On Being Called “Mentally Ill” by a Student

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 mentally 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’m so much more worried about the so-called adults who hurl this phrase, and others like it, as an insult.

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. Words are powerful. Words are mighty. Our work is to use them more consciously and with more empathy.

JLM, MITA Co-Founder

One thought on “On Being Called “Mentally Ill” by a Student

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  1. Dancing with swords and a silver tongue, you my friend are master with a gift for the mentally young! Herrera, Poet Laureate retiring this weak, said it was a third grade teacher who told him he had a beautiful voice, changed his life, gave him the courage to express himself. Calumny is not a beautiful voice, its a political or military strategy used to define a common enemy as an objective for violence and defeat. Yet it is a violence of language allowed by the 1st Amendment in a free society wherein criticism and critical thinking, not flattery, is the means of accessing power over–even such power as artistic excellence. So this is great topic to think about, express, might make a good painting–not flattery which is how you access power in fascist police state?

    I once taught behind locked doors in a NYC facility for officially proven to be dangerous children. One child who had had his throat cut by one of his peers my first day teaching I commonly chased around like Harpo Marx after a woman–it was so funny :-)–. He always called me crazy but we were friends then– and we still are if he is still alive which I do hope he is.

    So on the one hand mental illness is a crisis problem with about 3 or 4% of Americans serious, SPD; on the other hand, we have a United States President who is batshit crazy claiming today he wants to talk, use words, with North Korea–nevertheless pointing a truly vicious array of deadly weapons at the entire country. Ok, pray: God we need to know how to use words! Jesus!
    (Maybe that isn’t the right thing to say?)


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