Naming and Shaming

I’m a teacher; and like many teachers, it’s hard for me to look at mistakes kids make as black and white issues. I mean, they make mistakes so often! Literally every day, a kid or teenager is doing something terrible on this island; and when you see these kids constantly, you often learn enough about them and their stories to see the gray areas in between. You also end up kind of loving a lot of them, rough edges and all. Basically, what I am saying is that I love many of the young assholes who come through the classroom. 😛

With the rise of social media, naming and shaming people who do things we disagree with or are upset by has become commonplace. There is much of that happening on our tiny island; and being a small and connected community can sometimes make it intense. This past week, the Guam seal and a bunch of cars in local parking lots were tagged with graffiti. Graffiti is nothing new on our island. For as long as I can remember, bus stops were being painted and repainted to hide the restlessness and misdirection of local youth with nothing better to do, most of them from low income families or communities lacking activities and places for young people to productively spend their time with positive mentors. I can think of several people who have had their cars or property vandalized.

The difference is that now technology makes it possible for us to put these things in the forefront. It also allows us to more directly comment on and discuss the people who did it. This past week, the offenders included a middle school boy and a group of teenagers who had their photos plastered and shared all over the internet. I don’t agree (at all) with what they did; and hope they are held accountable for their actions; but man…our community responded in such an ugly and embarrassing way.

Beneath the pictures of these young people were ugly names, comments with racist undertones, public shaming of parents (none of whom anyone seemed to actually know), and even a local public figure suggesting that we should “start building a wall,” implying that people from neighboring islands are the root of the island’s graffiti problem. As a public school graduate and teacher of many public school graduates, I can definitely tell you that’s not true. Aimless kids of all backgrounds have been known to write something on the wall or vandalize things.

I remember a few of the boys in my high school classes identifying themselves by the names they would spray paint over the sides of buildings and bus stops. I also have a few local College students who have written about their “tagging days.” They weren’t making smart choices (that I always knew); but I was also aware of what homes they were coming out of and what they were working with in terms of adult guidance, love, and financial stability. Sometimes, they came from completely healthy homes with lots of love. Sometimes, kids just do dumb shit. It’s as simple as that.

Some of the boys I went to school with who did things like this never quite made it out of self-destructive cycles; many others did. One became a realtor (who is now probably annoyed when people tag properties he is trying to sell). Another is an officer in the United States Armed Forces, another is a teacher, and a couple of them have evolved into wonderful fathers or family men. I am certain they are glad social media wasn’t around to name and shame them during those years of misdirection. I can also tell you that some of them were Chamoru, some of them were Filipino, and yes, some of them were from the FSM. It was, and is, more of a poverty and lack of guidance problem than it is a race problem. Sometimes, it’s also just a “dumb and young” problem.

I get that it is irritating to have the Guam seal spray-painted on. It’s great that it was so quickly and so easily cleaned up after. I get how completely infuriating it is that cars have been spray-painted on. I would be livid if it were my car, too. What I don’t get is how our community was able to muster so much energy to shame, name call, and harass the kids who did it while remaining largely silent when our island is REALLY being contaminated and destroyed: Not a peep when soil had to be overturned or declared too sick to plant in within certain villages. Not a whisper when toxic chemicals are stored on the island. No real community effort when invasive species began attacking our trees. No voiced disappointment over the military’s role in endangering our birds, trees, or some of our animals. Not even a little outrage when it was confirmed that the history of contamination here is literally killing our people and linked to our disproportionate cancer rates. Silence when we learned that military contamination has made servicemen who were once stationed here sick. And now that there are plans on the table to further jeopardize our water sources, land, ocean, limestone forests, and native species…there is still an underwhelming amount of dissent from the general public. We give awards to (and even praise) people and institutions that are engaged in an even more insidious “vandalizing” of our island, but can find it in us to call a middle school child all sorts of racial slurs and accuse his parents, people we don’t know, of being horrible human beings. It just seems like we need to re-prioritize our outrage.

