Archive for May, 2014

One day my year 8 class and I were talking about discrimination. Discrimination is a tough concept to teach to twelve and thirteen year olds.

So how did I do it?

I said to them, that essentially we make two different kinds of judgements about people: things people can control about themselves and things people can’t.

I understand there are some huge gaps in my explanation, but for most part, it does cover a lot of my bases.

Judging someone based on their skin colour (something they can’t control) is something that my class understands is something that is never acceptable. I then explained that we should be judging people on their personalities because for the most part people have control over the way they treat other people. This was an important distinction for me to make because I was doing double duty, I also wanted them to understand that it’s okay to not be friends with someone if they’re not being good to them and that it’s perfectly acceptable judgement to make towards someone.

Obviously this situation becomes even more complicated because, simultaneously, I’m trying to explain situations where it’s not okay to judge someone, and situations where it is, even though it’s much more complicated than that.

As I said earlier, judgement of skin colour is off bounds, it seems to be a universally understood truth that is practiced in my class. However, I knew there were three other looming topics that I was going to bring up that I knew wouldn’t be as easily accepted. The three topics I hear repeatedly talked about among many students are their hatred for:

-people who are polish,


-‘gingers’ (people with red hair).

Now, in my year 8 class, they didn’t seem to have any particular problems with people who are polish, or people that were homosexual which is in vast comparison to the opinions of my year 9 students. My year 8 students were under the same understanding as skin colour, that being polish or gay, they were not an acceptable basis to judge people. This was a relief to me because in my year 9 class, it’s a whole different story.

My year 9s have a real hate on for polish people. To some of their understanding (and let’s be fair here, it’s most likely their parents’) polish people are “immigrants” that are coming in and taking their jobs, and they’re pretty angry about it. When I tell them that I’m an “immigrant”, they always say,

“oh no miss, we don’t mean you”

To which I tell them that we’re the same, they whole heartedly disagree. To them, being canadian, is an okay kind of immigrant. Being polish, however, is really not. They also feel the same way about homosexuality. Being gay, is really not okay either. I’ve had students from that class blatantly tell me that I’m not going to change their mind in accepting homosexuality because it’s wrong, and not something they support.  I know it comes from somewhere else, an overheard word from a friend or family.This digs me in a way I didn’t know words could. I sometimes am able to muster up the words,

“Your beliefs are your beliefs. But respect towards everyone, no matter what your beliefs, is mandatory”.

However, my year 8s completely disagree,

“who cares if people are polish miss?”

“It doesn’t matter if people are gay or not, we should accept everyone”.

To which I sigh a huge sigh of relief.

So when we had settled on the previous two topics, I thought bringing up hair colour would have been an easy sell.


“So, is it okay to judge people if they have red hair?”

“Yeah Miss! They’re GINGERS.”, one kid says with an air of distain.

Aside from the fact that my mother’s side of the family are full of red heads, I’m also so shocked that I was so wrong about the direction of this conversation.

“Why can’t they just dye their hair?” says one of my best natured students.

“Do you understand that telling someone they should change their hair colour to prevent you being mean to them, could be a lot like telling people to change their skin colour so that people aren’t mean to them?”

“That’s different, Miss.”

“Is it? How? Can someone explain to me how?”

“‘Miss, GINGERS don’t even like their OWN hair colour”.

“Well…do you think they always hated their hair colour, or do they hate their hair colour because people don’t accept them for who they are?”

My class stopped and pondered this for a moment, and admittedly, so did I. Now I know I’ve been discussing discrimination here, but just bear with me while I switch gears here for a bit.

My question “do you hate something about yourself because you just do, or do you hate something about yourself because someone has made you hate it?”,  had accidentally triggered a memory for me about my sister.

Now, I’m going to be honest here, this me sharing something with you that I’m not particularly proud of. In fact, when it comes down to it, I still feel awful for my actions and words.

I was an overweight kid that got made fun of a lot because of it. It probably wasn’t, but I felt like I was under a lot of scrutiny about it by my peers. Whenever my sister and I would get into an argument when we were younger, she used to say

“yeah, well at least I’m not fat”.

To which the end of the conversation would end with me in tears and most likely hitting her and running away or talking to my mom. One day that changed. One day, in response to my sister’s comment about my size, I retorted:

“Well at least I don’t have a humongous nose”.

That stopped my sister dead in her tracks. I knew I had come up with something that was equally as painful. I knew it had stung her like her words had stung me. I knew I had hurt her.

My sister has never had a humungous nose. She has a beautiful nose, and to be fair it would be beautiful whether it was larger or not.  But it’s important for me to acknowledge that it wasn’t. My sister was a tiny child, very skinny, pretty, and there was nothing at all for me to make her feel bad about. So I created something that I knew would bother her. I created an insecurity.

For the duration of my childhood, it would become my official “come-back” for any terrible comments that I might have had coming my way. It made me feel like I had some kind of leverage.

A few years ago, my sister and I were hanging out and somehow it got brought up that my sister hated her nose.

“I hate my nose, it’s too big”.

I was shocked that the dye I had cast over ten years ago, had permanently etched itself in her self-image. I had done that. Me.

Even now, more years have passed since that conversation, and I still can’t believe I was responsible for taking something my sister had probably never given any thought to, and then presented it as a flaw, an imaginary one at that, but real damage had been done, whether my insult was real or not. This memory especially hits me hard because I work with kids whose identities are developing before my very eyes. That students who have never given a second thought to themselves being polish are now suddenly ashamed because of what someone else makes them feel about it. Students tell me about passing comments their mothers make about their weight, and weeks later they mention it to me, words not forgotten. A boy makes a seemingly innocent comment, but says it with such venom that the innocent word cuts into another kid’s conscience like an infinite cut. The self loathing they inspire, whether it’s related to race, sexuality, religion, gender, or just looks, is damaging. I think one of the things I find most disturbing is that the drastic change in mindset between my Y8 and Y9 students. That my months of being able to change minds, and introduce perspective are so limited and to what end?

I wish it was just as simple as ending the discrimination against the polish, homosexuals, and gingers. However, I think we all know another kind of discrimination, equally as toxic, will be waiting impatiently in the wings to take their place.  Will we invite it in?


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