Hair: The Snipping & Styling of Identity

I pleaded and begged. I  even cried, but my mom remained firm in her stance, “You are going to school.” I wiped the tears from my eyes, unfastened my seat-belt, and dragged my feet to the hell-hole that most adults called Middle School. Normally, I didn’t mind going to school. I had a decent amount of friends, I did well in all my classes, and it was better than being at home. But that day was different. That day I accidentally washed my hair with body wash and I didn’t realize until it was too late. On the way to school, I examined my hair in the passenger mirror to see the damage. It looked oily and greasy. I was mortified. The school day consisted of people asking me about my hair. Each time I refined my response but I ultimately concluded with: never again.

When I was younger, my hair would always be cut into a short bob. I didn’t have much of a say nor did I care. Until my sister and I had lice. My dad cut both of our hair. I remember thinking how ugly I looked. Zigzagged and crooked. I had to take my school photo with that haircut. Never again. I began to realize the value of my hair. I let my hair grow. Too much. Got bangs that were not maintained and covered my eyes. Experimented and got a side-bang during the rise of emo culture. I even got highlights. Chunky. Blonde. Excruciatingly painful.

In high school, there was this girl that had super glossy sheen hair. I envied her as I examined my standing hairs and split ends. She claimed to put lemon juice in her hair to create natural highlights. I looked it up. It was legit. I started to put lemon juice in my hair. No results. Just an acidic smell that I needed to constantly wash out.

I bought in a picture of Jennifer Aniston: “I want my hair like this.” My hair came out like the photo, but my face did not. I stopped bringing in photos of celebrities. “Ya know, people don’t realize that it will never come out looking like the photo.”

When I went to get a haircut, I would have to suppress my tears as I watched the hair dresser cut off too much.  One of us did not know how to measure hair length and I became tired of paying money just to cry in front of a mirror. I began asking for less than I actually wanted cut. I also started selecting hair dressers based on how their hair looked. Long hair clipped back – they play it too safe and will try to talk you out of any “bold” decisions. Extremely short and spiky hair – they are too rebellious and will use their judgement to determine how much of your hair to cut off (despite the MEASUREMENTS that you give them).

I once shaved the right side of my hair. I almost cried when I saw it all gone. I got more compliments than I thought I would. I explained my decision to my peers in college: I wanted to try it and it would grow back by the time I began applying for jobs. To which a classmate responded, “if they don’t hire you because of your hair, then maybe it is better that you don’t work there.”  It took forever to grow back. Forever to have my hair even. Never again, I told myself.

Tired of having my hair plucked and experiencing the sensation of being scalped, I got my own box of dye. Blonde. Red. Rose Gold. Auburn. Chestnut. One time I dyed my hair red and let too much dye fall onto my forehead. It stained my skin for a while. It made for great graduation photos. Never again, the photos remind me.

I was planning on having my hair return to its natural color. It took too long. I started talking about the colors that I had dyed my hair. I got hair dye. Strawberry blonde. Makes for a nice pink hue.

It has changed throughout the years, but it has always remained a part of my identity. It has actually been the one factor that I have the most control over. Despite all my “never again” moments, it was always my choice. Even with all the changes in color and style, I never had anyone else feel threatened by my hair. Yet I see others who cannot display their natural hair as my artificial color remains praised. With dye, I am able to rebirth myself, as others have parts of their identity die. Through rejecting another’s hair, our words forcibly cut off a piece of their identity – and unlike the changes in my hair – it becomes permanent.

Life Simulations: Are You Playing to Win?

After work, I made myself a delicious Lobster Thermidor because my cooking skills are top-notch (level 10 to be exact). The TV is on the fritz again so I attempt to repair it on my own before calling the repair man. This is a tragic decision as I am electrocuted. Luckily, my husband is home and can afford to gamble his life in a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors with the Grim Reaper.

Up until the last bit, the scenario sounds plausible, and while the latter half might sound outrageous, that’s as far as the envelope of reality is pushed in The Sims. As a fan of the game, I always found my interest in it perfectly normal. The game allows the player to fantasize about living a different life. I can pick up the newspaper and apply to be a criminal. Of course I have to start as a low-life pickpocketer, but with enough time and effort, I can achieve my dreams of becoming a criminal mastermind.

