Saturday, October 2, 2010

Live and Let Live

I’m horrified by the news of the four teens who were driven to commit suicide in the past month, all because they were tormented by others for being gay. I’m growing increasingly more intolerant of the word “tolerance” whenever the media covers these stories. “Tolerance” is not the right word.

We need to be tolerant of people we’re stuck with, people we just don’t like. Such individuals as a lousy boss, a stinky, old, big mouth aunt at Thanksgiving, inconsiderate neighbors, clueless parents at school, volunteers who don’t do anything but create more work for everybody else, anybody who is a regular part of our lives, but rubs us the wrong way. We tolerate each other because we have to.

But when we use the word “tolerance” when referring to someone’s sexual orientation, the color of their skin, or their religious beliefs, what we’re really saying is that I (the superior person) will tolerate you (the inferior person) because I am clearly the better person.

Let’s try replacing the word “tolerance” with “acceptance” when participating in the national conversation about bullying.

When I teach art to little kids, they hear me say, over and over again:

1: There are no wrongs in art (in their own art, or in the art of their neighbors, so criticism of either one is never allowed). Their art is a part of them, a reflection of them, and cannot be bad or wrong.

2. Artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, and scientists never become famous for doing what everybody else has already done. They become famous because they’re different from everybody else.

In making these my two “rules” for making art in the classroom, I have tried to not only give children permission to be creative without fear, but I have also tried to create a school culture that values all sorts of differences. Children come to understand that not only are we all different from one another in many ways, but if they want to grow up and be a famous person one day (as all little kids do), they will HAVE to be different. My young students trust me because I’m so different, and because they all think I’m famous.

One of the lessons I like to teach is Vincent Van Gogh. I talk about how, when Vincent was young, the kids made fun of him for being different. It really hurt him and he never got over it. He kept that inside of him his whole life and was never happy, because it ate him up inside. I tell them that when a few kids teased him, the rest of the kids would sit in silence, and not stick up for Vincent, even his friends, which hurt him even more. This always leads to a discussion on how we should always stand up for anyone we see who is being picked on. I don’t give too much attention to the bully or the victim in this discussion. I like to focus on the silent bystanders, which most of us are at some point or another. We are participating in the torment of others if we witness it and stand by and do nothing.

We need real arts teachers in our schools (not people who have been taught to teach a lesson or two, but real artists, musicians, writers, and performers). They bring passion and love for what they do to the learning experience. And they send out the message, just by being who they are, and educating kids on the accomplishments of other creative people, that it’s not only OK to be different, but it’s something we should all strive to be. Only the art teacher can pull this off. A classroom teacher who is taught to teach art, music, or any other arts discipline, cannot convey this, because they have a different role to play in their students’ lives (my son’s fourth grade teacher was a former military officer. The values that he passed on to his students from his former career, were immeasurable and significant, but would have conflicted with what he would have been expected to do if he was asked to teach mime, for example). Kids need arts teachers – for what they teach them about the arts, for what they teach them about themselves, and for what they teach them about the world. And some kids, like the four who killed themselves, may literally need their arts classes for sanctuary. Band, art, drama, choir rooms…..they’re not only places where great art is discovered, passed on, or made, but they are literally places where kids can go to get away from that which torments them. Arts teachers are the messengers, and living proof, that being different is the ideal.