Most semesters I get at least one student paper that questions, “Who am I to interfere (ask a question, interrupt, intercede, protest, and so on)?” For fear of being “inappropriate,” these young adults take the role of bystander in the situations they describe. I suspect that aspects of these reactions to life events are developmental; these young adults are feeling their way into individuation.
At the core of their dilemma is fear. They fear getting it wrong, confrontation, making a mistake, or overstepping the roles they were assigned at birth. They desperately want to fit in. From whence this timidity? How do they come to the place where they travel the globe and break new ground but cannot interrupt nonsense when they come across it?
It isn’t that I don’t also have a voice (that sounds remarkably like teachers of my own) questioning what I ought to say or do. It also isn’t that I haven’t experienced supervisors who suggest I might be “too direct” for some members of a work team. I have observed over time, however, that these are middle class voices that benefit from my silence which would keep the status quo in place, the status quo that benefits them over others. There was little rosy in my childhood or in my parents’ discipline, but there was this: I was chided about disrespect, but not about honesty. I was taught the difference between what I felt might not be fair and what we have agreed is just.
On a neighborhood online forum, I recently commented on what I have grown to understand is a battle over a local environmental decision that has persisted for more than five years. My comment asked when the two entrenched sides were going to consider mediation. Their arguments fill entire meetings and forums on issues unrelated to their dispute. Get together to talk about racism, parks, elections — you name it — and we will end up hearing about their dispute for most or all of the time.
Their arguments are also highly personal, accusatory, and devoid of much in the way of science or fact. Both sides are convinced that the other is a conspiracy against democracy, the American Way, and fair play. I admit I cannot agree with either side because they have ceased to make sense. My assessment of the situation is this: both sides have decided that the battle is more important than winning. Their fear of loss has taken over their desire to win.
So, given this scenario, it is little wonder that my online comment that suggested mediation got a response that at once ignored my search for resolution and implied my ignorance of the “real issues.”
It is against the backdrop of my childhood experiences and my ongoing challenges in places where our communities get stuck that I ask my students who share their reluctance to speak up, “What are you afraid of learning? What deeply held conviction might you need to release?”
Hold on to your piece of carbon, Super Man, and you might just get a diamond. Alternately, open your hand, palm up, and risk finding what the world has to offer.