I am currently on my third life cycle in Bit Life, a life-simulation game. There is no objective in the game, just live the life of your assigned person. There is no mythical aspect – you are just living someone else’s life. To clarify, there is a difference in the simulation games available. I am focusing on the mundane, or real-life, simulations: “In a medium that built itself on unprecedented interactivity and literally boundless potential for action and adventure, the relatively passive experience of caring for an animal, a town, a field of crops, or even a little cartoon version of yourself, has become big business” (Nintendo Life). Games can transport us to different realms and time periods – yet with all these options available, I find myself most enjoying simulations that require me to do about everything that I hate in the real world. In Animal Crossing, I design homes and keep my villagers happy by performing various requests –  typically involving bug catching or fishing. In Harvest Moon, I have to go to bed super early to tend my crops and livestock all while wooing my partner in hopes of presenting them with a blue feather before I die (I usually stop playing before that can even happen #cheatcode).

Growing up, I suppose costumes were our first entry point in role playing. You could  become an entirely different person through selecting an outfit. A seemingly good use of a child’s imagination and a convenient way to have your child begin thinking of possible career options. Then there is “make believe” or as my brother used to call it, “be whatever you want to be,” to which  my sister and I would select a rock or tree to ruin his attempt in having fun. Yet even in this attempt, we still existed as something other than ourselves – do you know how hard it would be to curl up into a ball and say absolutely nothing? This imaginative play also contains house or school – you know, since attending 6 hours there was never enough. As children, these games are important as they allow “children [to] role play and act out various experiences they may have had or something that is of some interest to them. [These games also allow children to]  experiment with decision making on how to behave and . . . social skills” (Learning 4 Kids). Essentially, these games are training grounds for children to enter the real-world.

At my house, we had an elaborate game based on an episode from The Cosby Show. Theodore believes that he is ready to make it on his own, so to prove to him that he is not ready, Dr. Huxtable, removes all of Theodore’s possessions and charges him for amenities and supplies. When my cousins would come over, we would remove most of the furniture from the downstairs guest room and turn the play room into a furniture store. Using Life money, we would sell the room, furniture, and food. Unlike The Cosby Show, our episodes would always end with some sort of scam: selling faulty furniture that would constantly need repairs, or a shady landlord that would rob its tenants – we were criminals in the making. Perhaps that is what is so alluring about these simulators. In these games, we are allowed to engage in activities that would be frowned upon in the real world. We are finally allowed to feed into the voice that we desperately attempt to starve out.

Most of my favorite games fall under the life-simulation genre. I like being able to engage with the constant “What If?” nagging in the back of my mind. In these games, I can find the answer without endangering myself. “What if I told people what I really thought instead of just keeping my mouth silent?” Click, Scroll, Select: Insult. On the other hand, the simplicity behind these games is extremely rewarding. I can completely furnish an entire home, raise a family, and tend to livestock without having to leave the comfort of my room. Whereas I was barely able to attend college, student teach, and work part time. With my often chaotic schedule, it was soothing to enter a world where I was completely in control and constantly rewarded.

As huge of a fan that I am, there is a major problem with these games. As we began to age, there is an increase in the dissociation of self caused by them. From what began with being participants in costumes, and continued to masking our wishes behind dolls and action figures, we are now merely tapping a button. Simulations have become a double-edged sword. On one end, now more than ever, we are truly allowed to transport ourselves into another life without making any adjustments; however, in this transportation, we miss our stop, forgetting that in this instance, the journey is not the destination. We become so consumed with these fictional lives that we don’t realize the absurdity behind them. When playing The Sims, I would make sure that my family was skilled in every possible trade – I sat in front of the computer watching them read cook books, and despite the fast forward option, it was still time consuming.  To think, in that time, I could have read a real recipe! Instead of having a Sim that made a fabulous Lobster Thermidor, I could have become an accomplished chef. As I mentioned earlier, these games often lack fantastical elements, so rather than providing an escape from reality, they simply become an alternate reality – and that is where the danger lies.

