Monday, December 08, 2003

Stigmatized kids

There's an obnoxious variation of tag which I'm not sure has a name - I'll call it "shots". In this you give "germs" to another kid, then declare "shots" to prevent them from coming back. Then that kid in turn is to give the germs to someone else. At least that's the way it was played in my grade school.

There was a family I'll call the "Gores" whose kids went to my grade school. I didn't know this at the time, but Mrs. Gore was a single mom and had a very hard time making a living in a small central IL town with no skills. She had been married but apparently her husband was a bum. She had three kids: a big boy in my grade, and girls older and younger than he.

She couldn't afford much for them, but we kids didn't know that - we just knew that they generally didn't dress well, and the girls in particular looked like ragamuffins. It was bad enough for me to notice at the time, anyway, and I wasn't exactly affluent.

What do you know? - suddenly they weren't just "germs" anymore. They were "Gore's germs". As if contact with these people would sicken you.

This predated me and I never knew how it started, but I could figure out that it was mean. And although I didn't oppose it, I didn't participate either. I didn't know the Gores well, but the boy seemed easy enough to get along with - the girls were in different grades so I didn't know much about them except for vivid descriptions about how one of them picked her nose and disposed of the bounty.

So what was wrong with the kids? Their family. Not to blame Mrs. Gore - I'm not sure she could have done any better. But something traditionally was provided by families was missing, and the kids suffered for it at the hands of the other kids, and maybe from the teachers too.

Later I moved to another small town far away and lost track of the Gores.

In the new town there was a kid who reputedly was gay (but believe me, that's not the word that was used). I never met him that I knew, but I had heard stories. True or not, he was stigmatized, and I hear that it wasn't unusual for him to get abused or beaten by other kids.

I've heard kids nowadays describe things as "gay", intending it as a pejorative with no particular meaning other than "I don't like it". I understand that this is widespread too. And it's not news to say that kids are a strange mix of cluelessness, meanness and hypersensitivity who don't adapt to PC easily.

So now let's throw a scenario at you. You hear a 7 year old kid telling another kid that his mom is gay. The other kid doesn't know what that means, and the 7 year old explains this in 7 year old terms. As a teacher, what do you do?

I don't know what they teach teachers about stuff like this. But certainly one concern would be if the kid were doing something that was likely to get him stigmatized, and then I'd try to get him to stop in a way that wouldn't aggravate things.

Now with that background, look here, here and here.

The majority opinion is that the teacher did a Very Bad Thing, or at least mishandled the situation. That's entirely possible.

But it seems to be a given that there were no grounds for intervention by the teacher. As if in doing so somehow she was disrespecting all gays in the abstract, so to hell with the very real boy in front of her.

And if this is a potentially scarring situation, you wouldn't want the boy to dwell on it, would you? Should the mother draw attention to the event, perhaps by calling in the ACLU? Or should she tell her son in an age-appropriate way that he would do well not to draw attention to their circumstances when he might get stigmatized or worse?

This isn't exactly unprecedented. I wonder how many parents have been busted growing pot because their kids popped off unwittingly. Might a parent back in the 1800's have said "Son, don't ever tell anybody about those black folks that pass through here going north"? Would keeping the secret necessarily make the kid think less of his parents?

Wouldn't it be ironic if suddenly this woman were hassled for being a lesbian now that she's insisted on publicizing it? It sure won't do her boy any good. But based on what we've seen, despite Mom's posing, does anyone really believe that his welfare was ever the real issue?

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