Thursday, November 14, 2013

A father meets hatred with love

The Buddha said that hatred never destroys hatred -- only love can do that. But it's hard not to hate people who hurt people, especially when the ones they hurt are children, especially when they hurt our children. That's what makes a letter written  by the father of a teenager who was set on fire on a bus so extraordinary.
Sasha Fleischman, a teenager who identifies as agender -- neither male nor female, was wearing a skirt when he was set on fire, apparently by another teen, after he fell asleep on a bus. Speculation has been that the act was a hate crime, brought on by Sasha's failure to conform to the conventional gender binary.
Remarkably, his father, declines to make that leap. Karl Flieschman, a kindergarten teacher, wrote a letter to the community at the school where he teaches. It's been widely distributed on the Internet and should be read by everyone.
I think it's really important to keep in mind that none of us can know the mind, motivations, or intentions of the person who set flame to Sasha's clothing. Oakland Police have a 16-year-old high school student in custody, based on video camera footage from the bus. As far as I know, police are the only people who have viewed the footage. I certainly haven't, so I can only guess at what happened. At this point, I choose to assume that this kid was playing with fire, and that he gravely underestimated the consequences of that. Others may make different assumptions, but it's important to remember that they are all just that: assumptions.
That is how you meet hatred with love.
Karl also cites the support the family has received: "I can't tell you how moved we have all been by the outpouring of loving kindness, and how helpful that has been."
He goes on to urge parents to talk to their kids about fire safety rather than hate and offers a gentle way to explain to young children (and adults) what it means to be agender.
Another aspect of this story that has gotten a lot of attention is the fact that Sasha was wearing a skirt, "even though" Sasha appears to be a boy. The fact is that Sasha self-identifies as "agender" and prefers the pronouns "they," "them," and "their" when people refer to Sasha in the third person. (English doesn't have commonly used gender-neutral third-person singular pronouns yet.)
Being agender simply means that the person doesn't feel that they are "either a boy or a girl." I realize that this is a concept that even adults have difficulty wrapping their heads around. (My wife and I frequently slip up in our pronoun usage, much to Sasha's chagrin!) So I can't pretend that it's an issue that all young children will grasp. But what they certainly can and should understand is that different people like different things.
Different people dress or behave or look differently. And that's a good thing. Sasha feels comfortable wearing a skirt. It's part of their style. They also frequently sport a necktie and vest. Sasha likes the look, and frankly, so do I. It makes me smile to see Sasha being Sasha.
As I wrote above, none of us can know the mind of the kid who lit a flame to Sasha's skirt, but I have a feeling that if he had seen Sasha's skirt as an expression of another kid's unique, beautiful self and had smiled and thought, "I hella love Oakland," I wouldn't be writing this now.
He concludes:
Again, many thanks for all of your love and kindness. Let's all take care of each other.
I hella love this family. Thank you, Mr. Fleischman, and may you always feel the love you put out into the world reflected back at you.

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