As we near the end of a unit on Flowers for Algernon, I watch with interest as our students form new learnings about themselves and share personal feelings about a new topic, the question of what life must be like for someone who is a slow learner. Students were encouraged to think about the following questions and many more throughout our study.
How do you feel when you can't perform a skill?
Would you have a life changing surgery to be smarter?
Would you befriend a special needs child?
Will you use the R word (retard) in the future knowing that it hurts people?
Would you help a special person who is the victim of bullying?
During our reading of the dishwasher scene in which Charlie, now surgically altered from a low to a high IQ, laughs at a young waiter who has spilled dishes, I could hear the silence as my students processed what they'd read. Charlie, realizing he was once challenged, changes his tone and yells, "Shut up! Leave him alone! It's not his fault he can't understand! He can't help what he is! But for God's sake...he's still a human being!" (Keyes, Holt McDougal Literature, 215). I wonder if they were thinking of a time when they bullied someone for a mishap similar to this one, or if they were a victim of laughter during an especially embarrassing moment.
Students' minds are malleable at this age, AND students are capable of judging right from wrong. That doesn't mean they always get it right, but they try.
With that in mind, colleague Marjorie Burger and I had little to do but allow our students the opportunity to read a powerful story and learn how it must feel to hope for something like a better mind, only to have the experiment fail. We heard the sympathetic "Oh, no's" and we listened to their forthright comments with each major change in Charlie as his penmanship improved, his higher level thinking capability developed and his acquisition of knowledge tripled his IQ.
As the mother of a child with autism, the question of bullying interested me the most. Earlier in the year, I'd told my students that someone was stealing from my son, an easy target. I'd shared some of the more poignant chapters of my life with Greg, also. Naturally, when I posed this question, "If you saw someone "abusing" a special person, what would you do?" I never expected nearly 100% of my students to say they would help. After all, it is not easy to intervene when danger lurks.
Here are some of their answers.
"I would stop it because abuse is NEVER right."
"I would call the cops or defend them."
"I would go and tell them to leave them alone because their life is already difficult with their disability and you're making it more difficult."
My school will be proud of the many students who responded with a solution provided during our bullying lessons:
"I would try to confront them, and if they didn't quit, I would get a trusted adult.
And, when answering violence with violence sometimes is a solution:
"...something probably very violent (no lie)."
"yell at them for being rude, record it and post it on the Internet, force them to apologize..."
"I would put on my ring, I would put on steel toed boots, and I would beat the crap out of them."
How many of us wish for the passion of youth so that we could address bullying just like that?
Three students, only three out of 110, responded honestly that they would not help.
"I don't really know. I would feel bad, but I might not have the strength."
"No, none of my business."
" I would keep walking."
I can only hope that these three, in the final questionnaire, change their minds and decide to help. I need to know that someone, anyone who comes across a bullying situation with a special needs individual, will intervene. My son needs it. All of our special children need that assurance. We, parents, need it.
After all, are we not our brother's keeper?
(Note: These opinions are my own and in no way reflect the viewpoint of my school.)