Just look at the shift in what children watch. It used to be Barney or Sesame Street – puppets replicating appropriate behaviors and social skillsNow, children go on YouTube to watch other children playing. I watched the above mentioned shows to fuel my imagination – to see and learn about things that I couldn’t see in my own life. But today? Children are watching to get an imagination. We used to be the ones calling the shots, clicking the buttons, but we have now become the ones waiting for commands. I used to joke around at the possibility that we are just like The Sims, controlled by some outside force, yet now I am laughing a bit less. Perhaps we should direct our focus on instilling an imagination in the upcoming generations instead of determining how we can make these simulations more authentic. After all, for me and for what I believe to be many others, the enjoyment of these games derives from the simple fact that it is not real. The escapism is what is alluring, but we need something to escape from. It’s time to customize our approach – there is no winning in life-simulators and there is certainly no winning if we continue on the path that we are on.

On Being a Woman on the Streets

A teacher once told me a story of a man who decided to follow her home. She stopped by a house nearby, relying on the kindness of strangers to pretend that she lived there so that she could call for help. Unlike many, she escaped.

Within her tale, she uttered,

“I was not walking as confident as I should have been.”

I’m sure that, in telling this anecdote, she did not expect that this would be the sentence that most resonated with me. That this sentence would echo in my mind almost a decade later. That this sentence would be the reason that I policed myself to walk “confidently” when alone.

“In January 2018, SSH commissioned a 2,000-person, nationally representative survey on sexual harassment and assault, conducted by GfK. It found that nationwide, 81% of women and 43% of men reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime.” (Stop Street Harassment)

Yet how does one walk confidently knowing the statistics? Why should one walk with confidence to prevent an occurrence that should not exist? I didn’t know it at the time, but I internalized a mindset that blamed the victim. Despite a clear perpetrator, my teacher blamed herself, and, in that room, there was no presence available that altered the narrative. Perhaps if someone asked, “What does that have to do with anything?” the line would be long forgotten. In a room filled with skeptical students – ones who constantly challenged authority – no one thought to question. Does that reflect how we viewed such instances? Tragic yet preventable by the victim? Maybe. Or did we take this statement at face-value because it derived from the victim?

I imagine telling this story to my students, and with the most certainty, I can say that they would interrupt my telling once I mentioned walking up to a stranger’s home. They would not take kindly to this. Probably because they are more educated in “stranger danger” than my cohort. Whether this increased awareness is beneficial is certainly debatable (Are we desensitizing our youth? Or are we merely preparing them?), I want to focus on those who are similar to me. What can we make of experiences related to assault and harassment prior to the recent rise of the #MeToo Movement?

Although it was not as overt, most of the conversations about similar cases that I heard while growing up would be chalked up to “boys will be boys” or questioning of the victim’s appearance. I can’t speak for all, but I would like to believe that many of my peers outgrew this outdated (and heavily problematic) mindset. However, unlearning takes time. You have to work towards it, chiseling the misconceptions away, hoping that you do not remove something important. Yet even after all the chiseling, you are still left with the foundation provided. There will be ideologies that remain – ones that you might have to continue to combat.

I suppose that is where I am. As progressive as I believe to be, there are times where I find myself reverting to harmful stereotypes concerning my body and its agency. When I walk alone at night, I check my posture. Stand up straight. Look ahead. Be confident. My walk to my car is not a runway and I am tired of insisting that there is an audience. At times it feels as if I am justifying a possible unwanted encounter – this happened because you did not walk in confidence. Instead of telling a story about a lack of confidence, how about omitting the predator?

Once when working at retail, I had a customer enraged that his jeans were not on sale – reading is a fundamental skill, but one not yet possessed by the neanderthals. In a fit of rage, he called me a bitch and promised to be waiting for me outside, after my shift. Was I not confident enough when I explained the store’s promotion? Should I have been more assertive when he demanded a manager and I pulled, “I am the manager?” Unfortunately these are the questions that begin to form – but a more substantial question would be, why does this man believe that this an acceptable reaction to a misunderstanding? Is this how he communicates with other women? His threat remained unfulfilled, but I was shaken for a bit. Afraid that such a moment would repeat and that the next individual would be one who stood by their word. Needless to say, it was difficult to remain “confident.”

