Educating about Evil

While we focus on our discipline areas for education, we can never lose sight of the important role that teachers have in a student’s life. As I’ve said (in ones way or another) repeatedly, we have large footprints and a deep shadow: thinking that we are only obliged to worry about mathematics or the correct location of the comma is to risk taking actions that have a far greater impact than intended.

This is why I have no time for educators who sleep with their students, because they have reduced anything positive or supportive that they ever said to the student into a part of the seduction and it contaminates the relationship that the student will have with authority, possibly for the rest of their life. In the strongest terms I condemn this, not the least because it is almost always illegal, immoral and wrong, but because it is, at its heart, unscholarly, unthinking and anti-educational. If you want to teach, then you’ve put yourself in a position where your voice is going to carry more weight – and this brings responsibilities. Naively enough, one of the key responsibilities for me is that we must think carefully about our actions so that, by our thoughtless action or inaction, we do not facilitate evil.

I do not have a belief system that gives me a convenient Devil so, for me, evil is a concept that is very abstract, but no less real for not having a trident and cloven hooves. I know it when I see it. I know it when I see its hand at work and it is the shape of evil’s hand that I generally discuss with my students. Let me show you.

Elizabeth Eckford, girl in dark sunglasses, attempting to enter Central High in the Little Rock School District. (Photo: Will Counts)

Can you see it? Let me show you from another angle.

The girl screaming racist abuse is Hazel Massery. The year is 1957. (Photo: Will Counts)

That’s a 15 year old girl standing at the front who is, under established legal precedent, trying to enter a previously all-white school. The girl behind her, about the same age, is yelling this: “Go home, n____! Go back to Africa.” Those soldiers you see are national guardsman, stationed not to help an isolated 15 year old girl but, instead, to keep her and the other 8 students who haven’t shown up today, from bringing their black selves into this white classroom.

I see the hand of evil all over this incident but, via these photographs, but I see it most with its scaly digits clutched around Hazel Massery’s mouth. She had a family with troubles and a background entrenched racism, and Hazel was a troubled girl but, in this moment, she was a hysterical, screaming puppet, baying for the blood of a 15-year old girl who was just another human being. The people around Elizabeth are yelling “Lynch her!” “Drag her away!” Women who look like your grandma are spitting on her. But look at Hazel Massery. It’s hard to find a more spectacular example of the evil of the mob than this?

Fifty-five years ago this month, nine students tried to make it into the school and, finally, after being turned away three times by National Guardsman, they managed to enter, escorted by soldiers of the 101st Airborne. Some of the people in that crowd, smiling, chuckling, taking pictures – they are teachers. Elizabeth’s ongoing problems at school, and they were many, included one teacher who would not even take anything directly from Elizabeth’s hands because of the colour of Elizabeth’s skin. Elizabeth was systematically abused, isolated and bullied up until the time that the school got closed and she had to try and complete her studies by herself.

After months of abuse, one entry from Elizabeth’s experience reads: “She said that except for some broken glass thrown at her during lunch, she really had had a wonderful day.”

When I was a teenager, I attended a talk where a minister said that he had always expected the test of his faith and integrity to be a suave man with horns and a tail, wearing a good suit, who offered him a dollar to smoke a cigarette and spit on the Bible. As he got older, he realised that evil, in many forms, was much harder to recognise and, of course, that sometimes doing nothing counted as evil, if you didn’t take the opportunity to do good. (As I later realised, in the style of Edmund Burke!)

You know, I don’t expect that much of a lot of people, if no-one has gone to the trouble to actually educate them and shake those xenophobic beliefs that seem to accumulate when we’re in small, scared bands and huddled in the dark. But I do expect a great deal of anyone who takes up the role of educator. I expect them to stand up for the truth. To go looking for the light if they realise that they’re in the dark. To treat all students as what they could be rather than what they have been assumed to be.

But, base level, in any activity regarding students and mobs, formed from stupidity and bigotry, I expect the teachers to be in a circle around the students and facing out, standing between the mob and their charges, certainly not facing in and taking part in the discrimination.

There’s a Vanity Fair article where you can read more about this. We have, I am thankful to say, come a very long way but it is quite obvious that there is still some way to go. The VF article talks a lot about the good people of the community, who stood up, who helped up, who realised that this was wrong and you should read it because it is a story of hope. But let us never lose sight of what evil looks like, because I need to train my students to see it so that they can stamp on it.

Push it back into the darkness where it belongs and blind it with truth, facts, science, reasoning, enlightenment and goodness. In 100 years time I want someone who sees that picture to not even be able to understand why this would have happened. I want cute kids to cock their heads to one side and look confused – because they can see an obviously visual difference but not inequality or divide, and hence not establish it as in immutable categorical statement of worth or ability. I think we’re all part of the glorious pathway that will lead to that great and wonderful time. Naive? Yes. But we have to start somewhere and, fifty-five years ago, Elizabeth and eight other brave young people did just that. We’re just carrying it on.

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