I am more furious that I have had to watch six people I love die within a span of six years, at far too young an age, because of cancers linked to their environment. I’m furious that so many of our families are still living on contaminated land that the military has failed to clean up. I’m more ready to shame the military for trying to say they are good stewards of the environment when they are clearly the biggest polluters of our island. Pollution is not just trash on the side of the road or spray-paint (that stuff is bad too though). Pollution is also putting lead in your water, burying mustard gas in your back yard, and spraying the place with agent orange. Pollution is also detonating things in our waters and letting lead get near our water aquifers. Vandalism is also servicemen who draw eagles in ancient caves near our burial sites.

I don’t think it’s okay to spray paint the Guam seal. I don’t think it’s okay to victimize other people in our community by spray-painting your name on their personal property; but I think that all of you claiming to shame these wayward kids because you care about Guam’s “environment” and the “beauty of our island” need to redirect some of your anger. The middle school boy with the stupid tag name is not as big a threat to our island’s beauty as the storing of nuclear weapons, bombs, toxic chemicals, and putting lead in our water.


Messages Delivered. Message Received.

Messages sent on Chamoru activism since childhood:

They do not like Chamoru activists that are uneducated and ignorant.
They do not like Chamoru activists that are “too academic and over educated.”

They do not like Chamoru activists that are messy, dark, and poor.
They do not like Chamoru activists that are bougie, light skinned, and wealthy.

They do not like Chamoru activists who are too loud, aggressive, and militant.
They will not bother with Chamoru activists if they are too passive, friendly, and quiet.

Chamoru activism through art is “not real”; do not waste your time doing it.
Chamorus have no real culture because they do not have enough art; you should take the time to create it.

Chamoru activists who speak inarticulately are jokes. They will be mocked.
Chamoru activists who speak too articulately are self-righteous and overly dramatic. They will be mocked.

Chamoru activists from off-island don’t count because they haven’t put in enough time on Guam.
Chamoru activists who have never left Guam can’t be taken seriously because they haven’t lived outside of Guam.

Chamoru activists with a lot of land should shut up and be grateful they still have land.
Chamoru activists without land should shut up because they already lost their land. Get over it.

Chamoru activists who are old should retire and “give it up already.”
Chamoru activists who are young should stop and “grow up.”

Chamoru activist-women should go home and take care of their kids instead of protesting.
Protests led by Chamoru activists should not be taken seriously because not enough people showed up.

They can’t take Chamorus seriously because they do not speak, read, or write in their language.
It’s pointless for Chamorus to keep trying to learn to read, speak, or write their language.

There are no Chamorus anymore.
There are too many Chamorus.

Message received:

They do not like Chamorus… be a Chamoru activist anyway.

New School Year: Bus Stop Worries

This week, our island’s public school children embark on a brand new school year.  I don’t know if being a teacher makes me extra excited about new school years or if being a nerd does, but they always put me in a good mood.  I love seeing my relatives and friends share bright shiny pictures of their kids smiling, clean, and ready for the classroom. I realize that not every morning will be like that. Somewhere along the way, in about two weeks, many of those smiling, clean kids will be getting out of their parents’ cars with a muyu and mugu in their eyes, barely awake and completely over reporting to the classroom.  In turn, parents won’t have half as much fun getting the kids ready either.  It all becomes part of the routine you’re stuck doing when you’re part of a busy household.  The novelty wears off.  But this morning, I found myself a little disappointed and thinking about another part of the school year that is very routine for many of our island’s young ladies heading to school.  It was part of my morning routine as middle school, high school, and even as a college student waiting at the bus stop, and I was sad to see that some of our back to school routines have NOT changed.  I’m talking about the sexual harassment and catcalling that occurs, almost daily, for female students waiting for their rides to school or walking to campus.

