We had a meeting with our son’s teachers this morning, just to check in on how he’s doing and he’s doing really well this year. During the meeting, one of the teachers said to us, “Well, I’m sure he’s told you about the incident that happened in my class…”
My husband and I looked at each other, hoping that he hadn’t done anything wrong, our minds obviously cycling through every possibility. We didn’t know about any “incident” in Chemistry class, but our son is 13 and while he’s a good, well-behaved kid, you just never know.
“Oh, well,” the teacher began awkwardly, perhaps a bit embarrassed, “we were studying chemical reactions in class and another boy, who really was just being a jerk, wrote something to your son. It was…”
He paused, looking for the right words, the approved words.
“It was about your culture, you know, the history.”
It never ceases to amaze me how many people think the words “Jew” or “Jewish” are somehow bad words, as if we’d be insulted for him to use them.
“You mean it was antisemitic?” I went right to the point. It wasn’t hard to draw the lines between who we are and why chemical reactions might be related. Images of gas chambers probably came to mind.
“Yes.” the teacher seemed relieved that I’d understood without him needing to say the words, “Your son handled it really well. He was upset, but he stayed calm and he gave the note to me and we’ve handled it. The other boy has been disciplined and I moved him to another part of the class.”
It’s also odd that my husband and I were relieved at this point. Oh…it was JUST ordinary antisemitism…and our son handled it well. That’s all it was. What a relief.
The meeting continued and another teacher mentioned how glad she was that Ian brought his “culture” into their class discussion of the book Animal Farm, how his “unique background” was really interesting. I noticed how no one, from guidance counselors to teachers wanted to say, “Jewish.” My son and husband were sitting there, kippahs showing and yet, the word for what we are, for what makes us different hung heavy in the air, made bigger by the fact it was unsaid.
When I was newer to conversion, I used to wonder at the casual way that my Jewish friends seemed to shrug off antisemitism and how my husband just kind of treated it as a mundane annoyance. I couldn’t understand how having swastikas spray painted on the synagogue didn’t really provoke outrage so much as annoyance at having to figure out how best to remove them. I didn’t think I’d ever feel that way, but today I realized I do.
The teacher stressed that my son really doesn’t seem to care if kids pick on him for other things. He accepts that as just part of the age and maturity level of him and his peers. This, however, he felt was different and needed to be reported. I’m proud of him for making that distinction. He also obviously didn’t feel it was a big enough issue to even tell us. It’s just part of the color of his world at this point, which does make me a mix of sad and proud of him.
Just everyday mundane antisemitism, the kind that makes you more roll your eyes than clench your fists.
It does make me glad that we’ll be moving and that the kids will be in schools where “Jew” is not a word that isn’t spoken, just hanging there heavily, but one that has the joy attached to it that it deserves. To me, that was almost more unnerving than something an ignorant teen decided to taunt my son with, the fact that the faculty at his school couldn’t use the proper language to describe what had happened.