This morning, I read, as I always do whenever he posts, Kris Parker’s blog “It’s the People, Not the Labels That Really Matter.” I loved it, as it summed up beautifully the importance of seeing people for what they are: people. Regardless of whether they agree with us, think like us, talk like us, or believe like us, people are worthy of respect. And some of them are even good to get to know.
After I finished reading the post, I felt genuinely good about the day. As if perhaps, somewhere in this bizarre world, a corner had been turned. Not to overstate the impact of Kris’ blog, but it’s just nice when you can start out your day with a bit of refreshing reflection. Having started my day thus, I went on about my work, which consists largely of being a minister.
Now, some people don’t put a high value on what I do (or, as some people see it, don’t do), but being a minister is exactly what Kris wrote about this morning: people. Not trying to force someone to believe what I believe, but at the same time not avoiding the discussions that come about when I talk about what I believe. So, as one might surmise, I spend a lot of my time either talking to people, exchanging online with people (Facebook and Twitter and emails), or writing about the topics and things that I spend most of my time thinking about.
That also means that I spend time each day looking for stories or blogs or articles that will expand my knowledge – either socially, theologically, scientifically, philosophically or whatever.
Which is how I came across the story of Aikan Chaifetz.
It’s not local. Once you click on the YouTube video, the accent tells you that. But it does echo what Kris was writing about. About the value of human life. About the dignity we should afford anyone around us, regardless of our differences. About the horrifying truth that we, all too often, act less than human to others.
In case you don’t have time to follow the link, here’s the rundown: Aikan Chaifetz is an autistic 10 year-old boy who was getting in trouble at school for attacking his teacher and his teacher’s aide. His father, Stuart, was concerned about the behavior because Aikan didn’t act out anywhere else; in fact, Aikan had no history of violent outbursts. So Stuart did what any parent did: he called a meeting with teachers and administrators at the school, Horace Mann Elementary.
After a round of meetings, Stuart was told that Aikan’s behavior defied explanation. He left unsatisfied.
So much so that he sent his son to school wearing a wire. The resulting six and a half hours of audio made his blood boil.
Now, I have a special place in my heart for autistic children. My first real adult job was a paraprofessional position in an autistic Pre-K class at Partee Elementary. Autism is a confounding disorder; it limits social interaction, social awareness, and makes life in a classroom especially difficult. Most of the kids I worked with were between the ages of 4-6, and almost none of them were potty trained. Half of them couldn’t speak. They were sensitive to touch, sound, and invasions of personal space. As a young man, it was almost heartbreaking to go to work.
I’ll admit there were days when your temper grew short. You wanted so badly to have a breakthrough, or to have just one day where you didn’t have to wipe the messy bottom of a kid “who is big enough to know better.” But then it hits you: it’s not the kid’s fault. It’s not his or her choice to be the way they are. They just are.
So when I listened to the recorded audio that Stuart Chaifetz collected, I wanted to vomit. I wanted to lash out at someone. I wanted to get indignant and light my torch and stop by Home Depot for a new, freshly sharpened pitchfork.
Why? Some of the things on the tape:
- the teachers discussing their over-indulgence of wine the night before
- the teachers discussing their marital problems, including a discussion about considering sterilization
- the teacher’s aide rudely telling Aikan to “shut your mouth!”
- the teacher’s aide taunting Aikan
- the teacher’s aide telling Aikan that he wouldn’t be able to see his father after his weekend visitation with his mom
- the teacher’s aide calling Aikan “a bastard”
Chaifetz turned his tape over to the Cherry Hill school board, and the teacher’s aide was summarily dismissed from her position. The teacher was reassigned to another department. Chaifetz goes on to say in his YouTube clip that all he wants is a public apology from the teacher and the aide:
“I want an apology, not for me, but so one day I can play this video back for my son and say Akian, you didn’t deserve anything that happened to you. I’m not going to sue anybody. I’m not going to file a lawsuit. It’s not about money. It’s about dignity. This is to reclaim my son’s dignity.”
Honestly, I read this story and all I could think about was Kris’ post. About how we, as human beings, can be so vicious and brutal towards one another because we are different, or because someone else is. My original intent was to lambaste the teachers of that little boy and hold them up to scorn and derision; to point my finger at them and say, “See! See! That’s what’s wrong with the world! There are your scapegoats!”
But I had to stop and remind myself: those teachers, as despicable as their actions toward Aikan Chaifetz were, are human too. They deserve to be seen as more than just scapegoats for a larger societal ill.
That’s hard for me to type. I want there to be a bad guy. Heck, we as a society need there to be a bad guy. The problem is, and here’s where things so often get messy and uncivil, we’re ALL the bad guy. Every one of us.
Now, not everyone acts like a jerk; not everyone berates autistic children, or shoots unarmed teenagers, or wears their evil out on their sleeve for everyone to see. But we all have evil within us. It litters the history of the human race. It follows us from the ancient myths down through our modern squabbles between Bill O’Reilly and The Simpsons.
We are not capable of just living in peace. At least, not for very long.
And so we perpetually rub up against one another, we perpetually get on one another’s nerves; we irritate, frustrate, infuriate, and in some instances eradicate those people with whom we most vehemently disagree. Living here in America, we do most of this by conversation, or – if we want to get down and dirty – via the permanent human memory bank that is the Internet (a la Mr. Chaifetz). In other countries, their tolerance is not so tolerant; in other countries, dissenters are often tortured, jailed or killed.
And so no matter how much we may push for reconciliation between ourselves (and that is something we MUST do, always), we’ll never have true reconciliation because we are, at core, broken.
What is the answer?
I’m going to hack people off here because I know what I’m about to type is unpopular; it’s going to be divisive; it’s going to perpetuate exactly what I’ve been blogging about, but it’s the answer that I’ve found that makes sense of the world and gives me hope. I’m okay with people disagreeing. I’m not asking you to spontaneously convert to my way of thinking.
The answer is found in the idea that we are broken beings who cannot restore ourselves. We cannot make ourselves whole. We cannot fix things. We must have someone from outside our race, someone who transcends it, to come and make things new.
As a Christian, I believe that person is Jesus Christ, the God-man. And as an individual, I’ve found that my ability to live a life that makes sense is rooted in the historical and theological teachings of Christ. Doesn’t mean that those who claim Him have been history’s best citizens (in fact, in several cases it’s been the opposite), but what He taught and offered in Himself is the antidote for the fallen state of humanity.
I’ll end with this: as I neared the end of my year with the autistic class, I was assigned to go and watch one of my students at his day care center. I can’t tell you the boy’s real name, so I’ll call him Davis; every afternoon, Davis went to a standard day care center until his mom could come and pick him up. He was often at the center for over 4 hours because his mom worked in downtown Atlanta, so this meant that he had plenty of time to be around kids who were far more advanced socially than Davis.
It also meant that he was around kids who had no clue what autism was.
I had to sit in a room and watch through the blinds as a little boy of whom I’d become very fond navigated the cruel world of the playground. He was ignored. Called stupid. One girl spit on him. And Davis just drifted through, his eyes glazed over and his mouth slightly open.
Watching that, my heart broke. I wanted to throw open the door and avenge him. I wanted, to be honest, to initiate some corporal punishment. But I couldn’t. I was resigned to merely watching and hurting and hating the entire affair. I was powerless.
And when I reported my observations to the day care’s owner, she seemed to share my grief for Davis.
“The only way it’ll ever get better,” she told me, “is if someone walks with that boy everyday for the rest of his life. He needs his own personal savior.”
Just like the rest of us.