To address my earlier questions, I think we need a change in this narrative. Omitting certain details while stressing on others. Any successful author knows that revision is crucial before sharing a story. Sure, speaking without a filter can have its benefits (yet with our current president, I would beg to differ), but we have to remember that when we speak, it is not often for ourselves. We speak to be heard, so shouldn’t we keep our audience in mind? When speaking to those who might be susceptible, like I was years ago in that classroom, we should be delicate with our words, especially when dealing with fragile issues. It might seem like I am blaming my teacher. I’m not. Her thinking did not develop on its own. And that is where I think the problem lies. There is a difference between being the wronged and being in the wrong. I may not always walk confidently when I am on my own (could you blame me?), but I can confidently say that a walk does not translate to treatment.

The Shaggs

To excuse my belated post, “I set my clocks early ’cause I know I’m always late” (in honor of the Fall Out Boy concert that I attended last night). Keeping that same note, many famous bands might have never come to fruition had they listened to their number one naysayers: their parents. With the 1 in 10,000 chance of reaching stardom, many parents reasonably advise against pursuing a career in music. However, denying a dream before it has the potential to blossom seems to be part of the problem.

Perhaps if more parents were initially supportive, we would have more Beyoncés. I mean Kris Jenner, the definition behind the word “momager,” demonstrates the influence that one can have over their child’s career. Yet what happens when the support takes on a different form?

Cue The Shaggs.

“It doesn’t matter what you do
It doesn’t matter what you say
There will always be
One who wants things the opposite way”

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Years Active: 1968-1975

Nationality: American

Known For: Dot (lyricist, vocals, lead guitar), Betty (vocals, rhythm guitar), and Helen (drums)

Upon a palm reading performed on Austin Wiggin’s mother, three prophecies were foretold – two of which came true (Austin would marry a strawberry blonde, and he would have two sons after his mother’s death). The last promised that Austin’s daughters would comprise a popular music group, and these would be the words that determined the course of his daughters’ lives. Dorothy (Dot), Helen, and Betty were withdrawn from school and enrolled in music and vocal lessons. In 1968, the Shaggs began a weekly Saturday night gig at the Fremont, New Hampshire Town Hall. Yet, it is important to note that the sisters did not necessarily want to be musicians. In 1975, the year that their father passed, the Shaggs disbanded, and other than their performance in 1999, the sisters rarely speak of their band.

“Some kids do as they please
They don’t know what life really means
They don’t listen to what the ones who really care have to say.”

The legacy of the Shaggs is controversial to say the least. Depending on who you ask, they are either the best (perhaps even better than The Beatles) or the worst band of all time. Despite their father’s insistence, the Shaggs never achieved renowned success but they amassed a bit of a cult-like fan base. Other than Dot, it seems that the other sisters remain indifferent (verging more on opposed) towards their band.

It seems odd to include a band of reluctant sisters in a World-Crushing Women series, yet similar to the Shaggs’ legacy, they can be interpreted in many ways. Perhaps what is most striking about the Shaggs can be found in their lyricist, Dot. Despite, and because of, the simplicity of her words, the songs performed by the Shaggs ring of a genuine energy. The Shaggs illustrate that while being unpolished might not be for everyone, the demand for it certainly remains present.

Josephine Baker

Have you ever glanced at someone else’s resume and felt a tad inadequate? I can only imagine how one must have felt when they came across a resume belonging to Josephine Baker. Activist. Performer. Spy. Josephine Baker is the epitome of a triple threat, yet that phrase seems limiting when used to describe her.

In Paris, Baker’s erotic dancing garnered her an immense amount of attention. With admirers ranging from Hemingway to Picasso, her pet cheetah,”Chiquita” which would be spotted on stage wearing a diamond collar during performances, and successful films, Josephine Baker easily established a legacy. However. a legacy is nothing if it’s not equal.

