When I was in 8th grade, in the late 1960s, I was called k—by a group of Italian and Irish girls at my high school in Newton, Massachusetts. This group was smoking cigarettes right next to school property in an area we called “the wall,” which I had to walk through every day on my way home. The wall served as a long stone bench for a dozen children. One afternoon after school was over, some girls threw lit cigarettes at me and some of my Jewish girlfriends. One of the cigarettes made a hole in my jacket.
Scared and harassed, I didn’t know what to do. The next day, I decided to talk to my social studies teacher, Mr. Kunitz. I liked how he treated me earlier in the semester. When I rambled on in his class, rather than scolding me for not raising my hand, he stopped what he was doing, looked at me curiously and a little mischievously, and m invited to stand on the podium and express my opinion. Although I don’t remember what I said that day, I do remember watching my peers – about 25 of them – feeling empowered, a word I didn’t use at the time. .
I told Mr. Kunitz about what had happened at the wall and he suggested that I invite the children who had bullied me to meet me and my friends. He was moderating in a neutral location, which turned out to be his house, a few blocks from the school. I said OK and made a list of about 10 girls from the mainstream Irish, Italian and Jewish college cliques.
In Mr. Kunitz’s living room, we sat cross-legged on the floor. He opened the meeting by calmly laying down the ground rules: be respectful, give everyone a chance to speak. Then he entrusted the meeting to us.
After an awkward silence, someone said, “What do you do on the weekends? This simple question opened the floodgates of our common denominators. We discovered that we all like the same things: going to the movies, hanging out with friends, sleeping at homestays, playing sports and listening to music. To our collective surprise, we wanted to see each other again.
The second time, we met in the basement of my house. Mr. Kunitz was seated on a chair, apart from the group. He never had to moderate. I think we met again at one of the girls who were smoking on the wall. After that, we abandoned the formal construction of the meetings with Mr. Kunitz. We met on the playground at lunch. We mingled at school dances and sporting events and started visiting each other.
Something special was happening. We have stopped maintaining fears, clichés and a reductive labeling of cultures. Instead, we opened our inner doors and released ourselves into the beautiful wild landscape of the outdoors and space where we all stood taller and galloped free to celebrate our differences. It became cool to love each other. We have become friends.
I thought of this incident because of the volunteer work I had done at my old job at a hospital in Boston. As part of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) committee, we launched a volunteer email channel for 130 employees to share personal stories of DEI challenges or inspirations. This motivated me to contact Mr. Kunitz, whom I now call Dan. I had seen him periodically over the years. He came to several of my book launches at Brookline, but I hadn’t told him about the wall incident in years. During our recent lunch, he asked me if I had stayed in touch with any of these children. Mainly, I didn’t. So, I phoned and on Facebook and learned a few things that surprised me.
Several Jewish men who were classmates at the time wrote to me to say that they had no idea that these meetings had taken place. They remembered being bullied silently or with fights. A close friend of mine reminded me on the phone how deeply hurt she felt and still feels because I didn’t include her name on that special guest list. My girlfriend had tragically lost her mother the year before, and my exclusion from those meetings seemed doubly unforgivable and heartless.
These discoveries have raised all sorts of questions. Exclusion is heartless. Why do we do it? What power do we gain and lose simultaneously when we exile a friend or an entire party? How do these closed circles manifest themselves in our schools and workplaces? Who teaches children and adults how to talk constructively about discomfort? Today, America’s extreme political divisions are no more evolved than the immature behaviors of college cliques. It’s even worse, because these divisions are driven and maintained by adults.
America’s extreme political divisions are no more evolved than the immature behaviors of college cliques.
After my recent lunch with Dan, I thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could somehow replicate a Mr. Kunitz in every state and school district, and take his inclusive approach to solving these bias issues even further? and banishment? Dan Kunitz’s method of teaching inclusion is essential to our nation’s resilience and ability to repair. Banning books and banning people in our current environment weakens and crumbles the American foundation.
Curiously, I don’t recall talking about the smoking incident during those three meetings with Mr. Kunitz. What I remember is the thrill of connection; the sense of strength and security it gave me. And I think that’s exactly what Mr. Kunitz’s genius as a teacher spawned. He didn’t focus on blame. He wasn’t interested in pointing fingers. He did not fan the flames of “us” against “them”. He taught us to celebrate our differences, and in this way, we felt heard, seen and embraced as individuals and as a group. Instead of deepening our divisions, he helped us build a bridge.
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