What we tolerate, we teach

My Ms. O Mystery series is set in a middle school, and when I started writing, I wanted to make sure that none of the victims or the perpetrators are students. These aren’t middle grade books, with kids who are main characters. “Summer Breakdown,” the first book in the series, has kids as side characters, especially a guy named Mo. Mo is an interesting enough personality to me that he has shown up as a sidekick in book 2, “A Murder of Turkeys,” as well. He might even get a spinoff series, but only after he grows up.

I didn’t want to put the student characters in peril, but as I write, I realize my villains and suspects and sleuths are all recovering from trauma of some sort. It isn’t just made up background, it informs their journey as characters. I know, I know, these are fictional people, imaginary friends, but they have to have a past that contributes to where they are as people when they come into the story. I have heard of authors who hear a story, and say, ooh, I’m going to steal that. I don’t really steal people’s traumatic stories to make them into back story for my characters, my imagination is good enough for that.

A colleague of mine used to have a sign above her classroom door reading “What we tolerate we teach.”  I have been thinking about it a lot lately, as I consider tolerance along with compassion.

I work in a middle school, and I walk a tightrope, make that a razor’s edge, on what I tolerate, and what I don’t. I could torture myself about thinking about my classroom management, the behavior I expect from some, or the behavior I put up with from others.

I listened to a Brene Brown interview on a podcast a few months ago (I should probably break down and buy her book at some point- I’ll let you know) and one of her points that hit me over the head was that “the most compassionate people in the world have the firmest boundaries.”

See, I think of myself as compassionate, and when I know the backstories of some students, I think, “oh, poor kiddo, he’s really struggling, he can’t be expected to…” fill in the blank. Which is not compassion at all- it is saying that kids who have trauma in their background can’t be expected to do excellent work, or show up on time, or improve their writing or language or math. I tolerate the behavior, which teaches people that is what I expect from them.

Not just at school, in real life when I tolerate being treated badly, I am teaching people that they can treat me badly.  As a culture, people have learned that when they are upset, they can buy a weapon and get back at those who they think hurt them. The most compassionate people have the firmest boundaries. Hmmm.

Which brings me to one of the serious topics in my funny books. Ms. O took the trauma she grew up with, and is maturing into a strong adult who solves problems, but there are still aspects of her that remain immature. She’s still a middle schooler in her heart, and can’t quite believe when the guy she has a crush on likes her back. Life has taught her to be strong, and to expect people to let her down. 

Are we all still middle schoolers, somewhere deep down? Let me know what you think in the comments.

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