On Human Dignity

When I stand in front of you, I am there because I have a right to be. I need no permission and no justification. I am there and so are you.

Which is all you need to see in order to treat me with the dignity I deserve. And I deserve it not because you think so, but because I am there. And so are you.

When you stand in front of me, my only response is to look you in the eye, acknowledge your presence, and treat you with the dignity you deserve. You deserve it because you are human.

Which is all I need to see in order to treat you the way that I, too, have a right to be treated. Because I am human.


I am really, really disturbed. I am scared. I am angry. And so in my own way, I am screaming. Once again, bodies are a topic of discussion in the United States. The women whose bodies these are have been deliberately left out of the conversation. Their agency has been stolen. Their life experiences devalued. And their dignity? Their humanity? Purposely not acknowledged because that would destroy the whole thing.

As a teacher and learner of psychology, I can explain the mechanisms of group cohesion, kinship selection, stereotyping, and self-concept that are at play here.

But as a human, I cannot understand it.


When I was a child, we learned the Golden Rule of treating others the way you want to be treated. One year when I was teaching middle school, my students scoffed at my outdated notions of behavior. It was passé, they made quite clear, to only consider myself when deciding how to treat others. The Platinum Rule, I was told, was to treat others the way they want to be treated.

I smiled at the time, enjoying the moment where students are strong enough to stand up to a teacher when they deem it important. But I had a problem with this idea then and I have a problem with it now.

When you don’t think of others as having human dignity, you cannot treat them the way they’d want to be treated because you fail to see them at all.

Of course, the goal is to view every individual as having dignity merely on the basis of being human. But for those who choose not to do that, at least treating another the way you’d want to be treating forces you to recognize that they have dignity because you do. While this differs dramatically from someone’s having dignity because they do, it’s a start and it’s better than indifference.


In a better world, my students would be right. We should treat others the way they want to be treated because they have dignity. Because they are human. Because they are.

I am an educator because I believe in that world. But I am writing this blog post because I am human and I am screaming.

Educating

I tend to refer to myself as an educator rather than a teacher. Although I implicitly know the difference, a few conversations last week prompted me to articulate an explanation for the distinction.

Defining

According to Merriam-Webster, to teach means “any manner of imparting information or skill so that others may learn”. It has an Old English root meaning to show or instruct. By this definition, sometimes I teach. Sometimes I explicitly show my students how to do something. Sometimes I also instruct them in what to do when completing a task, which is also known simply as giving instructions.

But more often, I aim to educate. To educate, according to Merriam-Webster, “implies development of the mind” to which Google clarifies, “intellectual, moral, and social instruction”. The etymology of this word comes from the Latin word educere, to lead forth. From here I conclude that educating means raising good people who can live and be well.

People-building Revisited

I’ve written before about what I think of as people-building. In that post, I focused on the importance of asking young people who they want to be. I wrote about asking students why they have certain goals and I argued that understanding why can lead us to who – the type of person who does those things.

These are important conversations that educators need to have with their students.

In wanting my students to grow into good people, I try to take the time to talk with them about who they are and who they want to be. It’s a joy to ask students about their dreams and aspirations not only in terms of next year or the following year but in terms of ten years down the road (thank you to the friend who suggested this guiding question). I end up learning a lot more about them than I could have otherwise and acknowledging students as people who matter is important.

But there’s a lot of resistance. With the very real pressure of coursework and exams it can be really difficult to talk with my colleagues about the big picture. There’s a lot of resistance to taking time away from learning, as people claim, but there are clear points at which meaningful learning actually happens. What do you remember from high school? I want to ask my colleagues who roll their eyes. What did you learn in your classes?

I learned some content but I also learned how to live. And I remember the teachers who helped me grow as a person.

In high school, I learned that Doc Lo Re loved chemistry because it helped her understand the world. I learned that Miss Rabinowitz read voraciously because she found words beautiful. I learned that Mr. Khort was tough when he knew you could rise to the challenge and that Mr. Menchel kept his promise to be there in a crisis.

I remember who they taught me to be.

It is from my teachers that I learned to seek understanding of the world and my place in it. I learned to ask questions; I learned to look for and find beauty everywhere; I learned a way to hold those I love in palms of my hands; I learned the importance of actions.

