When I was a high school English teacher, I worked for about six months at Delmar High School. I only worked there for six months, even though I was paid for twelve, because about halfway into my contract, a group of about 25 sets of parents had banded together to oust me. I’d known it would be a hard year my first day with my fellow teachers when I was told that some students were allowed to opt out of learning about Greek Mythology because their Christian parents didn’t want them “getting ideas,” and that a novel about the Vietnam War was no longer taught because it gave a “negative impression” about the war (it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone, anywhere, still thought that war had been a good idea).
On my first day I was confronted by a student, in front of the class, about the issue of hunting. (The other teachers were already aware I was vegan even though I never actually spoke to them about this – we all know that it only takes not eating flesh to make some people hate your guts.) This boy raised his hand, told me he hunted deer, and asked me what I thought about that. My first reaction, to be honest, was that I thought his question was enormously inappropriate given that I was trying to communicate the structure of the class, not facilitate a discussion about ethics. However, I’d already learned, loud and clear, that to remind these students of proper conduct in a classroom wasn’t smart in a school district that didn’t impose consequences upon students for doing things like fist-fighting in the classroom (literally). So what I said, instead, was that this was between him and his own conscience. He had nothing to say to that, so I resumed my explanation of how I taught English.
The next morning before school started I was called down to the principal’s office. This boy’s mother (who was, incidentally, a cop) was on the phone, screaming and crying hysterically about how I had imposed my views on her son, and I was not to do that ever again. Your son is 16 years old, I replied. Had he asked me about almost anything related to ethics, I would have told him the same thing; at some point, students need to be pushed to think critically, learn for themselves, figure out what is right and wrong, once they are given all of the information from which to work.
No, she responded. They are not to be allowed to do this. They are to be told what is right and wrong, and what is right is what we teach him at home and what he’s learned so far in school, and you are not to oppose that. I asked her if she didn’t think a public school was the exact correct place for students to learn that the world is far bigger than their little tiny corner of the world, and she said no. No, it’s not. By the time I hung up the phone, I was so angry I was shaking. That was just the first of countless incidents of that kind.
Soon, students were leaving chicken wings on my papers while I was away from my room. They screamed “God Bless You” when anyone sneezed, and asked if they could pray in class, because they learned I was not a Christian. They spread rumors, in the form of faked letters between me and another female teacher, that I was a lesbian (a true rumor, but not one I’d ever confirmed as sexual orientation is not a protected category in Delaware). I could write anecdote after anecdote, including the time when I was taken to task by a group of students for teaching “too many things black people write” when I reviewed with them a past standardized test that asked questions about King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail;” but I’ll just say that over time, it became literally impossible for me to teach. I left in the middle of the school day one day and never returned.
The school board offered to buy out my contract, because they knew (as a result of the principal and superintendent lurking outside my classroom enough times) that I had never once imposed my views upon anyone, but instead had tried to expose my students to a variety of perspectives – again, something that’s absolutely necessary if they are ever to learn to think for themselves. They could not, therefore, fire me, as I’d done nothing wrong. Even the students who hated me the most had admitted I was a good teacher. But, as the superintendent told me, the administration was not willing to back me against the force of conservative parents who wanted me out of there. So they found extra money in the budget and paid me to not work while they paid a long-term sub to replace me for the balance of the year.
I went to my union immediately, but they told me there was nothing they could do, even though they knew this was discrimination (largely religious discrimination). I called every lawyer in the area, and even tried to contact the ACLU (who never called me back). I had documentation, I had written records of every incident that had occurred, but no one would touch my case. So, I was left with the wreckage of a new career – just under five years as a teacher on the Delmarva Peninsula and no one would hire me. I went through an enormously difficult time in my life, filled with rage and helplessness. I couldn’t look at teenagers without wanting to do violence to them. I seethed with hatred at the provincial, fundamentalist assholes who seemed to surround me no matter where I went. I developed sleep apnea and other physical manifestations of stress. Eventually, I went to therapy for a few months to try to resolve these issues and move on.
I did move on. I found work online that eventually paid me many times the amount of money I had earned as a teacher. I was, therefore, able to buy a new coop for the chickens, have two duck ponds dug and landscaped, have the back yard fenced in for the dogs (who soon enough learned to dig their way out again), and do other much-needed things for the sanctuary. Cash is indeed a powerful tool. And eventually, I was even able to see teenagers as individuals and not a monolithic force out to get me.
But I learned other important lessons that still inform my actions today. The one that relates to the topic of this blog post is the danger inherent in building self-esteem, as opposed to building self-efficacy. The students I taught at Delmar (most of them) had been told from day one that they were super special. They were taught to believe that no matter what they did, they were totally awesome. They were raised in the belief that just because they ate, breathed, peed and slept, they were just terrifically amazing people. And they knew it. Thus was born a generation of empty, self-entitled destroyers (my own term).
