly, it began: “I used to make fun of Margie but now Ive gotten to know her. Shes had a tugh time of it. Now I won’t make fun of her.”
You could say, if you were cynical, that Laura was pulling her teacher’s strings. I was, after all, misty-eyed as I read the essay. But Laura wasn’t, as far as I knew, shrewd enough to do that. And her treatment of Margie’s family background and state of mind showed genuine empathy for her classmate.
The rest of the school year, I sometimes saw the trio letting Margie tag along with them. Margie, who seemed a little more relaxed and confident, would laugh with the others.
I didn’t want to know what, or whom, they were laughing about.