I encountered one of those driveway stories on the radio on Sunday. You know, where you are driving home listening and it's so captivating that you sit in the driveway until it's done. It was on the NPR program This American Life. Sometimes the stories on that show are overblown and not as meaningful as the show thinks they are, but this one was moving, maddening, sad, and thought-provoking.
It's the story of a family and a romance destroyed by ignorance. Serry is a Muslim American woman who falls in love with a Palestinian man in the West Bank. She described it as meeting her soul mate and still says she loves him more than anything. They moved back to the U.S. and started a family. They were in NYC for a couple years and then moved to a small town on the East Coast, probably NJ. Several children came; lives were happy; they were happy in their community and school. The eldest daughter, Chloe, in particular was popular at school and friends would come over and they'd talk about horses.
And then September 11th came. And soon after that a pamphlet showed up in the 3rd grade class, apparently one mandated by the entire school district explaining what happened on Sept 11 and what it's supposed to mean. Part of the pamphlet was an explanation that Muslims hate Christians and Jews and want to kill people. And all heads turn to Chloe, the only Muslim in the class.
Soon the abuse from the children starts. Chloe being taunted; people asking her why Muslims want to kill everyone; why does her mother wear that head covering like terrorists do? And literally people following her around the school telling the dirty Muslim to leave; that they don't want her here. Her teacher leads them all through a Christmas lesson in which everyone who is not Christian, the teacher says, will be going to hell. Complaints and teacher conferences only end up getting Chloe transferred to a new class without any remaining friends. The windows of the family car get smashed. Eventually, Chloe's best friend who had hung on for several months refuses to speak to Chloe anymore, no longer strong enough to endure being part of the Ostracized when she has a way out. Chloe has no way out.
Through the year, the family collapses. Chloe cries for days and won't go to school to be harassed anymore. And the husband falls apart, into true depression, feeling helpless to stop any of his daughter's problems. Finally, when the school year is ending, the family gives up and talks about moving, leaving their formerly happy home. The mother Serry is thinking of some other school district; the father is thinking of the West Bank. Serry refuses to take her children there and the dad leaves by himself and still hasn't returned.
Serry and kids do move to a new school district and this one is much better. The America we hope we are is mostly back. Chloe has friends again; teachers are teachers again and not enablers of bullying. But the price is still being paid as the mother now works 2 and 3 jobs and sees her own children so rarely that she has them write letters each day about what they did. She learns of her own children's lives at night, alone, while they sleep.
In case anyone's thinking, "this stuff they endured is illegal! Teachers can't teach Christianity in school!" you are right. And the family did bring a suit against the school district. Once the right federal office got involved, they did a full investigation, the school district was ordered to go through diversity training, and the teacher got some sort of remedial work and suspension, but all that happens long after Chloe's life was turned inside out, and the damage cannot be undone.
Besides being a heart-wrenching story (and I do think we aren't getting the whole story), it was instructive to me as well.
1) Kids can be mean little things; selfish, demanding, fighting, not seeing other children's emotions. But in this case it was clear that the kids acting horribly had taken their cues from adults. Oh, I don't mean adults were behind the scenes giving instructions. But they clearly picked up that Chloe wasn't just a girl in class anymore, but a Muslim, and Muslims were to be feared and hated. Kids will find a way to pick on others, but the form that it took here lays completely in the parents' lap. Indirectly, the children were being taught to hate Chloe.
And, this could be wrong, but it seems that in my own life I've met a number of people who were not racist or bigoted but whose parents were. However, almost all kids who are racist have parents who are. I can think of a couple exceptions, but this sort of racism seems to be learned from adults. And it can be subtle teaching. In B's school, there are children of a lot of different ethnicities. What if I were to start referring to other classmates as "the black girl," "the Japanese kid", "that Mexican one," just as a way to ask about some normal activity? I might be thinking, "hey, it's just a convenient way to point out someone." Yet at the same time, I'd be teaching B over and over that the way to identify people, their main characteristic, is their skin color or their ethnicity. Where would that lead?
2) When I'm on political blogs, people will inevitably show up and start stating that the true nature of Islam is violent, that we are in a clash of civilizations, and that Muslims want to make people of other religions subservient to them (search on the term dhimmitude). They think they are simply facing unpleasant facts, unlike supposed liberals who can't admit such truths because they don't match with the ideals of tolerance and diversity. Moreover, I am sure people writing these comments don't think these ideas they keep spouting have any negative effects. After all, they are just talking on a blog or at the dinner table or on the phone with their brother. They aren't harassing anyone or smashing a windshield. But their children are listening. They are understanding the world from listening to the people whom they trust more than anyone else, their parents. And in some other town, there's now another Chloe wondering what she did wrong.
You can listen to the whole story in Serry and Chloe's words and voices here. Act One. Which one of these is not like the others?