When a person believes that they are great simply because they are, there is no motivation whatsoever to act according to an ethical code. There is no reason to feel guilt over doing something hurtful because hey, I’m great no matter what I do. There is no reason to learn from past mistakes and thus change one’s behavior because the core belief is that it simply does not matter; if you are already great, why bother?
Pondering this issue as I did for years (obsessing is more like it), I came to the conclusion that while thoughts and beliefs are a critical part of what makes us who we are (whatever that is), they aren’t nearly as important as actions when it comes to defining what makes a “good person” or a “bad person” (please understand that I use these terms for convenience and not because I believe that what comprises an ethical person is a black and white issue).
My favorite example is what I call the NPR People. There is a whole group of people who listen to NPR obsessively. Forget for a moment that NPR has become, as Pattrice Jones aptly named it, Nationalistic Propaganda Radio, and consider the station to be a bastion of progressive, left-leaning thought. So, these folks listen to NPR sometimes hours upon hours each day. They can tell you exactly who is being toppled in what country, who’s toppling them, what social media have helped in the revolution, and what ramifications that might have for everyone from child soldiers to Barack Obama.
So, they make good conversationalists, these classic NPR people. And their thoughts and beliefs are terribly forward-thinking and progressive. Yet what are they DOING? How many times do listeners hear something on the radio and actually change something in their lives as a result of it? I’m not talking about easy changes, such as buying fair trade coffee instead of Folger’s. I’m talking about actual, significant changes to their behaviors. Are they giving up their cars because they learn about yet another manifestation of global climate change? Are they cutting back on breeding because they hear the latest report on over-population? Are they all buying used clothes because they know that children in certain other countries are being chained to machines to create affordable new clothing?
Some are, to be sure. Those would not be the people I call the NPR people. But be honest: you know these people. You might even be one of these people. Either way, think about this dynamic! It doesn’t matter what you believe if your beliefs don’t affect your actions. Conversely, if your beliefs are wretched – oppressive, violent, dangerous – and if you act counter to those beliefs, where’s the harm?
In the end, what matters are your actions, far more than anything you think or believe or feel.
That doesn’t mean that thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are not critical. Of course they are. But when one can identify particular thoughts or beliefs that are not conducive to an ethical life, one can still be an ethical person even if one cannot root those thoughts out of one’s head.
And that leads us back to animal sanctuaries. We need to first understand that everyone who works at an animal sanctuary has our own biases. Most of us bond more closely with members of one or more species, even though we work with many species. Some of us might value spontaneity, even though the animals with whom we work mostly value routine. Some of us believe that nothing is more important than good health, while others of us believe that “good” health can be relative, and sometimes carries too high a price (such as in the case of “broiler” chickens who, to gain another year or so of life and mobility must essentially be kept hungry much of the time). Some of us believe freedom is paramount, while others believe safety is paramount. So on and so forth.
Whatever the bias, we all have them. Some of these biases might even be truly wretched, as opposed to the ones I’ve listed above. Who knows what lurks inside peoples’ minds? We are rarely honest enough to divulge such things, especially when our lives are conducted in the public eye. However, that doesn’t always matter when it comes to the treatment of the individuals in our care. What matters, instead, is that we know that we have biases, that we are willing to examine and admit to these biases, and, if needed, that we are willing to behave counter to our biases if rational, clear thinking exposes them as faulty when applied to a particular individual or group.
I live with three rescued dogs. I love them terribly. I’ve known them for many years. And yet once they pass away (nothing I’m looking forward to, I might add), I don’t want to live with dogs again. I’m not a “dog person,” whatever that is. I don’t enjoy walks, playing, or the other things that make their lives enjoyable, and we don’t live in a place where I can turn them loose to find these activities on their own. Does that make me a bad person? There are plenty of dog people who believe that this does, in fact, make me a “less-good” person, if you will, than I would be if I sincerely loved the company of dogs.
But I don’t agree. I counter my bias as much as I can given my workload. I take the dogs outside often, I let them crowd me on the couch even though I would prefer to have my own space, I go on walks with the two who like walks. Not as often as I should, but then again, even if I was a dog person, I wouldn’t have the kind of time to devote to walks and such as would be ideal. So, in this way, my bias – my preference to live with individuals who don’t need me so much – is irrelevant because I counter it. And that’s what matters. That I am aware of this bias and counter it to the extent that I act right.
I don’t always succeed. No one does, despite what they might tell you. But regardless of what we are doing, whether it’s working with animals in a sanctuary setting, deciding upon a purchase, a means of transportation, or anything else, all we can do stry. Actually, it’s more than all we can do. It’s what we must do. Rooting out biases is an admirable goal, but while you’re at it – before you’re at it – work on changing your behaviors to better care for the world around you.