[box]We are lucky to have a teacher on our writing team and excited for her students, because Sarah Gross is NOT afraid to tackle difficult issues.

She has written about the sensitive topics of racism and bullying before, addressing Lady Gaga and the anti-bullying crusades of 2012 and how Lenny Kravitz addresses race issues. So when Sarah’s students brought up the controversial performance of Sebastien de la Cruz during Game 4 of the NBA playoffs in June she jumped at the teaching moment and mentored.

Today, Sarah urges us to DISCUSS these issues and learn from what is wrong and what is right. She tackles this story to mentor us as only she can, to inspire and nurture a more tolerant state of mind.

-Dawn Carroll, Over My Shoulder Foundation Founder + Executive Director[/box]

The National Anthem

A young Mexican-American boy, lionized for his skills as a vocalist on the popular TV competition show, America’s Got Talent, sang the National Anthem at the NBA finals. The audience waited with baited breath for the singing spectacular to grace the stage, expecting to see an image to feed their patriotism; a voice to fill their hearts with the familiar sounds of the American Dream.

When Sebastien de la Cruz walked proudly up to the microphone, he accomplished just that, offering a heartfelt rendition of the song that symbolizes “Americanism” and all that bearing the badge of “American citizen” stands for.

The Public’s Reaction

Many cheered at the performance, touched by the young boy’s voice, but those cheers quickly became marred when negative publicity targeted Sebastian, and the focus of his performance turned from his beautiful voice to his nationality. Specifically, Sebastian’s appearance became the focus—not his voice, not his personality—no, his physical appearance rapidly became the target as individuals who watched the performance made judgments that have plagued our country for generations. These individuals generated comments which spread like wildfire across the internet, shallow and prejudiced.

What was the cause of these comments? Sebastien de la Cruz, gifted vocalist or not, did not meet the expectations of a select audience primed for a quintessential American to stand and deliver the National Anthem. Sebastien de la Cruz, dressed in the garb reminiscent of a Spanish mariachi—to embrace his personal culture—became, to some, a Mexican, not an American. Comments, like the one below, soon found their way across the internet:


Assumption-Based Negativity After the Performance

The negative attitude shown through this comment highlights the assumptions that some viewers of the NBA game made. However, the comments may stem more from the time and place in which Sebastian embraced his culture, rather than the gesture itself. While the young boy delivered a good song, it may not have been the proper platform for a traditional costume, simply because it took the focus off the game. This could be the case with any costume from any culture. To displace the focus during a sports event may be considered disrespectful to many diehard sports fans, especially as the sports arena is placed on a high pedestal in America. Nevertheless, this instance highlights the attitudes that persist, and the need to respectfully address them.

Schooling, and education, starting with our nation’s youths, is a route to truly combating these attitudes. Teaching young people life values and character traits such as respect and tolerance, and tackling tough issues at home and inside of the classrooms, is at least a starting point.

A Teacher’s Perspective on Bullying

As a teacher, my value system includes instructing students through a curriculum embedded in life skills, and using key texts to supply students with the tools to help them lead a successful life. Yes, we can use a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird to teach English Language Arts-specific skills. But, in doing so, we miss the opportunity to teach the richness of the text. By avoiding the tough issues (racism, empathy, prejudice), we fall short of fully preparing youths to go out and be successful in the world.

If we truly want to combat stereotyping and prejudice, then we should not be afraid to confront and discuss these issues at school and at home. Keeping them hidden accomplishes nothing, and as seen through the public’s reaction to Sebastian de la Cruz, only feeds the negative attitudes that have plagued our country’s history.

A Classroom Discussion of the Word “Immigrant”

Sebastien de la Cruz’s experience touches a cord with me specifically because I am confronting these issues in my classroom as I teach my students the autobiographical novel Breaking Through by Mexican author Francisco Jiménez. My classroom is diverse, and my students identified with the novel immediately. During a discussion of the word “immigrant,” my students voiced the words that were surely in the minds of those who gave negative feedback of Sebastian’s performance: “illegal,” “green card,” among others.

There is a degree of hostility in the students’ voices as they are clearly aware of the stereotypes that exist against the main character (and author) Francisco, and by extension, the stereotypes which may exist against them. The novel brings up sensitive issues; do we shy away from them, brush them under the rug, or is it our duty to face them, as they are?

What Benefit Comes From Shielding Young People from These Realities?

The question to ask here is what benefit there is in shielding young people from these realities. Conversations with youths will show a startling awareness of these issues, and we are doing a disservice to students if we think it is in their best interest to hide, or to sugarcoat. Youths are intelligent, and we can challenge them and better prepare them to think critically about the world if we can start to talk with them about these issues and give them the space to form and refine their own ideas.

Teaching Tolerance and Respect

Teaching tolerance and respect can only happen if we start with the nation’s youths. Perhaps then, we will see less and less of the comments directed at Sebastian; perhaps then, we will see a young boy singing the National Anthem and we will celebrate him for who he is on the inside. The color of his skin, his clothes, his accent—those things will be a part of who he is, but those things will comprise his individuality, and we can begin to embrace the idea of a diverse American citizenry.

This hope for the future, I think, is beautifully expressed through the words of Mr. Jiménez, who is a wonderful mentor for us all:

“For me, the beauty of that ideal, of that American dream, is when you see all different immigrant groups that make up our society, from all different parts of the world, coming together, living together, working together, helping each other.

If our country has the potential and the hope of showing the rest of the world that different peoples from different cultures, speaking different languages, with different customs, can live together in harmony and in peace and learn from each other, then we have a lot to offer to the rest of the world.”

Using Difficult Experiences to Design the Next Generation

I write today about my classroom’s discussion of Sebastien de la Cruz because racism and bullying are learned behaviors that must be STOPPPED. We need to use every opportunity we have to build a more tolerant, compassionate world. We need people like a reformed racist Arno Michaelis fostering a better world by speaking of his own experiences with hate and the miracle of one woman changing his mind with her kindness.

By tackling the difficult issue of racism with my students, I hope that they would be inspired tocreatethis better world filled with tolerance and compassion. By writing about this difficult issue with Over My Shoulder Foundation, I hope that you will be inspired to mentor a more tolerant generation.

After all, we are designing the next generation…

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