Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Rumors

As an educator, I approach teaching as a spiritual endeavor. The challenge is to make subject matter, and in my case literature, relevant to the lives of students so they can connect with characters’ conflicts and plights in order to gain a better understanding of themselves, others, and the world in which they live. I rely on Spirit to guide me and to present teachable moments that students never forget. Sometimes extreme measures have to be taken to get the point across.

We had been reading and analyzing The Crucible by Arthur Miller, a dramatization of the Salem Witch Trials that occurred in Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693. Miller wrote it as an allegory of McCarthyism when the U.S. Government blacklisted accused communists. In the 1940s and 1950s Americans feared the encroachment of Communism. With the Soviet Union growing in power, Americans feared a nuclear holocaust. Eastern Europe was in bed with Communist satellite nations. With China added to the mix, Americans felt surrounded by a Communist threat. Paranoia ensued. During this time, Joseph McCarthy, a U.S. Senator, claimed that more than 200 "card carrying" members of the Communist party had infiltrated the United States government. It became a witch hunt. Rumors spread uncontrollably.

As my students and I discussed the topic of the power of rumors, I felt that familiar inner prompting to test the velocity at which rumors spread. Without hesitation I said, “What if we start our own rumor? Mwah ha ha...” My students immediately perked up. We decided to start a friendly rumor, with the permission of another willing teacher, who happened to be out of school for three days at a conference. I called the teacher from the phone in my classroom to let him know the plan to which he wholeheartedly agreed. We agreed to start the rumor that he had won $2.5 million. My students were to record their observations and then complete a written assignment about what they learned. When class ended, the rumor mill began. Before my next class ended, my phone rang. “Is it true? Did Gerald* win the lottery?” Trying not to laugh, I said, “I don’t know. But I heard he did. I’ll talk to him later today.”

Later that day in the hallway, whenever I saw my students from first period, they couldn’t wait to report what was happening. “Ms. McDaniel, so far Mr. Johnson* has won $25 million, and and and...he bought the apartment complex where he lives and kicked everyone out so he can turn it into a mansion for himself!” Corey said. Oh, jeez. This was really getting out of hand. When I saw the superintendent and the principal in the hallway, walking past Mr. Johnson’s room, wondering if the reason he wasn’t in school was because he won the lottery, I knew I had to fess up. And I did. Surprisingly, I didn’t get reprimanded. Instead, I was told, “Great lesson for everyone in this building to learn. Good job. Just let us know ahead of time the next time you do a lesson like this.”

While this rumor didn’t hurt anyone, it was a big risk to prove the power and speed at which rumors move. Students are no strangers to rumor and gossip; they deal with it on a daily basis, and they know the damage that can be done. In their written responses and in our follow-up discussion, my students realized that while rumors can’t always be avoided, they can take positive steps when rumors happen. Below are tips for rumor control, as suggested by my students:

A. When a rumor is circulating about you, respond quickly and directly. Confront it head-on. Saying “no comment” only adds fuel to the fire. If the rumor is about someone else, don’t perpetuate the rumor by gossiping about it. Instead, challenge those spreading the rumor to stop.

B. Use evidence. Present the facts. Rumors will dissolve fairly quickly, providing that the rumor is untrue. If the rumor is true, you may have to own up to it. One student commented, “A rumor started about me once. I told everyone, ‘Yeah, I did it. So what? Get over it.’ They left me alone after that.”

C. Educate others and begin changing the culture of a particular environment like work or school. Be a positive role model by treating others with honesty, respect, and dignity. Such behavior may encourage others to do the same. Some of my students went on to create and implement a school-wide campaign to combat rumors and bullying, and they developed events and activities that promoted team-building and new friendships. Students love being connected to a cause.

Rumors cast a harsh spotlight on a person, pushing him or her to feel alone and isolated. Stopping rumors starts with us. But some rumors can be beneficial, especially when it tips you off to something potentially life-threatening or dangerous. Whatever the case, rumors are reminders for us to be the bigger, better person. Rumors offer us the choice to engage in gossip and thereby contribute to the negative energy of the situation, or the choice to do something positive about it and thereby combat and diffuse such negativity. When moments, such as this one, transcend the classroom to teach a life lesson rather than a grammar lesson (not that anything is wrong with grammar!), then I know I did what I was called to do in that moment. By the way, did you hear...


*Names changed to protect the guilty...

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