As most of us who are used to racial injustices expected, George Zimmerman was acquitted in the slaying of Trayvon Martin. In March 2012, I wrote about this case, referring specifically to the "stand your ground" law (the "Castle Doctrine" in many states, including West Virginia). This not guilty verdict is also producing many viewpoints, and we can see the country is divided on the issue of race. This is my take:
DWI, driving while intoxicated. (This is commonly known to all of us). DWB, driving while black. (This is known to some of us). And, now, WWB, walking while black. This was Trayvon Martin on that rainy night in February 2012.
Travyon Martin was put on trial. He was racially profiled. And he is dead. Now the question is what happens next? We need to mobilize, we need to organize, we need to continue the dialogue, and we need to learn empathy. Last year, my question was, can empathy be taught? There is great debate about this, but I believe that it can be taught. However, it must be taught from an early age.
In my classroom, I teach a guidance lesson called "Walk a Mile in My Shoes." I get the students in a circle and they all take off their shoes! (This elicits groans, laughter and "my socks are dirty" comments.) After discussing the meaning of empathy -- understanding how someone else feels -- I start to ask questions. Who has felt bullied at school? Who has felt left out? Who has felt lonely?
Then I get the kid who has had that feeling and another kid who has not had that feeling to trade shoes. They put on each other's shoes and "walk a mile" (around the room) while the rest of the class cracks up. We do this several times with different issues and at the end everyone trades shoes with someone and they all "walk a mile." This is a very powerful lesson and one that the students remember from year to year ("When are we going to do the 'walk' lesson again?") The goal is for students to be aware of the feelings of others and to act accordingly -- to treat others with the same respect that we want them to treat us.
This is the ultimate lesson. If we all could walk a mile in the shoes of a black teenager like Travyon Martin, would we then begin to understand the racial injustices that happen in this country on a daily basis? Let's teach empathy. Let's think about what it would be like to walk a mile in someone's shoes.
Lee, of White Sulphur Springs, is an elementary school guidance counselor.