Last year, I involved myself in an incident after witnessing a GW student followed and catcalled by a truck full of men during her morning walk to school.  While driving, I watched the girl keep her head down and continue to walk, trying to pretend no one was whistling or inviting her to get in their car.  I watched as the truck slowed down and made a point of honking at her. I was deeply troubled to see how much effort it took for this girl to keep walking and looking ahead. I was scared for her when I saw that the truck was slowing to a crawl and keeping pace with her strides, the men making sure she heard every word or invitation they launched at her.   I ended up pulling over, asking if the girl was okay and shooing away the men, who flicked me off and called me a bunch of names before speeding away. To my horror, the truck full of men eventually U-turned, started tailing my car and honking at me.  It made me feel unsafe and when I shared the story with others later, people generally scolded me for pulling over and not thinking of my personal safety.  They told me that next time, I should simply call and report the incident. A part of me still thinks I might pull over again if I saw something that extreme occur. I don’t know if I’d be able to help myself.

A few months later, I saw a similar thing happening to a group of GW girls walking home along the back road (a stretch of road that is pretty remote). Again, cars slowed to shout things at the students or honk as they tried to ignore it.  I thought about the way, as young women, we are often taught not to respond, to keep walking, and do NOTHING that may anger the person hollering at you or cause him to interpret looking back as a sign of welcome.  Many young girls are taught to quietly tolerate it.  Many men believe the behavior is flattering or typical.  It’s just “guys being guys.”  Women who complain about it or find it insulting are sometimes accused of being “silly.” But for me, watching a bunch of young girls just trying to get to and from school without being harassed is incredibly disturbing.

I spoke with some of my students about this, asking them if, while they were in high school or middle school, this was also part of their morning routine.  Many of them admitted that it definitely occurred.  They all had their own individual street harassment stories to share. Some added that with classes starting really early due to their block schedules, they were out at the bus stops while it was still dark, which was sometimes scary.  Some of them laughed it off, accepting that it was “just how it is for girls.”  They reported early morning drunks lingering near convenience stores or bus stops, making comments or trying to talk to them. Harassment and catcalls on the way to school were things they expected and tried not to think about too much.  They confirmed that cat calls and harassment of that type made them feel unsafe, “icky,” or humiliated, but didn’t know what else to do.  Feeling unsafe, “icky,” and humiliated was part of their routine as young women.

This morning, I watched again as a few young girls tried to stay quiet and with their heads down at bus stops or near the road while men passing made smooching noises, clicks (as if calling a horse), or honked at them.  I know that many of you will say this is just the world we live in, but I really don’t think it has to be.  It may take time to change this particular “routine,” but my prayer and hope is that as a community, we all become invested in the safety and dignity of our kids.  I don’t believe that there is “nothing” we can do about this.  We can start by sending a firm message to the young men we raise that it is NOT cute or acceptable to humiliate or harass females. It doesn’t make them feel pretty or grateful for the attention; it most often makes them feel unsafe. So unless you want girls to feel gross and unsafe when you talk to them, harassment is a pretty ineffective way to communicate with the opposite sex.  It’s not okay to call them names or get angry if your advances are not welcome.  Is there a parent or trustworthy adult willing to hangout at the bus stop and watch over things until their ride comes?  On my street, I noticed that there is always a parent or two waiting in a car a few feet away from the bus stop, making sure the kids get on safely.  When we see drivers being inappropriate to school children, do we just keep driving and shake our heads in disgust? Maybe we can take down the license plates or make a point of loudly and clearly asking the child if everything is okay.  You’d be surprised at how often a simple, “Hey, is everything okay?” will ward off a street harasser.  There may not be one sweeping solution to the problem, but I believe there are little things we can do to create an atmosphere where it is less acceptable.  You may have some ideas of your own.  Your ideas might be better than mine.

Whatever the case, that is what was on my mind this morning as I watched our island’s kids make their way out for Fall 2015.  I’m wishing them all a productive and happy new school year and hoping that the things we consider “routine” and normal continue to evolve for their benefit.  I’m hoping the baby I’m carrying right now is a little girl.  I’ve always wanted a baby girl.  I’m hoping that by the time she is old enough to wait at a bus stop to get to school, street harassment isn’t something society will teach her to “expect.”   I don’t want to hand down this particular back to school tradition.