I learned from the teachers who saw me as a person and wanted me to live well.

Educating

If educere means leading and educate means developing aspects of the mind, we need to spend more time thinking about what we want our students to walk away understanding. Not knowing but understanding. If a student never sets foot in a humanities (or science or literature or math) class again, what do we want them to understand about the world around them?

And then, equally importantly, how are we going to lead them there?

These are questions that teachers (note the word choice, please) don’t ask. Teachers talk a lot about what they want students to know by the end of a lesson, unit, or project, but rarely about what they want students to understand about the world they live in. Teachers rarely talk about the world at all.

If we want to educate, to lead our students forward, we need to be much more deliberate in our intentions. We need to ask why certain things matter to them and we need to ask who they want to be today, tomorrow, and ten years from now. We need to know what they love and why they’re doing what they’re doing. We need to know what matters to them.

Developing the mind is a lifelong process and it happens with or without thoughtful consideration.

So let’s be purposeful. We are, after all, raising young people. And we need to lead them with care so that they grow as good people who can live and be well, and who help make the world a better, more peaceful place.

Learning to Cry

It’s usually when I’m listening to loud music that it finds me.

Usually when I’m sitting alone in the dark.

When I’m watching a candle burn.

It’s usually when I close my eyes and reach down into the place I pretend doesn’t exist.

Usually when I find dark reds, blues, blacks.

When I feel colors swirling.


And then I have two choices.

Choice 1: Fly. Fly out of there. Back up and into the light. Find a smile. There are flowers somewhere.

Choice 2: Fall. Fall and go wherever the fall brings. Tumble. Let the heart beat faster. Let the breathing end in a gasp.


I’m learning to cry again. It’s been a long time coming.

Growing up, I used to cry a lot. I cried when I was happy or sad or angry, always when I was angry. And because I was crying, and also because I used to laugh out of sheer emotion before I cried, I always ended up feeling embarrassed or silly. Another reason to cry.

I used to cry whenever I saw someone else crying. It didn’t matter if I knew them or not. It didn’t matter if I was watching a film or living a real life. If someone else cried, so would I.

I’m not sure when that changed. Maybe it changed when I cried every single day for a month after moving to Malaysia. Maybe I ran out of tears after that. Maybe it changed when I moved to Singapore and didn’t want to give anyone back home an excuse to say, “See? You’re unhappy. You made a terrible mistake.” I wasn’t unhappy and I hadn’t made a mistake.

Maybe I stopped crying after a lonely transition to New York City that wasn’t supposed to be that way. I started that era crying a lot and then somewhere in there, I stopped.


I remember when, as I cried yet again over the phone, the recipient of my call hung up and sent me a message saying, “I just can’t talk to you anymore.”

I never, not once, cried in front of the therapist who I paid to hear me talk and let me cry. It’s not that I didn’t want to, but that I’d run out of tears.

Or that the tears had been run out of me.

A friend told me later, “You were a lot to handle back then.”

I tried, I really tried, to be sensitive to others’ feelings and needs. I understood that I needed to be around people but that I couldn’t be around people. I couldn’t be what people needed me to be and I didn’t want to disappoint them again.

I sat in crowded cafés and bars instead. Books were quiet company. I watched. I eavesdropped. But mostly I drank my beverage and concentrated on the page in front of me.


Learning to laugh again took time but it wasn’t hard. Laughing feels good.

Learning to feel okay again meant treating myself with the compassion that I extend towards others. While harder, that felt good, too.

Learning to cry, well. Well.

I’ve been surprised, actually. It feels better than I thought. It’s a relief in many ways. And I don’t mean the tears on an airplane that I’m very familiar with. I mean the tears that come screaming from somewhere deep inside.

And the heart beats and the breath comes in a gasp. The body shakes. Hands reach out.

Please hold me.

Please hold me.


Perhaps I’ll go as far as saying that crying feels good. Or at the very least, it feels like something. It’s not the tears themselves but the release and relief that come with allowing them. I’ve put down something heavy that I didn’t realize I was holding.

There’s life to feel, life and connection and love. There’s care. I have bathed in it and come out clean and new.

There are oceans where this came from.

Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place