The hostage situation in Texas and the Martin Luther King holiday this past week have had me thinking about the first time I remember being personally blindsided by blatant intolerance. My family had moved over the summer, and I was the new kid in third grade. I had made some friends in the neighborhood, and mostly things were off to a good start. I had no idea how much schooling I was in for on the subject of narrow-mindedness and hate.
My teacher, let’s call her Mrs. P., was youngish but experienced in the classroom. She was tall and thin, with light skin, piercing blue eyes and neatly trimmed, chin-length brunette hair. Her soft Southern twang belied an innate ability to maintain control over her class with a sharp tongue-lashing at the ready for any kid who might have been squirmy or chatty. Mrs. P. was not shy in meting out discipline or packing kids off to the principal’s office at the slightest infraction.
I was an obedient pupil, so the first few weeks of class went well enough. That changed the day it came up in class that I was Jewish. I’m not sure how or why that became part of our class discussion, although I should clarify that there were very few Jews in our town. I may have been the only one at that school in third grade. I remember Mrs. P.’s reaction as if it were yesterday. As her face opened into an icy smile, she looked straight at me from the front of the classroom and asked, “You’re Jewish? Would you like to come up here and show the class your horns?”
At seven years old, I had no idea what she was talking about. All I knew was that she was intentionally insulting and humiliating me in front of my recently acquired friends and classmates. I sat there stunned, as a few of the other kids began asking questions. “What do you mean, Mrs. P.?” “What are you talking about?” And so, she clarified: “Well, everyone knows Jews have horns.”
I could sense my classmates’ eyes boring into my skull, but my focus remained on Mrs. P. I could not see where this lesson was headed. Here I was, already on thin ice as the new kid. What if everyone in school started to hate me because of what she’d said? I knew I’d get in trouble if I said anything back that could have been interpreted as even remotely disrespectful to this strict teacher. For what felt like ages but was probably only a moment or two, I could feel the air draining from my lungs and the color fading from my face.
Then, from somewhere towards the middle of the room, a defiant voice rang out. “Mrs. P., that’s so silly. People don’t have horns! That makes no sense!”
With that, the other kids realized they were safe in piling on. “That’s right, Mrs. P.! No kinds of people have horns….” And it went on like that with kids talking out of turn until she relented. With a flourish of her hand and a brisk change of subject, I breathed a sigh of relief as our third-grade introduction to Antisemitism came to an end.
I learned some important lessons that day that have stayed with me throughout all these years. First, I should not be surprised to find that some seemingly sensible people may hold deeply entrenched and despicable views. Second, a position of authority can be a platform for bigotry with impunity. But most important, I learned that by speaking out—even at the risk of hell to pay for talking out of turn—a singular, seemingly powerless voice can change everything.
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”Martin Luther King Jr.
What haunts me most about that entire incident is how differently that situation could have unfolded if my fellow third-grader had not summoned the courage to stand up to a teacher. Would the entire class have internalized Mrs. P.’s hateful lesson? Fortunately, I’ll never know. Instead, I maintain hope that the more powerful teacher that day was my fellow student, and that we all learned to speak out for our classmates and friends.