Mass Violence, Homophobia and Cultural Norms: How to Promote Empathy in a World that Could Care Less

In my seventh grade English class we talked about a unit titled, “What You Do For Fun.” The unit mentioned everything from watching movies to going shopping at the mall. When asking the students about what they can do in the mall I heard a range of answers.

“Go shopping.” “Eat out.” “Play soccer.” “Sleep!”

A little know fact about Thailand is that you can do everything in the malls. You can go shopping, have an upscale dinner, see a movie, get a massage, go ice skating, you can even play soccer. But one student had a particularly special answer.

One student said, “you can kill people!”

I ignored it the first time and called on another student to give me an answer. When I asked that student, I heard the student say it again. This time in a more excited tone and while looking directly at me, as if to get my attention. It was in that moment that I realized I needed to stop and have a serious talk with my students. I said, “That is a very inappropriate answer because I don’t think that’s what we can really do in the mall or is it?” I then turned the question over to the entire class and said, “Can you kill someone in the mall?” First everyone stared at me and then everyone responded no. I then explained to my students that making a “joke” about hurting or harming someone is unacceptable because it’s a horrible thing to lose someone.

I also brought up what happens in my country and how getting hurt in a public space is a very real fear. “You guys, in my country, people do get killed in malls. People get killed at concerts and people have even gotten killed at schools, too.” Of course at this moment I was met with gasps and looks of horror from my students. Afterward I explained how lucky they were to live in a country where that doesn’t happen and how wonderful it is to walk around without being scared. I finished the conversation by saying, “So in my class, or any class for that matter, we do not joke about people being killed, hurt or harmed. Ever.”

One of the challenges that comes with teaching children is that most of the time they’re still learning how to be appropriate and respectable people.

They will often say some totally off the wall stuff and I believe it’s because they’re seeing how far they can push the boundaries of their innocence and society. Also after the situation I realized that my student genuinely did mean what he said as a joke. He did not mean it in a harmful or malicious way. He meant is a joke because in his mind he could genuinely never imagine that someone would go into a public space, a mall for that matter, and kill people. It would be simply too comical to think something like that would ever actually happen. It’s the same as when my twelfth grade students unanimously got a question wrong about “some tap water being safe to drink.” They all believed the question was a false statement because in Thailand you cannot drink any of the tap water. Ever.

This instance brought me to yet another moment that reinforced how important teachers are and can be. My job is so much more than just teaching English vocabulary and reading comprehension. On a day-to-day basis, whether I acknowledge it or not, I am giving children an example of how to act, behave and think or how to not act, behave and think. For crying out loud, I spend about a 1/3 of the day seeing, interacting and being around my students. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that teachers can have a profound impact on children.

In my classroom nobody is allowed to lie, so I hold myself to the same standard.

I don’t lie to my students when they ask me questions, even the hard-hitting ones like, “What is high school like in America? Do they bully each other like on the TV series?” When I hear students using gay in a disrespectful manner I ask them, “And what is there to laugh at about being gay?” When my Thai students said my Chinese student had smelly food I said, “Durian smells really gross, but it’s yummy to eat, right?” I even had one student ask me why I called myself Black because he thought calling someone Black was rude. To which I responded, “Why would it be wrong to call me what I am? Would it be wrong if I called you Asian?”

I realize that although people grow up differently and have different cultural norms, it doesn’t cost anything to teach someone how to be a decent person on a global scale. It may be hard to discuss the tough topics, but while ignorance really is bliss growth doesn’t come from periods of blissfulness.

6 thoughts on “Mass Violence, Homophobia and Cultural Norms: How to Promote Empathy in a World that Could Care Less

  1. Wow! Really enjoyed the insight and thank you for your service! It’s nice to see teachers who really respect the profession and not just there for a check, you literally have their lives in your hands and you take that seriously! Keep up the great work, Tee.

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  2. Ummm… You’re also teaching them some wrong lessons, especially about America (which you don’t seem to like.) The chance of those kids getting killed is higher than Americans. Even firearm-involved homicides are more common in Thailand than the US (4.45 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants vs. the US’ 3.85) And.. fairly intense by US standards organized violence (hangs) in Thailand’s colleges is entrenched enough to be part of the culture.

    And, on top of that, people do have different cultural norms so teaching them to be decent by your standards might be doing them a disservice.

    But hey! All that aside, nice way to turn a disruption by an attention-seeking student into a lesson!

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    1. Hi, Jonolan – thanks for commenting! In response I wanted to ask you about which lesson in particular did you perceive as “the wrong lesson”? I referenced a mall shooting, a concert shooting and a school shooting – all of which are actual events that happened and were merely examples to drive home the true lesson, which was that it’s not funny to joke about people being hurt or harmed. And when you said teaching them to be decent by my standards might be doing a disservice to them, which standards from the article were you referring to specifically?

      Please note, that I never mentioned anything about gun deaths/violence in terms of statistics because again, that wasn’t the lesson I was driving home. Luckily, my seventh graders were able to make that connection and learn from their silliness!

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      1. Well, you’re in a country that is more violent in many ways than the US and seemingly trying to teach these kids that America is a scary place to live. That seems wrong to me, as an American, as someone who’s traveled most of the world (except the “good” parts), and as someone who think teaching should be of objective facts.

        As for standards – The ones that comes to the forefront of my mind are homosexuality / transgender acceptance (not so much there except by law as compared to the US) and certain forms of “xenophobia” and their expression.

        In both cases, there’s underlying issues that don’t match up with the US’ experiences. OK … Your Black. Maybe the Black perspective on some of the Thai’s “xenophobia” would resonate since we’re talking about conquest in the past that hasn’t been forgotten or forgiven.

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      2. As previously mentioned in both the article and my previous comment – my point wasn’t to scare a child into fearing America. I used factual events to drive home a message to high school students that said, “don’t make jokes about people getting hurt or harmed,” which they were able to easily grasp.

        Thanks for your response. 🙂

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