Saturday, January 3, 2009

CHICKENS AND PAJAROS

Principal P. took over our school in September of 2004.

On September 21, 2004 I first noticed some strange behavior on the part of some students. They were making bird noises such as trilling, hooting, clucking, cockledoodledoo, etc. They also had the weirdest converstations about chickens. When they said the word “chicken”, they would emphasize the word. Example: “Are we having CHICKEN for lunch today.”

At first I ignored what I would come to call the Bird Behavior. I noticed it as the kids came into my class, and sometimes as they left, but it didn’t interfere with the class itself. However, I did ask a few teachers if they had noticed the noises, and if they knew where this behavior might come from, but they seemed as clueless as I was.

As September turned into October the incidents increased to the point where they started interfering with some of my classes. I also noticed bird calls as I walked through the hallways. I started to think that it might be gang-related. Gangs have signs; they also have calls. I went to the Counselors and the Deans. Had they noticed the bird calls and references? No. Who might know if it was gang-related? They referred me to the Parent-Coordinator. She lived in the neighborhood, and had attended gang-awareness workshops--If anybody knew, she would know. When I asked her, she replied that they hadn’t said anything in her workshops about bird calls; I should probably talk to the Deans.

OK, so nobody in the school knew anything. I didn’t want to make a big deal about the behavior, because that would only encourage the kids to do it more, so I started making an anecdotal record—trying to figure specifically who was involved. It turned out that it was mostly Hispanics, and they were limited to the students with learning difficulties. All together there were no more that 10 to 15 students who were consistently involved. That was a small group compared to the student population of the school, but it was big enough to be a little gang.

I live in the neighborhood where I teach, so it wasn’t hard to access the knowledge of my Hispanic neighbors. They were much more helpful than the adults in my school. I found out that the word for bird in Spanish, “pajaro”, is a homophobic insult. “Like ‘mariposa’?” I asked. “No, much worse. It’s like calling somebody a ‘faggot’. It’s a bad insult.” “So, if they say ‘chicken’ in English does it mean the same thing for them?”
The answer was yes. Chickens make an up and down movement of their heads that homophobes relate to the up and down movement of someone engaged in the act of fallacio

I gave this information to Assistant Principal Angulo who was in charge of most of the students involved. He said he wasn’t aware of the word “Pajaro” having an obscene reference. I agreed that it might be country-specific, but that I hadn’t had any difficulty finding out about it by just asking around. I asked him to check it out as well and to also watch for whom they might be targeting. My concern was that these kids were ganging up on a student or a group of students.

The behavior got worse and other students started getting into the act. I went back to the counselors and deans with my new information, but no one took any steps to stop it. I finally decided to challenge the worst perpetrators directly. If I made an example of them, perhaps the others would get the hint. I called in the parents of three students who had been particularly brazen and annoying. I explained what they had been doing without specifically accusing them of using homophobic obscenities. It was clear that some of the parents, especially the fathers, knew exactly what the Bird Behavior meant.

The behavior continued to worsen. No matter who was targeted before, now it was clear to me that I had become a target. It was getting harder to get the class started and to maintain control. If I turned to write something on the board, there would be a stream of bird calls that would stop as soon as I turned around.

On November 1, 2004 I went back to Angulo, frustrated and angry. This Bird Behavior was out of control. I had had to figure out its meaning on my own; up until now I had had to handle it on my own; now what the hell was he going to do about it? I pointed out that before I had been concerned about children being bullied. Now I was obviously being targeted, and they were getting away with it. What message was that sending out to every child in the school? These kids might as well be yelling “faggot” at me. Was that OK with him? If the administration didn’t do something about this, the “shit was going to hit the fan”.

That was seventh period. I left his office and went to my eighth period class--I’ll call them 8-F. This class was one of two that I was having trouble with. It was the last period of the day—always difficult for those students who have learning difficulties, and for their teachers. I had begun adding minutes for every time they interrupted the class, so I kept them five minutes after the last bell rang. All the other classes had left as they filed past me out the door. Angulo was standing down the hall talking to another teacher. The students had to go right past him to go downstairs. As they did so, they started making bird calls. He and the other teacher started to laugh.

Angulo and the other teacher might have been talking about something else. Deep in conversation, they might not have been paying enough attention to notice what the kids were doing. But their body language communicated to my students: “What you’re doing is funny and OK”.

I had been standing at my classroom door watching all of this. I went back into my room and started to wash the board. As I moved the wet sponge across the board in overlapping stripes, tears started to stream down my face. We were supposed to have an after-school workshop in my room. Some teachers came in and asked me what was wrong, and I told them. Somebody told Angulo and he came in and asked what was wrong. That was when I lost it. Did he realize that my kids had been making bird calls as they passed him and all he did was laugh? I was more humiliated than angry, because I couldn’t stop crying. They rescheduled the workshop to another classroom, and I gradually got myself under control.

On November 17 I got the first negative letter in my file in twenty plus years of teaching. I was accused of screaming and yelling and using the words “shit”, “hell” and “faggot”.
I grieved the letter, and it went to a step-two hearing. At the hearing I provided a detailed anecdotal record of the bird calling incidents. I provided exact times, dates, names of other adults who were present, a detailed log of every conversation I had had with other adults trying to find out what the heck was going on. In the end, the hearing officer asked if I thought I was being sexually harassed. I hadn’t really thought about it that way. But then I realized, yes, that was sexual harassment. In the end, I had to apologize to Angulo for raising my voice and using inappropriate language, and there was an agreement that if I didn’t do it again, the letter would be removed from my file.

Nothing happened to the kids and nothing happened to Angulo. The bird references continued for the next four years up to the present day—although never as brazenly. I just ignore them.

I am not a lesbian, but this experience has made me even more sympathetic to the gay community. I understand why so many gay people stay in the closet. I admire how those who are out of the closet deal with the bullying and mobbing that I have been subjected to. I admire the way the gay community has organized to support its own and lobby for its interests. Before I didn’t really understand why it was so important to be in everybody’s face. What was wrong with don’t ask don’t tell? It’s nobody’s business but your own.

Now I’m convinced that bullying is everybody’s business. Don’t feel safe because you belong to a group that isn’t targeted. What happens to them can happen to you. If you belong to a group that is targeted—like my little Hispanic bird-callers: The mob you join today could very well lynch you tomorrow—and why should those whom you have mobbed lift a finger to help you?

2 comments:

Fidgety said...

That is a disturbing story. They recently had a show on PBS with hidden cameras where a deli owner refused to serve mexican day workers. The experiment was to measure which customers would speak up for the mexicans and which would join in the abuse. The outcome was that 30% spoke up, 20% joined in and the rest did absolutely nothing. Very interesting.

moriah said...

I did not see the show you refer to, but I have seen other variations of this classic experiment. It seems that one individual will often help another individual in trouble. However, when individuals see themselves as part of a group, then group identity takes over and the individuals are more hesitant to act.