The undercurrent affects my classroom. I can feel its tug and see its effects but can rarely locate the source or the exact flow. Cruel taunts and gossip are the culprits behind my students’ tears, stony faces—their anger and their fear. The ferociousness of the few vicious communications I have been privy to as a high school teacher caught me off guard. High school can be a shark tank and the blood flows with every passing class period, thanks in part to the popularity of online social media. I feel helpless to save the victims because I don’t even know who they are half the time.
Then we were reading To Kill a Mockingbird one day and magic happened. “You never really understand a person until you…climb into his skin and walk around in it,” Atticus had said.
That’s what my students needed to do. Walk around in the skin of the other students. To “grow a heart, woudja?” in the words of one student. To understand fully what their words and teasing were doing to each other. Ah, but would they be honest? It could provide more fodder for the torture mill, I worried. But what if the students could write anonymously, I wondered. Crazy idea, insane. Students could, I supposed, write “dog” a bazillion times. They would still get an A. The idea wouldn’t go away. So I tried it.
It was magic.
I called these writings “Shoes” instead of “Skins” (the word Scout uses in the book). It sounded less Hannibal Lecter-ish. To my surprise, students did not write the word “dog” over and over. They responded with passion to my prompt to write what it was like to walk around in their shoes. I had the best turn-in rate of any assignment. Students wrote about what it was like to be called fat every day or to be teased about being Hispanic. They told stories of having parents who didn’t care what they did, or having parents who pressured them to be perfect.
Each “shoe” took us on a journey, whether we liked it or not. Some students asked for more stories. Others didn’t want to hear the pain. I can’t prove it, but I think the sharks didn’t want to hear the sadness and feel the guilt. I met their objections with a simple explanation. “Wow, this person lives this life 24-7, don’tcha think we can listen to it for five minutes?” And then we do.
It would be great to have the ultimate miracle—the bullyless school. That hasn’t happened yet. But I believe in this idea. I see the students listening intently as I read. Some feel the impact deeply and are encouraged to stand up for victims. I think that is this idea’s true force, to empower bystanders. And you never know—maybe a shark will grow a heart.
Blevins is a high school English and journalism teacher in Missouri.