Think of the times we make or hear comments without any filter. You could be listening to a shock jock, watching a funny but irreverent movie or engaging in a candid conversation between friends or family. It’s all good, you say. And it’s merely for entertainment. I totally agree. I don’t like the idea of censorship or people who hide behind a politically correct curtain of words. But when it comes to the words directly expressed by a teacher and her aides at a Cherry Hill, NJ, elementary school class of autistic kids, I find it just utterly inappropriate and downright disturbing.
What could make a supposed education professional and her assistants carelessly discuss drinking exploits and marital problems in front of students and allow and use derogatory comments against them? It’s hard to believe someone who “knows better” could take leave of her senses and let this happen. Was she still under the influence or did they just not think the students would notice or care?
It made me think about all the comments we let go by, the ones that hurt, the ones that are simply disrespectful, not ones meant in jest. When an acquaintance unknowingly insults your family or one child taunts another child without thinking or you hear an ethnic or cultural slur out loud. You know it’s wrong, you may realize it could hurt someone else, but you don’t always know or are unsure of what you can say to stop it, so you may not say anything at all. Maybe a few, simple words can’t really hurt.
I’m all for free speech and the free exchange of ideas within a framework of respect. I love jokes that are off-color, but there’s a fine line between what’s funny and what’s offensive. Some people just don’t know or care about the difference and continue to throw those comments out there. They may use the claim of free speech as their excuse, but where’s the respect?
As a parent, it’s much more difficult to explain to children that words can never hurt them because the possibility remains that they can. If they’re not told a word or phrase may be offensive to someone, how will they know? They don’t always understand the nuances of language like sarcasm or satire. When they’re young and impressionable, they look toward their elders for cues about language and how it’s to be used. The elders in this Cherry Hill classroom failed their students and failed any other minors in their care by allowing their words to hurt someone, whether the students recognized it or not.
Unfortunately, I don’t always heed the old adage, “little pitchers have big ears” myself and regret it. Sometimes, I curse, engage in adult conversations within earshot of my kids or maybe reprimand them a little too harshly – usually without thinking or in frustration with immense guilt afterward. I try to guide them as to what conversations are and aren’t appropriate and what words express respect for others. I correct them when they’ve made mistakes. I offer them praise for good deeds, hug them and tell them I love them daily. But, occasionally, I fail to lead by example or don’t realize they could be listening. I hope it doesn’t affect them adversely but could it?
If anything, this horrible incident reminds me how fragile and innocent children are. It reminds me that we must listen to the words we use as parents, adults and educators; to remember where we are and the context in which we use the words and if anyone listening could be wounded or tainted by them. Had this Cherry Hill teacher and her aides considered this, then maybe they could have sustained their now tarnished reputations and livelihoods and protected a ten-year old autistic boy, Akian Chaifetz, from these words, instead of damaging him with them.
This is an original post for Jersey Moms Blog.