While teaching chapter four in Of Mice and Men, one of them said he could see me channeling Leslie Mann should some kid be mean to Joey or Charlee. I’m not sure which was more uncomfy – the knowledge that he had seen This is 40, or the fact that his observation was close to true. But the real challenge came when another student chimed in: “Mrs. Ferraro, which would be worse – Joey getting bullied or you getting a call from his school because he IS the bully?” I stared at the class for a moment, blinking. (They are used to this. It’s a knee jerk reaction to trying to give them a clear and honest answer without letting them distract me too much from Of Mice and Men.) I sighed and finally told the truth. “Well, then I would be equally devastated and angry, but in a different way. We try and teach Joey to be a gentleman, to be tolerant and patient, and to stand up for himself without being mean to anyone else. Now, that is exactly what happens in chapter four…”
As a middle school teacher, I consider myself a crusader for the underdog and an enforcer of punishment for mean behavior. Now, as a mother, my emotions get even more stirred up when I witness the scurrilous side of human nature. The night before Joey started pre-school, I prayed no one would be mean to him. (Impossible, I know, but a mommy can dream). I never thought about the possibility of him being mean to someone else. How would the Hubs and I handle that one? I asked him when I got home that night, and he was equally perplexed. “It’s tough,” he said. “It would break my heart if our son caused another kid pain. And we could only control how we react and what we teach him – we wouldn’t be able to predict what other parents would do.” I agreed. My eighth graders know me well enough to say I could make a mean kid cry, and I hate confrontation. But as I tell my students, everyone is somebody’s baby, and the passion of mothers is limitless.
There was no easy answer, but the whole exchange still resonates with me. As parents, we want to equip our kids with tools they need to stand up for themselves, but to do it in a way that does not take advantage of someone who may be weaker than they are. Chapter four in Of Mice and Men highlights characters that are outcasts and marginalized by society. Instead of banding together, they end up tearing each other down, using the one shred of power they have to make another feel less than human. That day’s class discussion reminded me that teaching forces me to confront scenarios I may face with my own children. I ended the class by quoting another favorite character, Atticus Finch: “Whenever a [person] does that to a [another person], no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that [person] is trash.” Harsh, but I agree. Taking advantage of someone or being unkind are behaviors I will not tolerate in my classroom or in my children, no matter how much I fight to protect all of them.