"Just Because": A Random Act of Unkindness | Edutopia
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"Just Because": A Random Act of Unkindness

Mark Nichol

Editor / Writer
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A friend of mine was bicycling through a quiet neighborhood one day last fall when, like a good citizen, she slowed to a halt at a stop sign. When my friend started pedaling again, a teenage girl who, flanked by a group of friends, was standing in the street near the corner as if she were going to cross, suddenly slugged my friend in the arm, knocking her off her bike and onto the ground.

As the gaggle of teens behind her broke out laughing, the girl looked impassively at my friend, who staggered to her feet, and said, unprompted, "Just because." After making a few insensitive comments, the youngsters headed away as my friend -- shaken, bruised, and bloodied by her impact on the pavement -- walked her bike along her intended route until she had recovered sufficiently to mount it and continue along her way.

The bruise on her arm where the girl had struck her remained visible for a couple of weeks. For just as long, she could barely use the arm she had landed on, and months later, it still ached at the point of impact. But the most acute -- and most chronic -- damage was to her soul. The thought that a group of adolescents could so callously inflict senseless pain and display such insensitivity toward another human being was a heavier blow to her than the physical impact.

This incident is minor on the continuum of inhumane acts, but its very banality is disturbing. It got me to thinking about some of the tenets The George Lucas Educational Foundation stands for: social and emotional learning, emotional intelligence, character education. It's easy to be cynical, to decide that it doesn't matter how many classroom meetings and cooperative-learning activities and affirmations and validations children experience at school if a family -- a community, a world -- can produce a child who commits an act like that, so petty yet so reprehensible.

But we, as educators, cannot surrender; a primary function of our profession is to help children, regardless of the mitigating forces in society, attain a full measure of humanity. Edutopia.org articles such as "How To: Teach Character in the Classroom" and "'We're Here to Raise Kids': Character Development Is Key" attest to the drive we have to accomplish this formidable task. (See our Emotional Intelligence page for more features on the topic.)

What do you think about this issue? Does character education in schools have a significant effect on children's emotional growth? Is it worth the effort, considering how many contradictory stimuli, including influential accounts and footage of celebrity belligerence and other antisocial behavior, exist in the world? Is it sensible to believe that the girl who said "Just because" might have pulled her punch -- or might never have considered striking my friend in the first place -- if she'd learned better behavior in school, regardless of external influences? I'd be interested to read your thoughts.

Comments (52)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Allison Nealy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been a reader Of Edutopia for several years and think it is one of the best publications in our field. I am in Special Education and feel strongly about the importance of character education. In our age of mandates and standards, we are overlooking the critical component of moral development in our children. I am both a parent and an educator and am fearful of the void of that exists in our schools in the teaching and nurturing of the most important part of education: how to be kind.

Case in point: An off-duty police officer in my community was stabbed 11 times by a man with mental illness in the middle of a popular grocery store. She is in a coma and lost so much blood that her prognosis is not good. The response of some of the local high schoolers? "That's what she gets for being a cop." Ouch...

Keep up the good work. This discussion is critical at the national level for parents, educators, and most importantly, children.

K. Chris Black's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your story about your friend being harrassed by teens while riding a bike was shocking, but unfortunately, not surprising. I feel like my parents when I say, "What's wrong with kids today!" But each year I teach, and this is my 15th year, I am disappointed in the character of more children. They are likely to be more disrespectful, more empowered, and more likely to tell you, "I don't have to do anything you say!"

On the first day of school, a kindergartener went up to a principal in our district and asked him, "What do I have to do to get kicked out of this place?" A kindergartener!! Furthermore, this is the first year kindergarteners in our school have had ISS (peeing on the playground, fighting, threatening teachers and principals, etc.) This, too, is shocking.

It's true, we're being called upon to provide education in things that were taught in the home prior to now. But we have to believe what we do makes a difference, or we give up on all children (including the ones who will someday be taking care of us).

In a world where there is a need for a television show called Nanny 911, I think there is clearly room to consider the change in student behavior is a reflection of political leaders who, also, believe they can, 'do anything I want.' The lack of respect for authority figures, rules, and order is obvious everytime you pick up a newspaper or turn on the television. If our community and government leaders don't have to follow the rules, why should children?

I hope, with a change in political climate, will come renewed respect for the constitution, for authority, for rules and discipline. Until then, we need to continue the great work we do in the classroom and help turn the tide toward creating better citizens.

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