Clothes Do Not Make The Man: Thirty minutes into the rehearsal with my junior high school men’s choir, I received a new student. His counselor dropped him off without much explanation. The defining culture of the 80’s boasted extreme dress for many. But this young man exhibited a jaw dropping appearance. Steve wore heavy make-up, purple hair, and his leather jeans fit so tightly that he found climbing the stairs of my risers difficult. He sported a bold leopard vest which stretched around his ample stature. Every pocket contained a long chain connected to yet another pocket. Steve’s appearance made it challenging for the class to mask their awe. As a teacher in the performing arts, I admired students who dressed outside the norm. Steve took his individual look to a new level of creativity. I quickly assigned Steve a seat and remarked how I admired his rocker look. The glare he shot in my direction disguised nothing. Steve displayed an attitude with a capital A.
Steve’s membership to our choir would prove interesting, as we prepared for a patriotic music celebration. I proceeded with our class discussion about the National Anthem. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Steve’s hand shoot up. I immediately went into yoga breathing, which prepared me for any verbal onslaught. In with the good breath, out with the bad, I called on Steve. He spoke in a low, exasperated tone, “What if I don’t like this country and I don’t want to sing this song?” I told Steve I would like to visit with him in my office over the noon hour so he could share his thoughts. I assured the class Steve was NOT in trouble. I did so hoping this would stop any student-led hypothetical discussions on Steve’s presence in our choir. The meeting was not about disciplining Steve for his outspoken manner. I genuinely wanted to hear his views on the subject.
He arrived at lunch looking disgruntled in that surly, roll of the eyes way which all teenagers mastered by age 12. He slumped down in the chair, looking at the floor. I told him I valued all students’ opinions, especially those in opposition from my beliefs. I grew up as an outspoken teenager, and most of my teachers openly disliked me for it. As a teacher, I aspired to a different standard. My comment genuinely surprised him. In the next few minutes, Steve and I found common ground. When he shared some of the downfalls he witnessed with our country, I could not disagree. We came to the conclusion that when we sang the patriotic songs, he would be excused from singing. Men and women sacrificed their lives defending his right to make that decision. Steve transitioned well into our class and when the patriotic concert came, he performed every number. Did all my confrontations with students end so successfully? No, they did not. Acknowledging the fact young people nourish opinions different from adults allowed the sharing of those ideas, without prejudice, in a healthy environment. A sarcastic or demeaning retort from a teacher closes down any possibility of respectful discourse.
Teachable Moment: I honestly enjoyed visiting with students who held polar opposite beliefs from me. Modeling positive discourse became a great way to help the student feel heard and respected. Polarizing episodes began to dissipate, and in their place, an honest exchange of ideas. Today’s society could learn from this one important aspect of human dynamics: agreeing to disagree is much healthier than hating and demeaning the other person for their point of view.