My students admire Will Smith.
Up until last night, I would have asked – why shouldn’t they?
He’s a talented Black man who excels in multiple fields and became wealthy doing so.
But after slapping comedian Chris Rock at the Oscars, his status as role model has become problematic.
We want our kids to grow up to be smart, charming and successful. We don’t want them to lose their tempers over a joke – no matter how tasteless – and resort to violence.
Maybe this comes off as just some white dude clutching his pearls.
But I work in our public schools.
I see violence of this sort almost every day.
Just last week a student was almost choked to death because he said the wrong thing to another student.
Pearl clutching white dudes like me had to break it up. We had to put our bodies in harms way and stop one child from killing another.
And this is far from the only time something like that has happened.
A while back I had to put myself in a doorway to stop two middle school kids from attacking another in the hall. And I was injured in the processes.
You think this is an exaggeration? Ask a special education teacher. They are hit and punched and cussed out every week.
And since the pandemic hit and students have just begun to relearn how to interact with each other, school violence is at an all-time high.
So when a person like me (who lives this reality day-in, day-out) sees something like this on a nationally televised broadcast, it’s a bit more personal.
My students and I just read an article about Smith in class.
It went through his entire career from Philadelphia high school kid to popular rap star to television and movie fame. Then my students had to write about what attributes Smith had that helped him become successful.
We talked about Will in depth.
Just about everybody knew and loved him. We were all excited he was up for another Academy Award and hoped that this would finally be the year he won.
And he actually did win Best Actor for his performance in “King Richard.”
This was supposed to be a triumph, a moment of increased representation for people of color.
Instead, it was yet another example of toxic masculinity.
You can praise Smith for defending his wife, but he took a verbal situation and made it a physical confrontation.
What he did would get anyone else arrested.
I’m not saying I wish he had gone to jail. I’m not saying he should have been stripped of his award.
But there should have been a consequence – SOMETHING!
He should have been asked to leave the ceremony, at least. Someone could have accepted the Oscar on his behalf.
Yet since there was nothing – NOTHING – he even got to make a tearful acceptance speech – that sends a pretty clear message to kids.
It says that this kind of behavior is okay. Maybe even praiseworthy.
We live in a violent world. Our children have grown accustomed to hurt following hurt. Their reality is paying forward the pain, an eye for an eye until the whole world is blind.
Often it is educators like me who have to teach them otherwise.
Every ill in our society comes back to our public schools.
Malnutrition, addiction, crumbling infrastructure, absent parents, lack of social safety net, racism, prejudice and toxic cultural norms.
This is one of the main reasons so many teachers are leaving the profession.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 567,000 fewer educators in our public schools today than there were before the pandemic. And finding replacements has been difficult. Nationwide, an average of one educator is hired for every two jobs available.
We need the rest of society to step up, not sink into the muck.
We had hoped for more from Will.
In the aftermath of all this, people have almost entirely forgotten what sparked the confrontation.
Chris Rock made a cheap joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, who was bald because she’s suffering from alopecia.
This is an illness I’ve suffered from myself – that my mother still suffers from.
Rock crossed a line not because he was making fun of Smith’s wife, but because he was ridiculing someone because of a medical condition.
If Smith hadn’t resorted to violence (perhaps if he had just said something instead), we’d be talking about Rock, not Smith.
But in crossing the line from words to fists, he obscured the point.
Violence is only justified in self defense – against in-coming violence.
Maybe you don’t want to admit it.
Maybe you love Will Smith so much you refuse to admit that he was wrong.
However, be careful what you say.
The kids are watching.
And teachers can’t raise them, ourselves.
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