So often lately, I recall the days when I taught high school and there were so many kids in so many classrooms who were lost in the shuffle - not popular, not intellectual, not bad people, but not noticed or acknowledged because they hever had a chance to "shine." They weren't on the homecoming court, didn't get invited to prom, were not athletic stars or scholars. They were just regular kids. They came to school and followed instructions and did their work and got passing grades and moved on. They were the kids in the middle. The forgotten ones. It is dangerous to forget about children.
Case in point. For five years, I worked as part of a teaching team, working with at-risk teens. We had the same students for three years in a row. The first year, there was a girl - let's call her Tina. Tina was not a brilliant student. She wasn't a problem. She was easy to overlook. Then, during her second year in our program, she became a terror. She disrupted all of our classes to the point that nobody could teach or learn. I called her into my office and sat down across from her and said, "Please tell me what's going on."
"I'll tell you exactly what's going on, Miss Johnson," Tina shouted. "I been going to school for ten years and nobody cares. Teachers mark me here when I'm absent and absent when I'm here. They don't even know my name. But, guess what? Everybody knows my name now, don't you?"
That afternoon, I met with the teaching team. I brought our roster of 250 students. I said, "I'm going to read off the names. And I want us to see if we can remember who these students are - their skin color, their eye color, whether they wear glasses or braces, what their voices sound like." And I started down the list. Everybody identitied the A students. Easy. And we knew all the trouble makers. Easier still. But about 30 - 40% of the names were not immediately recognized. We had to remind each other who they were - if any of us knew. Those were the Kids in the Middle.
We immediately created a plan to begin spreading our attention more equally, making sure that every one of our students were seen - and heard. We made sure every voice was included in every class discussion. We reminded ourselves to acknowledge and thank the students who cooperated - instead of allowing our focus to be distracted by those who didn't. We saw those students. We invited them to speak. We listened. By changing our own behavior, we changed the entire dynamic of our program profoundly. We began to see genuine enthusiasm for learning and plans for the future from all of our students, not just those few at the front of the class.
Unfortunately, most of the Kids in the Middle continue to go unnoticed all the way through school. If they are not part of a special program, they are ignored. They learn to check the correct answer on the multiple choice test and move on to the next grade level without ever being taught how to articulate their own ideas -- because in a school system that values standardized tests above all else, the Kids in the Middle quickly learn that their ideas have no value.Their opinions don't matter. They don't count.
Fast forward a decade or two and those kids are now adults and they have jobs and kids and friends and big tvs and SUVs and houses. Still, they feel a sense of bitterness and emptiness...but they aren't sure why. They feel cheated somehow. They feel angry. And along comes a predator such as Donald Trump who is quick to recognize weakness and anger and a desire for attention. He knows how the bitter folks feel because he feels the same way. He is one of them. He had money, but he had no real education in critical thinking or logic. He was never acknowledged as a person - he was his father's son, insulated by family and money. Donald feels cheated when he sees his peers achieving things he cannot achieve, regardless of how much money his family has in the bank. Donald is very very angry. He never gets to really "shine." And he expresses his anger and bitterness and he tells those bitter people - who were the Kids in the Middle -- that they should blame the intellectuals and the people who are fulfilled and successful. He plants the idea that if somebody else is successful, it means YOU are a failure. Successful people know that success breeds success, so they encourage others. But people who are not successful believe there is a finite amount of success. So they must try to hold others down instead of lifting each other up.
And here were are today. Those grown-up Kids in the Middle don't understand how so many people can say that Black Lives Matter because they don't believe their own lives matter, in spite of the privilege they may enjoy. In fact, they are angry to be told that they have privilege. Being privileged makes them angrier because that privilege never gave them anything of real value. And they look around and they see successful black people which makes them crazy -- how did those "inferior" people succeed when they didn't have privilege or power? It is just not fair (they think). They are heartbroken and angry because they are white and have so-called privilege, but they don't feel happy and respected and fulfilled.They feel cheated because nobody knows their names.
America needs to take a page from our lesson plans for at-risk students. Instead of bemoaning their stupidity, we need to tap into their intelligence. instead of trying to find ways to convince them to hate fascism, we need to convince them to trust in democracy. Instead of lumping them all into one sad category, we need to see each of those hate-fueled people as a human being deserving of dignity - no matter how undignified they behave. We need to see them and hear them and accept them as they are. People who don't like and accept themselves find it impossible to like and accept others. When you love yourself, you can tolerate people who disagree with you. You can even accept - if not celebrate - their success.The only way to convince people to love themselves is to love them first. Show them how.
We need to spread love and joy and acceptance and respect - especially to those people who don't know what to do with those gifts when they are offered. They are not used to feeling valued.They think it's a trick. We must convince them that it isn't a trick. We must convince them that Joe Biden is sincere. We really can have a country where people respect each other, even when they disagree. And the Kids in the Middle can be part of that country. They are a part of the country already. They just haven't felt like part of the country, because the country didn't pay attention to them. We are paying attention now. We need to see them. We need to hear them. We need to know their names. Then, perhaps, they will be willing to rejoin a country where the rule of law and the Constitution have meaning. Where criminal justice reform and tolerance and compassion and empathy are not scary ideas that lift others above them - but ideas that lift all of us together.
And that's what's on my mind today.