This summer while visiting some friends I had one of the most unpleasant dining experiences of my life. There was nothing wrong with the food or the restaurant, both were actually quite wonderful; instead my dinner was ruined by the family sitting at the table directly to my right. To my disbelief, within my earshot and line of vision, a father and his wife began making ignorant, hurtful and speculative comments about my boyfriend’s appearance. You see, my boyfriend has Alopecia, an immune disorder that attacks hair follicles. He lost all of his hair when he was just 3 years old. Now in his thirties, his head is still bare, but his eyebrows have yet to decide whether they are going or coming, staying or leaving. To be honest I no longer see these things, I just see my boyfriend, as cheesy as that may sound. But I am also no stranger to people staring at him just a tad longer than they should. Staring is one thing, but making audibly derogatory remarks about my boyfriend’s potential connection to the Nazis is a whole other story!
What shocked me most about the whole despicable incident was that this was a family discussion; meaning the man and his wife were having this hateful conversation about my boyfriend’s head, eyebrows, and (shocking to see in 2012) his tattoo in front of their tween daughter! I couldn’t help thinking: this is what you want to teach your child? You want to impart to her that it is okay to be cruel about things that make you uncomfortable or that you don’t understand, no matter how hurtful they might be? As a teacher who makes every effort to help my students understand diversity, I found myself so upset that I needed to excuse myself. What made it more hurtful to me was knowing how accepting and understanding my boyfriend is himself. Being visibly different at such a young age and enduring everything that came along with it has shaped how he perceives differences and has made him incredibly kind. I was left thinking about how critical it is to introduce these ideas of kindness, compassion, understanding and tolerance early in life.
Maria Montessori opens one of her most famous books, The Absorbent Mind, by discussing how education should not simply be about transmitting information to each generation. Instead she argues that during the earliest years we should also be considering emotional intelligence and social understandings if we have any hope of raising humanity up to a level of peaceful coexistence; “If help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children, for the children are the makers of men.” I couldn’t agree with her more. Every year, inevitably, children will make comments about some things being “weird” or “silly” and I always insist we discuss how usually these things are simply different than what we are used to or what we expected, but that doesn’t make them bad. Certainly, these are hard concepts for young children to grasp, but these are conversations that must be had. Essentially, the future of our world depends on it.
In the end, after my rage and sadness subsided, I was only left feeling pity for my dining neighbors. I felt sorry for them that they did not have the benefit of an upbringing or education that encouraged tolerance, acceptance and understanding for humanity. For whatever these people have in their minds of accepted standards of beauty, or their picture of what an ideal upstanding citizen looks like, they seem to have forgotten that intolerance is truly the ugliest characteristic of them all.