How often, do you think, is shame used as a strategy in schools and organizations?
Not too often, did you say? I’m reminded of a painful incident from many years ago.
Those days I was focused on studying and understanding Dyslexia. I had studied the way dyslexics must be taught and was using the remedial teaching methods with a few students I had. One of the students was a taciturn but affectionate boy I will call Amit.
When Amit came to me, he was seventeen years old. He was studying in ninth grade and the tenth board loomed large. He had his own challenges to deal with but his mother being a school teacher greatly exacerbated his troubles. Unfortunately for him, his academic performance became her personal yardstick of her own effectiveness as a teacher. And so, he was pushed (and I mean REALLY pushed) to perform better.
But a push isn’t a valid strategy. Ever. So he was brought to me when she was at her wits’ end.
As he studied with me, he began to improve… very slowly. His mom wasn’t happy at all. I am certain she thought I had a magic wand hidden somewhere in the folds of my sari. She was peeved when I wouldn’t pull it out and set her son right with it. It wasn’t easy, but I managed to placate her most weeks when we met for his assessment. But she continued to think that her son was deeply flawed. She was very much the victim.
Meanwhile, the boy began to open up. He began to laugh uproariously at his own quirky jokes. I discovered that he had an amazing talent to visually illustrate any story or anecdote that was read/ recited to him. I still have the large painting he made for me when I told him a story from Panchtantra.
I noticed early on that he had a deep aversion to Hindi. Since his mother-tongue was Tamil, I put this aversion down to a learned distaste. But I was wrong. I should have noticed that his aversion was not because of his unfamiliarity with the language. There was fear in his regard for it; there was deep shame.
One day, during the course of a Hindi class… suddenly…. out of the blue… the real reason came tumbling out of him in a breathless rush. He was at once startled and relieved when he had finished telling me of the incident.
Apparently, his Hindi teacher in school was a particularly sadistic woman. She saw his fumbling efforts with making sense of the language and decided to cure him in all her clueless wisdom.
She took to asking him to come to the blackboard while she dictated difficult words for him to write on it. Obviously, he couldn’t. And there, keeping him standing in abject shame and humiliation in front of the entire class, she would bait him and make fun of him. Naturally, kids being kids, they too would join in. What she never bothered to consider is that Amit became the butt of cruel jibes from his classmates even when her class was over.
Though people are laughing at the dirt surrounding you, they are missing to see the seeds also planted, growing silently within.
~ Anthony Liccione
Though his classmates were cruel and mean to him, Amit did not blame them. He wouldn’t let me think poorly of them either. He told me that they were his friends; that they were only joking and that I must not let myself think badly of them.
What broke me down that day was to hear him say, “It was not my teacher’s fault also no ma’am? She was only trying to make sure I learn my spellings. But ma’am, it was very difficult to stand there, in front of the whole class with the chalk piece in my hand. I often wished I could turn invisible those days.”
I sat there, numbed, his unexpressed pain washing over me like a tidal wave. I was humbled by his readiness to excuse and forgive his tormentors. His generosity and large heartedness made his story even more poignant to me. The unfairness of his life and the gentleness of his outlook astounded me.
Many of those who are humiliated are not humble. Some react to humiliation with anger, others with patience, and others with freedom. The first are culpable, the next harmless, the last just.
~ Bernard of Clairvaux
No matter how forgiving Amit was, however, it does not excuse what was done to him. He deserved better. Already a child trying to find his moorings and feeling like a misfit, to subject him to such humiliation was callous and vicious. That it was not done deliberately but out of ignorance makes it worse, not better.
All children need a champion- preferably an adult. Not to molly-coddle, no. They need a champion so that they can be protected against attacks they are not equipped to repel. They need a champion so they can be assured that people like Amit’s teacher are unfair and wrong. Someone ought to have told Amit that there was nothing wrong with him; that his talents were too extensive to be limited by mere academic evaluation.
But Amit had no champion. His disappointed mother definitely wasn’t. His teachers weren’t. Nor was his silent father. They all left the poor boy to flounder after throwing him into the ocean without so much as a life-jacket. And that was horribly, terribly wrong.
Character is less about what we do wrong
All about what we make right….
~ Navonne Johns
As Ms Brown says, she is yet to visit an organization or school where shaming is not used as a strategy. Are we even aware how we damage each other by deliberately belittling and shaming each other in an attempt to motivate them? What makes us use such flawed and damaged strategies!? Such pathetic and clueless paradigms about what inspires and propels people!
The infection propagates unheeded, leaking into the minds and hearts of the next generation, like color bleeding out of one fabric to taint the character of a pure fabric. Before you know it, you too become an image of that which you hated yourself. You remain trapped in that state until something (or someone) causes you to take a detached, objective look at yourself.
That’s when you know where the buck stops.