Second semester twelfth grade basic English was one of the most difficult classes I taught. The students had checked out long before entering the room and just showed up because my class was a requirement to graduate. Some were there because they had failed it the semester before. There was passive aggressiveness oozing from every direction. And sometimes downright aggression. Every time I was called a biotch by some angry teenager I had to remind myself that it wasn't really me that they hated. It was probably more of a projection of their own self hatred. At least that's what I'd tell myself so I didn't curl up in the corner of my classroom and cry.
There was always this one project that we did that allowed me to see past the teenage angst in them. It was a reflective piece in which I found the meaning of their name and they had to determine what it would mean if they were to actually live by their name. I asked them to share their story and how different experiences and relationships had shaped them. It exposed their hopes, fears, and long list of failures that already plagued so many of their lives. It gave me a framework in which to look at them for the rest of the semester. No longer was the sleepy girl with the permascowl just some lazy kid that refused to participate. She was a lonely ex-girlfriend who had always been pro-life until she got pregnant. Her parents and boyfriend refused to support her decision to keep her baby so she made the choice that she never thought she would. There were the countless number of kids whose dads had walked out on them. Some admitted to numbing their pain with drugs, alcohol, and cutting.
It's easy to disregard someone who you don't see as connected to a greater story. When they're just a name, a face, and a strong opinion or attitude, you can just blow them off. When you're able to see the history behind all these abstract pieces of information, you can see them as the person they are, and it becomes much more difficult to vilify them.
When we fail to listen to others, to allow ourselves to know them, our relationships become about power. We need to be heard because what we have to say is more important than the other person; we're right, they're wrong and they must be made aware of this. No one flourishes in this type of environment though. This was a big struggle with my students. They always felt powerless. People in those situations lash out or disengage. I think this is why we have such trouble forming authentic relationships with those that are different from us. There's the tendency to want to control their thinking, to mold them into our image. We do this all the time and journey through life with an "us" and "them" mentality. It's easy to identify this in groups like the religious right, who use politics as a means of power to control the culture. Then again, I can vilify them as a group while failing to take responsibility for how I do this myself. For me, it's more covert than needing to win an argument or debate because I'm not wired that way. Instead, I internalize and just write people off. I stop listening. I don't think it comes naturally for anyone to give up the need to control and be right. If I'm not consciously asking the Spirit of God to lead me in this, I fail every time. I've seen how I need to relinquish my power in this area and allow for God to transform me. Only through this transforming power of Christ, found in giving up our power, can we actually play a part in transforming the world.