“I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”

Despite renouncing her American citizenship in 1937, Josephine Baker became a huge advocate during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s: “Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul, when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.” When she returned to the United States, she refused to perform for segregated audiences (she turned down $10,000 from a Miami club until they met her demand). During the March in Washington, she was the only official female speaker. Clearly, Baker was a master of expression – whether her vehicle of choice was dance or words, Baker could deliver a message.

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Born: June 3, 1906

Nationality: French

Known For: Activism, Performing, Spying

In fact, during World War I, the French military relied on Baker’s ability to deliver intel. During parties, Baker used her charm to gather information about the locations of German troops. Since she was an entertainer, Baker easily maneuvered throughout Europe using her notes written on her music sheets to share information. After her assistance and recovering from an illness, Baker toured North Africa to entertain the troops, charging no admission.

“I’m not intimidated by anyone. Everyone is made with two arms, two legs, a stomach and a head. Just think about that.” 

Later, a king of Egypt requested Baker to perform, to which she declined as punishment for his neutrality and failure to acknowledge Free France. After receiving threatening phone calls from the KKK during her involvement in integrating audiences for live entertainment in Las Vegas, Baker (very) publicly announced that she was not afraid of them.

Josephine Baker had a message for the world. One that she carried with her in her professional and personal life. During her involvement with the Civil Rights Movement, she began adopting children. She referred to her family as “the rainbow tribe,” as she believed that they were an embodiment of her core values.

 “All my life, I have maintained that the people of the world can learn to live together in peace if they are not brought up in prejudice.”

Sifting through countries and careers, Baker’s quest for equality never wavered. Each challenge strengthened her resolve, allowing her to face inequality directly demonstrating that privilege for some is equality for none.

Dethroning Anxiety: Arizona’s Gift

I recently took a trip to Arizona, and out of all my mini adventures, it was surprisingly the most thrilling. Typically, when you think of Arizona, adrenaline might not come to your mind. That word is probably replaced with hiking, death rays (or to Arizonians, “sunlight”), ASU (which is basically an entire neighborhood devoted to a college), and of course, the Grand Canyon.

To begin this post, I think that it is important to establish that I am a nervous wreck. Not in that cutesy “I have anxiety” type of way that people actually believe is amusing (those memes that float around with “SAME!” when someone is excited because their social plans are cancelled) – because, if you are like myself, you know that the nerves are inhibiting. In fact, I often do not even get to experience the excitement of cancelled plans because I cannot muster the strength to even arrange anything. To explain, I am constantly in a state of worry and paranoia. When I was discussing with colleagues that I was planning a trip to Arizona, one of them suggested to rent an Airbnb, to which I politely responded, “Hmm, maybe,” whereas my mind went, “Yeah, no fucking way. I am trying to relax on my vacation, not partake in some thriller where I am bound to die.” It is not a joke either, in my mind, I truly believe that it is a possibility. Whereas that might not seem as far-fetched, my nerves prevent me from other activities as well. Up until recently, I have had an incredibly irrational fear of someone breaking into my window. My room is in the basement – it is physically impossible for someone to fit into my window – unless they are a contortionist (a possibility that I have considered). When I’m in the shower, I’m afraid to wash my hair ’cause I might open my eyes and find someone standing there (how Rockwell wrote my life anthem 9 years before I was born still baffles me). Perhaps my crime induced paranoia stems from my late night binges of Law and Order as a child, so I will provide a few examples that are less criminal-based.

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Pictured: A terrified me smiling through the pain.

After quitting a horrible job as a barista in a Barnes and Noble Cafe (even though I was hired as a sales representative), I refused to step foot in the building because I was afraid that someone would recognize me (I mean, eventually I did return and quite honestly, no one cared). I love singing along when I listen to music, but you will never catch me performing karaoke because of my worry that people will watch and judge me. People that I know I have a less than 1% chance of meeting again, prevent me from fully enjoying myself.  There are many things that initially make me want to participate, but one millisecond of my brain processing turns into over-analyzing and then leads to me opting out. While we were at the Grand Canyon, there was a rock available in the middle of a flat spacious surface. I climbed on and immediately became terrified of falling, even though there were rails to prevent this and I was nowhere near them, and even if I fell, I would not be near them. These are just some of the ‘irrationalities’ that my anxiety uses to constantly disrupt my reality.

