Our theme for the month of March is “monsters.”
I had a heartbreaking discussion with one of my tenth graders this week. We were participating in one of my weekly attempts to show my students, many of whom are bound for trade and skill professions rather than college, that reading has value. They were supposed to be reading an article on a few scientific studies about the way that reading has been proven to increase empathy.
I stopped by one student’s desk as he characteristically stared at his computer, not making any attempt to read or complete the assignment. It was only the first hour of the day and I still had the energy to engage him about the article. He launched into this tirade about how empathy doesn’t matter and the world rewards people who don’t have empathy and how he doesn’t care if other people are in pain because that doesn’t affect him. I nearly cried, standing there in my pale purple turtleneck, because I know millions of people around the world see life the same way as him.
If I could only take him back to a summer day, a couple years ago, when I was a camp counselor and my cabin was searching for Bigfoot. Me, my co-counselor, and a bundle of nine-year-olds were tramping through the forest using a camera made from a box of tea to “vlog” our experience looking for Bigfoot. We examined every moderately noticeable imprint in the ground for traces of him. When we finally emerged in a grassy clearing in the woods, there he was: Bigfoot (my friend Isaac bundled into a giant purple gorilla costume). My campers rushed towards him, trampling the grass with their size-five sneakers.
We decided to present Bigfoot not as a monster, but as a mysterious creature who was lost. We had collected a small jar of questions for Bigfoot, and we sat down in a semi-circle in front of him like he was our second-grade teacher during carpet time. In his ludicrously fake costume, my friend wove us all a tale of how he had come down for this summer solstice festival to meet his sister. But he had gotten separated from her somehow and now there was no one to perform the traditional Bigfoot dance with.
We were all sweating, I could see the zipper on his back, and the grass was itchy. But one of my campers stood up, ran over, took his hand, and declared, “I can do the dance with you.”
It was magic. Pure innocent magic. Not because the child actually thought he was Bigfoot, but because of her childlike trust and empathy. This fake monster was lonely and sad, and she put out a hand to help him.
Moments like that aren’t given much value in our world. Nobody is making a discovery or creating innovation or earning money. If I told my tenth grader that story, he likely wouldn’t care or see much value in it. Empathy isn’t held in high esteem.
But it was one of my favorite afternoons of the whole summer. The monster of human selfishness seemed to melt in the July sunshine, and only empathy and kindness were in the air. Bigfoot was not seen as a monster, even for a second.
Susannah currently lives in New Jersey and works as a 7th grade ELA teacher in East Harlem. When she is not teaching or writing, she can be found exploring independent bookstores, going backpacking, and trying to roller-skate on all the cool trails in the city. She is also recently experienced in the art of citrus skunk repellent (I know you’re impressed).