“On Being Called ‘Mentally Ill’ by a Student” by Jessica Lake Mason
The balance between taking things seriously and having a sense of humor– sometimes I think my life hangs on it. On the one hand, the inner, endless sense of humor is a life-saving device. On the other hand… no wait, there is no other hand. It’s just that. But always, always, inside, there is a place where the information about humanity is stored, never to be forgotten or erased. Every year of life provides those who feel deeply and think expansively with a need for a bigger and bigger sense of humor, I find. It’s not a glass half empty or full phenomenon; but this is why that tragedy/comedy two-faced ring is still on my finger after all these years, reminding me that they co-exist so that I can *exist*. I believe that this is also the thing that makes me distinctive as a person and educator. Think for a moment on the tragedy and comedy that can be found in your occupation, whatever is it.
Right now, I am a substitute teacher in one of the Buffalo Public Schools. I love it, and I always leave feeling free and light at the end of the day, and I’m often showered with as much love as I give out, but there are moments when I must call on my inner, private sense of humor to save me from what might otherwise feel tragic. I am, for example, called names on a daily basis, such as the very original “f-cking b-tch” when I am working with middle school students. I thought perhaps I would be unnerved by being called such names, for you know the saying about sticks and stones just isn’t true, but as someone who was bullied and mocked LATE in life rather than early in life, being called names, specifically by students, seems to go into the humorous region of my psyche rather than into the tragic region. Thank God.
Today I faced a little test, and I think I passed. I was in a classroom with students who were all in detention, and, though they were technically supposed to be working quietly, in reality they were mouthing off to each other and especially to me. I took it in stride, as is my style, and responded frankly, honestly, and respectfully. I was insulted many times, which was no surprise to me, but then, out of nowhere, a student said something along the lines of, “Yo, this substitute is mentally ill.” One might wonder how someone who has just recently been locked in a psychiatric ward might feel about being called “mentally ill” by a student. I felt the shock of the phrase being hurled at me, and I think I commanded the attention of the room when I did a complete pivot toward this student, who was next to me sitting at his desk, and stood with a dignity and silence that I think said everything I didn’t say. But at that moment what surprised me was my complete compassion for him. He had no idea what he had said. It just came out. I knew that when I looked into his eyes. And I think he knew something serious and important had happened when he looked up into mine. I simply said, “It is not okay to call me that” and then I told him he had a choice, for me to give his name to his teacher upon his return or to write a short essay about why it’s not okay to call someone mental ill as way of insulting them. He didn’t really make a choice, and maybe it didn’t affect him at all, but I made sure I reiterated for the class that it is not okay to try to hurt, bully, or intimidate someone by calling them ‘mentally ill.’
Later, I thought more about this, wondering why I was not more hurt or shocked in the moment. What I thought was exactly this: it’s okay that this happened. It’s even good. Because it started a conversation at a time in students’ lives when it should happen. This young unknowing student, just repeating what he’s heard adults say, is not the problem. Our culture is the problem. We are the problem. We are failing ourselves and our children by modeling for them such shabby behavior. Because I have been called ‘mentally ill’ by a number of people, and the most innocent and least deserving of shame is my young student. I am more horrified by the supposed-professionals who have mis-labeled me as such for reasons not related to my wellness, by the aunt who told me that everyone in my family thinks I’m nuts and that no one can stand me, by the former teachers who have called me names and mocked me as such over the years in order to discredit and dehumanize me, and by the ex-spouse who used the term to exercise her own form of control over and punishment of me– I am more horrified by those uses than I could ever be by a young student who is still unaware of the power of his words. He’s still young; he still has time to learn. I’m so much more worried about the so-called adults.
We all have the power of our words. We can use them to lift others or to destroy others and ourselves. We must set the example and model what it is to treat others as we would wish to be treated. An old lesson that humanity just seems to be so unable to comprehend and enact. This is not simply a class issue– the people who have mocked me with this word in a way that has been tragic to me are those who know me, those who are white, those who are in the middle-upper class. Stereotypes do not apply here. Words are powerful. Words are mighty. My prayer today is that we work together to use them more consciously.