In Arizona, I fought those worries. We drove 2 1/2 hours to Grasshopper Point – for those of you not familiar, it is a creek located in the mountains, surrounded by cliffs. Naturally, thrill-seekers dive off the cliff. I watched in awe. When would one have the chance to be able to do this? Specifically, when would one from New York have the chance? I was met with an itch to join the cliff divers (many of whom were far younger than me), but my mind immediately went to work: Look at how many people are watching. What if you make a mistake? (If you are wondering what mistake could possibly be made, take it up with my mind since it was convinced that there could be one, and even more convinced that I would be making it). People are wearing shoes, they probably need it to protect their feet from the rocks after the fall, you don’t have shoes. You are wearing a bikini, the pressure from the drop might cause it to loosen and fall. Out of all the scenarios running through my mind, this seemed the most plausible, so I suppose that is why it stuck with me. My boyfriend could see that I was compelled to join them, but I told him that I wanted to watch a few more people jump (apparently, I would be able to watch enough divers to master their technique). I decided to go for it, but as I approached the cliff, the bikini issue came back. I was offered a t-shirt. Shit, now what’s your excuse? Since the t-shirt remedied one of my main anxieties, I found myself climbing. When I reached the top of the cliff, my fear intensified, my longtime fear of heights did not necessarily help. What if I slip when I try to jump? What if I somehow defy the laws of gravity and sink instead of float back up? What if this jump kills me? My dad would be pissed if I died from this. I would be pissed if I died from this. I pushed my entire body against the rock and watched those around me plunge to their deaths as their bodies rose from the water while they laughed like the maniacs that they were. In that moment, something clicked, or perhaps unhinged. I didn’t want to watch – I wanted to be involved.

I jumped. You may expect me to describe the beauty in that moment, how alive I felt, but it wasn’t majestic or graceful – it was awkward and chaotic. I swam back to the shore, freezing. But that was the point. I. SWAM. BACK. TO. THE. SHORE. Meaning, my mind was wrong, I jumped, I lived – I could do it again (if I had another two hours to spare to find my courage once more). This time, I would not wallow in regret on my ride home. I did jump of the cliff and it was exhilarating.

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No need for a t-shirt, photos are free.

The next day, we went to a wildlife preserve and were given the opportunity to feed a giraffe. We had the option of hand-feeding, or placing the celery between our lips to receive a kiss. I wanted to do the latter, but I was met with the typical obstacles. What if you mess up and everyone sees? What if you somehow break the celery in half and it falls on the ground? What if you pull back when the giraffe comes and everyone sees what a baby you are? “But I won’t be seeing these people again,” I told my mind. But you will be with them for the rest of this ride. How egotistical. As if these people journeyed all the way here just to watch me mess up. I know it sounds absolutely ridiculous, and that is the worst part, knowing it, but not being able to change it. Yet once again, I found myself asking, when would I ever have another chance to do this? I fed him twice, and the second time, I was so mesmerized by the creature in front of me, that I did so without thinking. I did “kiss” a giraffe and I did not need to buy a t-shirt to remember it ($30? I don’t think so).

Afterwards, we went to a reptile show that needed volunteers. Without knowing what it was for, I put my hand up immediately. Unlike many moments in my life, I was selected. We all walked over and they revealed the biggest python that I have ever seen. We were told that we would be the ones to remove the python from its bin. I was a participant in a show – people were kind of required to watch me. But I did not care. The excitement of the moment superseded my anxiety of a “what if?” future. I did hold a python and that shit was heavy.

