I know both who I am and who I appear to be. I know that I am a person of worth and value - as I know all people to be people of worth and value. I know, too, that I am a person often seen as being of little worth and no value because of my weight and my disability - both and either. I attract attention. Every time I go out I know I will face either social intrusion or social violence. From staring and gawking to pointing, laughing and name calling, I experience them as a daily phenomenon. Daily. I'm not sure that those who fit in ever really understand or believe the constant experience of social discrimination of those of us who do not.
Recently I went to a gallery, Joe and I both regularly trek off to these kind of public spaces. We like the experience that looking at art gives - it's such an intimate connection between viewer and artist. It may be the function of art and literature to make it possible to see what someone else sees, or feel what someone else feels, enter into a moment experienced by another. In an odd kind of way its a bit of sacred communing. But being in a public space of any kind comes with certain dangers. This day we were at the gallery when it was being toured by several classes of students, maybe Grade 4 or 5. They came through, in small groups, accompanied by their teachers.
I tense up when around large groups of children. I immediately lose any sense of safety. The world's most incredible painting, the world's rarest artifact, the world's most unique thing cannot draw children in as much as the opportunity they then have to mock and make fun of me, my weight, my wheelchair, my very being. So, Joe and I experienced looking at a painting while small groups of children broke away from their group and came to terrorize me.
I use the word 'terrorize' carefully.
It may be seen by some, anyone who hasn't had the experience particularly, to be too strong of a word. It is not. Sitting looking at a painting while three girls stand barely four feet away, covering their mouths and laughing while their eyes, sparkling bright in the light, roam over every inch of my difference is a kind of intrusion that so difficult to bear that I begin to breathe like one in deep pain. Having two boys stand and puff out their cheeks and ape what they think being fat looks like might strike some as funny. It isn't.
It was hard to see the pictures.
It was hard to experience the connection.
But I'm not writing about the children here. They are, after all, children. I do not excuse them their behaviour because of that - they know what they are doing and they know that it is wrong. What they may lack, though, it that thing that governs behaviour. That is, after all, why we have teachers, and chaperones, and minders. What disturbed me was that in this public space these children engaged in very public acts of social violence against another person and not one teacher, not one, intervened. It would have been impossible for the teachers not to see what was happening. Impossible for them not to notice. The teachers there, and there were several, had groups of no more than ten or twelve children. To have your group suddenly reduce by a quarter is, if anything, noticeable.
We live in an era where people are talking about bullying and teasing. Talking. About. It. Schools trumpet that they have 'zero tolerance' for bullying. They say this as if it's a new concept. Schools have always said that they discourage bullying, there has never been a time were schools proudly proclaimed to be pro-bullying. They just keep changing what they call the claim.
It is easy to have 'zero tolerance' if you also have 'zero acknowledgement.'
I remember seeing a young boy, referred for problem behaviour, being teased relentlessly by kids at recess. His disability made him the target of choice. Teachers and Teachers Assistants stood on the playground and simply didn't see what was happening. Not seeing meant not intervening. It's easier that way. I spoke with the teachers on duty that day and all of them claimed to have been oblivious to the name calling, the brutal behaviour of the students. I had observed this for only a few minutes and was headed out to the playground to do something, I didn't know what, when the bell rang and the torture was over. The teachers, who I spoke to as they came in, saw me as more problematic, with my concerns and criticisms, than they did the behaviour of the children. One uttered the tired refrain, "They don't mean anything by it."
I simply don't understand why a teacher, or any adult, would be so negligent in their duty as to allow children to engage in hurtful behaviour without comment or without action. It's like they believe that their job is to keep children safe from traffic but don't care that the children traffic in hate.
I know, cognitively, that I am not lessened by those unlessoned in kindness or tolerance. But I admit to feeling so. I know, cognitively, that I have a right to public spaces. But I admit to feeling unwelcome. I know, cognitively, that I am a person of worth and value. But I admit that's hard to feel sometimes. Especially when the one's who are supposed to know better, don't.