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Words fail me (#1143)

Topics/tags: Autobiographical, rambly, disjoint

Trigger warning: Hate speech

I self-identify as Jewish. More precisely, I self-identify as culturally Jewish. Perhaps even East-coast culturally Jewish. That may not be surprising; I was raised by two East-coast non-religious Jews. My parents didn’t practice when both were alive. I’m not sure if my father ever practiced; after all, he was raised in a commune.

We did spend some of the high holidays at friends’ houses [1], but we never had our own Seder. The most religious celebration in our house was either Ground-Hog’s day (an excuse to invite friends over for a communal brunch) or the party that mom referred to as Christians decorate the tree, Jews eat and drink, pick your religion for the evening. I don’t recall going to Temple. I do recall going to church a few times, perhaps for celebrations for friends or friends of the family.

So why do I think of myself as Jewish? Well, my parents were Jewish. We seem to have a Jewish perspective on life (or at least an East-coast Jewish perspective on life; there are likely many Jewish perspectives on life). I recall when I was a young faculty member, the College hosted a panel on religious perspectives. And when Katya Gibel spoke about her relationship to the world and relationship to G-d, it was clear that that was my worldview. Not Monessa Cummins’ Catholic worldview. Not Henry Rietz’s Protestant worldview. Not the Muslim worldview, although I’m not sure that it was presented. But something very similar to Katya’s.

I know that the worldview or perspective comes out at times when I debate or argue or look at minuscule points. It comes out at other times, too. I wish I could identify them. In any case, I’m a Jew, if not a religious or observant Jew.

What’s the point of all this? Well, when I opened the newspaper yesterday, I was stunned by what was on the front cover. No, not the picture of Steven Sharpe in a GHS Music Man shirt [2,3]. But a story about a recent event at Grinnell Middle School. Here’s what it read [4].

Grinnell school district officials and the Grinnell Police Department last week received reports of an offensive video sent to a Grinnell Middle School Student and posted on social media. The video caused the student to be afraid to attend school for several days, and those who made the video have reportedly been suspended.

According to Grinnell Police Chief Michael McClelland, "The 10-second video shows several male juveniles walking through a school hallway in a goose step manner with their right arms extended and palms down. The video was titled Hitler Gang along with several racist and derogatory hashtags attached.

Grinnell Supt. Janet Stutz says the video was very clearly filmed in a Grinnell Middle School hallway[.]

You know those metaphors? A chill ran down my spine. I felt like I was punched in the gut. My heart stopped. [5] I was so shaken that I couldn’t move. Statements like that? They all apply. None apply. Some. All. I was stunned. Frightened. Overwhelmed. I knew such hatred exists, but I didn’t know that it existed in my town. What the [fill in profanity] is going on with these kids that they think such a thing is appropriate to do? What kind of parents do they have?

The last time I felt such a shock was when one of my favorite students shared a letter that someone left in his mailbox. I don’t recall the exact words, but it was something close to Matthew Shepard got what he deserved. You deserve it too. That was worse; I was so shaken, I couldn’t teach that day.

Unfortunately, that type of hatred also comes into play here. It appears that the poor kid targeted by the video is also non-binary, and has been suffering through attacks for that, too.

What has happened to our community? I know that Grinnell has some problems, and Grinnell has always had problems, but, as my kids remind me, our high school study body has elected gay students as Homecoming King, which has always suggested inclusion to me. (It’s also elected students of color, students who only recently moved to Grinnell, and other kinds of outsiders as Homecoming King and Queen.)

Are we not that town anymore? Were we ever that town?

I’ve faced challenges as a Jew. The college classmate from Nebraska who reached up to my forehead to see if she could feel the horns. The casual acquaintance who talked about Jewing down a price. The so-called Christians who don’t even know what Passover is [6]. The people who have walked up to me on the street and started the conversation with You’re Jewish, right? The mild Midwesterners who take offense at my enthusiasm for confronting things. Okay, the last few aren’t as bad as the first two things, but they are all things shaped by who I am and by a world that doesn’t necessarily like people like me.

In any case, none of those experiences affected me like reading the first three paragraphs of the article did. This one seems much harder to just set aside. I’m not quite sure why.

I’d like to just say I blame Trump or I blame the new Republican party or even I blame that idiot on the corner of 6th and Prairie with the horrendous signs, but I know that’s not accurate enough. There’s something seriously wrong with our town, our state, our country, our world that such hate is possible, that people feel so free to treat others badly.

What happened to love thy neighbor, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, to don’t do to others what you would not want to be done to you, and all those related rules?

I wish I knew.

I realize that I’m late to the table on this one, in many ways. I don’t have kids in the school district anymore, so I didn’t see notices from the superintendent. I’m not on Facebook all that much, so I didn’t see the notices there. And I haven’t had many casual conversations [7]. So while I’m sure others have known about this for a while, I have not.

More broadly, I haven’t paid enough attention to the other instances of hatred in this town, in our schools. I’m pretty sure that it’s not a new thing.

I find myself wondering how I tell anyone with kids that they should move to this town. And that makes me sad. I found Grinnell a great place to live and to raise my kids. I’ve said that for years. When will I be able to say it again?

Postscript: This musing did not go in the direction I expected. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t read the whole article before starting; I’d been too shocked by the start. Perhaps it’s because I muse to think things through, and while my initial reaction was shock, thinking things through led me to an odd sense of horror. In any case, I need to stop writing now, even though the musing is more disjoint [8] than I would hope.

[1] The Spiesmans, most frequently. At least once at Eileen and Larry Schwartz’s. I can’t recall where else.

[2] Without a narwhal!

[3] The mention of the Sharpest student was included to amuse the members of my advisory board.

[4] I suppose it still reads the same.

[5] That one would be bad.

[6] Do you not even pay attention to your savior’s story?

[7] I blame the pandemic.

[8] less joint?

Version 1.0 of 2021-05-21.