I know that this trip did not remove my anxiety. It is a trait that will continue to follow me for the rest of my life. I have not transformed into an adrenaline junkie, nor will I be an Airbnb renter in the near future. However, this trip allowed me to tackle my anxiety head on. Instead of allowing my anxiety to dictate my actions and force me to remain as an observer, I challenged it. And each time, I was pleasantly surprised. I do not want to remain the king of wishful thinking, I want to dethrone the “I would, but” and knight the “I did and.”

No Longer Standing By: Teaching the Bystander Effect

There is this unit that I teach called “True Crime,” and in this unit, the class discusses our fascination with “true and fictional crime stories.” To do so, we read an essay penned by Walter Mosley: “True Crime: The Roots of an American Obsession.”  After reading a certain cluster of paragraphs, I draw my students’ attention to supplemental sources that refine his claims. One of them being:

“True-crime stories, murder mysteries, up-to-the-minute online news reports, and (as always) rumor and innuendo grab our attention faster than any call for justice, human rights, or ceasefires.”

This idea that we rather watch from the sidelines than have the coach put us in the game. Naturally, students are confused at first, so I use this statement to draw their attention to a few examples that showcase this belief.

As a class, we read an article on Kitty Genovese, a woman who was stabbed multiple times outside of her apartment. We read how, according to the New York Times article, 37 witnessed the murder. We read how out of those 37 reported witnesses, not a single one offered assistance to Genovese, despite her pleas. Throughout the years, this number has been contested and it has been argued that many did not have a clear understanding of the crime, and therefore did not see the need to intervene. However, these specifics only matter to an extent. 37 or 2, that is still too many people that chose not to help.

There is a looming silence that typically occurs as I read the article to the class due to a feeling of mutual disgust that occupies the room. However, there has always been one voice in each class: “I wouldn’t want to get involved either! I am not risking my life for nobody!” Although it saddens me that this can be an immediate reaction, I welcome responses such as this. I explain to my students that there are ways to get involved that do not result in immediate danger. I explain to my students the dangers of a society filled with individuals that match this sentiment. I use statements such as the one mentioned above to introduce my class to the bystander effect.

I show videos of the Smoke-Filled Room, and watch my students ridicule the woman who remains in the room far beyond their expectations (“She’s buggin’!” “Nah, if that were me, I would have been left!“). I show them a few more examples to drill the notion in their head. Students make connections to a time that they saw a car accident, or a fight that they witnessed, I hear so many different tales that all end in the same way. There is a multitude of factors that lead to this ending: fear of going against the norm; fear of risking one’s self; believing that someone else will handle it; etc. However, all of them end with a cluster of people watching rather than acting.

Half a century after Kitty Genovese, a teenager was stabbed outside a bodega in the Bronx. Whereas those involved in the tragedy of Kitty Genovese chose to turn a blind eye, these witnesses actively watched the crime. During the time of Kitty Genovese, callers had to dial ‘0’  to reach an operator and then get connected. Today, some phones are programmed to complete the call to ‘911’ after simply dialing the number ‘9.’  Yet no one offered Junior a hand because their hands were too busy holding devices recording the events.

After reading about Kitty Genovese and discussing the bystander effect, I ask my students, “Should bystanders be responsible for intervening when witnessing a crime? Are we obligated to help those clearly in need?” The class debates this issue and we typically reach the consensus that at the very least, individuals should report the crime. When that one voice I mentioned earlier continues to object, a bunch of students retaliate with, “What if your mom was the one that needed help? What if you were the one that needed help?” 

When I teach this unit again in the Fall, I will include this story of Junior. When I teach this unit again in the Fall to my 9th graders, who are either already 15 or turning 15, I will include the story of 15 year-old Junior. Not because I want to scare them of the dangers in the world – they are already well aware of this – but because I want to remind them to question the status quo. As history suggests, just because an event or action was accepted (or allowed) by a community, it does not make it morally sound. In fact, it is often the case that it only required one person to challenge normalcy for it to be altered. Our society has gotten so caught up in capturing the narratives that we have forgotten that we are all active characters that have the potential to alter its course. We continue to view ourselves as insignificant, and we therefore forget that all it takes is one to ignite change. We should not be afraid to go against the norm when it involves watching the murder of a 15 year-old boy.