Yes, and…

3 Oct

A high school health teacher banned his students from responding to sneezes with “Bless you.”

Vacaville high school students were disrupting class by yelling “Bless you” loudly whenever someone sneezed.

A teacher took reasonable disciplinary action, following an attempt to educate the students and request their cooperation.

The teacher violated students’ religious freedom.

The uproar is a ploy by parents who are upset that their children received demerits.

This is yet another example of anti-Christian bias in public education.

Whatever your interpretation of the “Bless you” ban in a Vacaville health class (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/10/01/MNB11LBSGI.DTL), this is definitely a case of multiculturalism.

The controversy at Will C. Wood High School is a textbook multicultural conflict: an action in a community is interpreted as discriminatory, that action is defended and pronounced unbiased, the protest escalates (Wood High is receiving hate mail), the defense swells (commentary on this incident has gone global)… and eventually the accusations and indignation subside on both sides… until it happens again. And when it does, people just might find themselves on the other side of the issue, now alleging or countering claims about who did (or didn’t) do what.

This is not to belittle the “Bless you” incident, but to acknowledge it as a symptom that we’re stuck, precisely because we don’t seem to be learning and growing from these incidents (aka opportunities) when they present themselves for our mutual benefit. Yes, I said benefit. From these conflicts, I think it’s possible that we can learn not just how to be a bunch of diverse people tolerating each other, but how to be multicultural communities in which everyone can thrive.

And what exactly is the lesson of the “Bless you” ban?

“Yes, and…”

This is one of three ground rules* I suggest at each of Blink’s facilitations. “Yes, and…” refers to the improvisational acting principle: Never say no. Always accept what is presented to you–and run with it. It may seem unusual, unlikely or even outright crazy, but the only way to propel a situation forward is through the collective attitude and practice of “Yes, and…”

I find this principle as helpful off-stage as it is on, and especially in diversity work. People are by definition different: there’s simply no way that you’re always going to agree with, comprehend or even imagine someone else’s experiences and perspectives. And you don’t have to. You just need to accept that their truth is as legitimate as your own, and figure out how to include both in the space that you have.

What would that look like at Wood HS?

  • Yes, the students were intentionally using a socially acceptable (and, for some, unassailable) choice of words to disrupt class, and
  • Religious tolerance is and always has been tricky in the US, where there is a separation of church and state and a Judeo-Christian cultural foundation, and
  • “Bless you” does have religious origins (although the precise etymology is ambiguous) and connotations, while it is also used secularly and
  • We all care about the kids, right? And we–educators, parents and students–are all in favor of not wasting anyone’s time in school and actually getting to learn, correct? And
  •  We don’t want to be the kind of community where it’s OK to discriminate against people based on their identities or beliefs. We want to be a place where all students and adults can thrive.

Given these and more “yes, and”s, we can:

  • acknowledge our shared interests and the complicated reality that although we may not understand or agree with each other, we can still share vision and values (“I know you care about the kids, and so do I. So let’s start from there.”)
  • ask questions in a true spirit of inquiry (“I know I don’t have all the information, and I’m wondering if you could help me understand what was happening and what led to the no ‘Bless you’ rule?”)
  • offer our perspectives as exactly that: perspectives that are as real and valid as another person’s (“I totally support the need for discipline. And I’m concerned about the message you may not have meant but that this ban is sending to some folks about religion in the classroom.”)
  • offer and collaborate on goal-aligned, mutually inclusive solutions (“What if some parents and teachers come together to talk about a process for recognizing and responding to disruptive behavior? Then we can have a conversation with the students so we’re all on the same page.”) 

I’m not suggesting that “yes, and…” is going to guarantee us multicultural utopias where there is never conflict. Actually, I believe conflict is an inherent quality of any truly multicultural society. And I think that conflict is always an opportunity to grow.

Blink’s ground rules for groups:

1. Confidentiality. Now, people usually break confidentiality unintentionally. So let’s be clear: what happens in this room, stays in this room. And if you’d like to talk more about something, go back to the person who shared or started it, and ask their permission to continue the conversation. 

2. “Yes, and…”

3. Be the other part of the Velcro. A teacher or facilitator is just there to help you do your best thinking. Own the time. Make it relevant and useful to you. Help make and keep it real.

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