In which Carrie recognizes terror management theory and its relevance to everyday living . . .
I confronted issues of mortality and morality at a school the other day. The previous night I went to the local university’s psychology club film and lecture event centering around Terror Management Theory (TMT). The film was Flight From Death (2005). We discussed conscious ways to confront fear of death., instead of unconsciously acting against it. The film suggests most people suppress this natural fear but are prone to fighting evil with evil in the form of hurting those who are not like ourselves, Others. When we dehumanize someone out of fear of mortality, TMT supposes this is an individual’s (or nation’s) way of immortalizing themselves. To erase or damage another’s dignity, or a culture’s worth (think of Nazi Germany or the 911 terrorist attacks), we build a temporary, but unsustainable, sense of being right while making the others somehow wrong. This unconscious suppression of the knowledge that we are all going to die causes war, and impresses on the “winners” that they are somehow more worthy of others.
I live where I do not have “death reminders” everyday, which is not the case for countries presently at war (on their home soil). I do not live with explicit violence everywhere, and do not see humans being shot down on a weekly basis. I know nobody who owns a firearm except for hunters. Death reminders are scarce, and passing subliminal, in my sheltered world, but I see things like it which remind me I need to protect myself, and others from harm.
The other day a little boy comes up to me at the last period of my day after I had already been through much which reinforced my (mistaken) beliefs in an incompetency of my worth as a teacher. The day had been hard, and with each new challenge my will to work at my best potential became weaker and weaker. I found it hard to do my job as well as I usually do. But there are always wonderful things which happen on the hardest days. They keep me coming back.
This boy approached me with two hand-lenses held up to his eyes like out-of-fashion nerd glasses, showing me his humor, his geekiness. I believe now that while I intuit he is not popular and is consistently the recipient of micro-aggressions from his peers, he rose above that sadness and showed me the strength of his creativity and humor. He also asked me later if he could use one of the high-powered microscopes to examine the parts of his flower, being only the second student who wanted an in-depth view of their specimen instead of using just the hand-lenses (which are just easier to distribute). In this case, he demonstrated—beyond the motivations of his peers—an inherent interest in the learning for the day. He had probably been looking forward to this all week, since they planted the flowers.
The “greenhouse” was in the corner of the room. Each of the lab plants was under lights to help them photosynthesize (there are no windows in the room). By the time I got there to fill in for the teacher, most of the flowers had dropped off. As a result, I had the supply management issue of making sure every student got one flower to observe and dissect for the lab. This rationing was another level to my worry on top of jumping from other classrooms, a back-t0-back schedule and spring fever among students, and as the last period rolled around I skeptically gazed at my supply of specimens and back at the number of students, wondering if there would be enough. I passed the tender flowers out, carefully. Some students accidentally blew theirs off the table or had little success extracting the petals, sepals, pistals and stamens resulting in some smushed bug likenesses. Somehow, there were just enough which I could find under those mock-sun lights.
But this boy might have hidden his own plant away from the others. I don’t know. He approached me with a reasonably healthy plant filled with about ten blooms. I wondered how my eyes had missed them, a sudden surplus. Everyone by that time had one so I didn’t bother asking to use his. It was his plant, with his name written in sharpy on the styrofoam container. Originally each student was going to dissect their own, but they all became a collective resource by that time. Good for him keeping his away from view, like it was a rare wildflower one finds in the most remote wilderness.
Later during that class, I had some time to think and watch. The one thing about labs is they usually draw students in, being so close to art and equally messy. Only the students with the highest of spring fever relinquished their curiosity of botany to forego the assignment altogether, but most did their jobs.
There, in my exhausted observation, I listened to a few students arguing quietly, quietly enough for me not to be able to hear the content, but I could clearly see distress in their bickering. Small faces turning like machetes in the angle of enemies, tossing glints of anger at each other, their perceived immortality at risk. I noticed this boy was still trying to concentrate on his work but his neighbors were taking stabs. He defended himself with some degree of assurance but it was making his life miserable.
I called him up and asked him what was going on. He started talking, his eyes dropping water. His demeanor of expressing his frustrations about another student were not filled with large tones or expansive gestures, but coherent explanation through the drip, drip, drip. The water stained his shirt. He told me his object of frustration, another girl with low social standing, wasn’t really liked by anybody. I saw he felt sad and invited him to take a break—go out and get a drink of water, walk around a little.
I then called the girl over who was the object of his present frustration. She narrated her story and I heard that it, too, was understandable Her backstory—from what I have gleaned through my brief interactions with her—would make every adult in this community want to pause their momentary pleasures and obligations to help her out. But with our limited vision reaching not far behind our American identity, I would doubt that anyone would—leave it to those who deal with that sort of thing. I suggested that her classmate was sad and that she might meet him out in the hallway to give him an apology. I told her that he might not accept it, but that it would be a good thing to do anyway. She smiled and walked off.
As I reflect on this—it all happened so fast—I realize now that I don’t know if either of them finished the lab, to the chagrin of their teacher and tazpayers. I don’t know how the apology went, or if any harms were undone. If I see them again I might ask, given the appropriate time to do so. It is important to follow up on these things.
This minor episode, including the nerdy glasses sported by the boy, was the highlight of my day. The situation I found myself in for the entire work day was one of high stress, as is the usual nature of substitute teaching, only disastrously more than usual. I don’t feel like I came close to doing a good job. But I took some lessons in terror management from this particular boy who confronted who-knows-how-much-bullying day-to-day with humor, interest in inquiry learning, and self-directed motivation to get what he could from a lesson in botany.
I still wonder if he had the plant hidden away, knowing in advance that in order for his project to succeed he needed to take it upon himself to create the right conditions, including asking to use the high-powered microscope, unlike his peers. I also noticed that he let me know, after I asked, a frustration—not the first in his young career as an object of dehumanizing attacks. This open door to talk is something I believe most students would welcome if a concerned person invited them to speak, and cry if need be.
Where the village ceased to be the raiser-of children, I don’t know, but it is for these hidden students that I work to protect.