This past week has been difficult for me. I teach 8th grade English at a great junior high, and we’re currently reading Daniel Keyes’ short story, “Flowers for Algernon.” It’s a wonderful and heartbreaking fictional story of a mentally challenged man who undergoes brain surgery in order to increase his intelligence. When I was reading it last summer and mentally preparing to teach it later on, I thought, this is going to be great! What a great way to teach kids to empathize with people that are different from they are, and to not poke fun at disabilities.
Boy, was I in for a rude awakening.
You see, even though MOST of my students seem to be taking this story to heart and practicing empathy and feeling compassion for the main character of Charlie, it’s the handful of other students that like to make it a joke that tend to stick with me. The story is written in journal form, and since Charlie starts out with an IQ of 68, he doesn’t write very well at all. He doesn’t comprehend when people are making him the butt of every joke. He doesn’t “get it” when it comes to anything that goes beyond the surface level of understanding, and some of my students find it hilarious. He refers to himself as “dumb” repeatedly, so my students talk about how “dumb” he was before the operation like it’s no big deal. It was written in the 60s, when the phrase “mentally retarded” was much more common as a clinical diagnosis and so, it shows up in the story, and my students will snicker and smirk and start playfully diagnosing their friends with it as well. In fact, I’ve heard the R word so often in the halls and in my classroom all year long, and every time I do, I hurt a little inside for my son. Oh and believe me– I always call them out on it and try to shame them into guilt, but it only works temporarily. The next week they’re back to the same old comments and actions.
It’s these behaviors and this attitude toward mental disabilities that has me terrified for our precious boy. Will he experience this kind of mockery on a daily basis as he grows up? Will people try to trick him into acting foolish to get a laugh, like they do to Charlie in the story? Will anyone stand up for him, or will the kind-hearted kids be too afraid to stand up and do what they know is right?
Some might say, kids will be kids– they’re teenagers and of course they’re going to act this way. It’s inevitable. They want to impress their friends and get a laugh, even if it’s at someone else’s expense. Let it go.
For the sake of people like Charlie, and my son, and countless other mentally disabled people across the world that have been the butt of someone’s joke– I refuse to let it go. I think it’s unacceptable to allow this kind of behavior to thrive when people should be teaching their children that it is NOT okay. I hope that you will stand with me and call out these actions when you see them too.
I love this story, but I will be glad when we are finished with it next week. It’s taken a toll on my heart that I wasn’t prepared for, and I honestly don’t know if I can teach this story again next year to a new set of 8th graders. So, yeah, it’s been a tough week.
I’ll close with some wise words from the character of Charlie, once his IQ has tripled and he’s able to look back on his past with a new understanding:
“How strange it is that people of honest feelings and sensibility, who would not take advantage of a man born without arms or legs or eyes—how such people think nothing of abusing a man with low intelligence.”
— Daniel Keyes, “Flowers for Algernon”