“To be or not to be?” What a question. Though our dear Shakespeare may not have intended it to, this statement inherently suggests two options for a state of being. And what we don’t realize (although perhaps poor Hamlet did) is the weight of those two choices upon us every day, either from ourselves or from others. We either “are” or we “aren’t” certain things, we either “be” or we don’t. This dichotomy is maddening, leaving little room for different shades of being. Yet those shades are what create the complexity and ultimately the humanity in any individual. Thus by pondering Hamlet’s curious question, we can come to the conclusion that we may only be pondering what we are, not who we are. And it is very important not to confuse the two.
Whether or not our students have read Shakespeare, they live this question every day with their approach to both people and situations. Insults and statements loaded with assumptions about what people and things “are” or “aren’t” come flying out of their mouths like kamikazes. They are linguistically trapped into labeling people as “bitches” or “faggots,” or “fuckers,” take your pick. Students may not realize it, but they are telling people what they are, not who they are. This is cause for concern, because as a result they begin to confuse the two. When we see someone for what they are, not who they are, this leaves room for only anger, frustration, and feelings of superiority or inferiority. We lose the human component, a person’s story, which is essential for compassion to take place. When we say a statement like, “she’s a bitch,” we are labeling that person, and somewhere along the line our attitude drastically changes toward them to compensate this mental categorization. It is therefore not enough for corps members to simply stop the verbalization of this labeling. We must try to reframe how our students react to others, to get them to switch from the “be” to the “being.” This small shift accounts for a world of difference simply because it accounts for the possibility of mistakes, moods, and change. Should someone be “being a bitch,” that sequentially leads to the next question, “why are they being that way?” This mental shift can also account for the possibility of a person’s behavior being only temporary, giving you the mental flexibility to allow them to change. If we can encourage our students to use different language with themselves, we can help them see the difference this can make on their reactions to others and themselves. Because “to be or not to be” is a question, and a good one, but it isn’t the most compelling question when it comes to a human being and their complexities. What someone “is” or “isn’t” remains static, and ultimately incomplete. Why not plant a more profound seed in the minds of our students, the seed of who someone is being, and why they are being that way. That simple question of “why?” … now that is a question.
— Sophia Antoun, first year corps member at Mifflin Middle School