I can’t afford cable, so I watch a lot of public television. To be honest, at this point, I think cable would be wasted on me. I can’t imagine making a return to having all of those channels and still never being able to find anything to watch. Between my three different PBS stations, I can generally find something interesting and thought provoking to fill my time when I should be writing (but that’s a different blog post.) One of my current favorite shows is America by the Numbers with Maria Hinojosa.
NOTE: By “American,” I mean people who reside in or under the auspices of the United States. I realize that every citizen of North, South, or Central America may lay claim to that moniker. It’s just too awkward for us to refer to ourselves as “United Statesians,” so “American” it is until someone comes up with something better.
While the mainstream American media may lead one to believe that the United States consists mainly of white Christians, this show seeks to shine a little on our multicultural side.
Wait. I should rephrase that. Do we have a multicultural “side,” or are we just multicultural, period? The United States is a melting pot, after all. It has been ever since the first Europeans began to invade. Discrimination has always existed here. It just got harder to remember to discriminate against Irish people once they lost their accents and assimilated. It is far easier to identify who you are supposed to discriminate against when there are large numbers of people who look different than you do.
So far, my favorite episode of America by the Numbers discusses the large numbers of first-generation Cambodian Americas who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and how this affects their American-born children and grandchildren. (According to the American Medical Association, 62% of Cambodian refugees suffer from PTSD.) In this episode, Seng So, of Khmer Girls in Action (KGA) discusses how secondhand trauma affects the American-born offspring of Cambodian refugees.
“These are kids who were born here in the United States,” Hinojosa says to Seng So in one scene. “They can’t remember the trauma of their grandparents or their parents.”
“Two million people,” Seng So replies. “Two million people perished during genocide in the most atrocious ways. You know, babies being bashed against trees. Men being kidnapped in the middle of the night and blindfolded. Thrown off cliffs. Some of the most atrocious things that you can’t even imagine happened in our country [Cambodia]. I think it’s kind of unfair for people to say that we need to get over it, because those things you never get over.”
Seng So’s organization works to provide Cambodian-American students with a safe place to speak about trauma and then find ways to cope and move forward. According to Hinojosa, KGA helps kids find ways to deal with their problems in school and outside of school.
As I watched this episode, I couldn’t help thinking about how many American children are dealing with trauma, whether it be first-hand, second-hand, or passed down from one generation to the next in a vicious, unending cycle. So many children in American schools are written off as being “bad” when the real problem is that they are suffering from trauma and have no resources available to help them deal with it.
Not all of these children are born of refugees. Some suffer secondary trauma from slavery or genocide that occurred just a couple of generations ago. Some are growing up in families with abusive parents who were born to abusive parents, who were also born to abusive parents for who knows how many generations in the past. Some are traumatized by classmates on a daily basis while teachers and administrators turn away and pretend not to see what is happening right under their noses.
Childhood trauma is not restricted to these “other” people who are newcomers to the United States. It is a human problem, not just an ethnic problem. Its effects may be seen every day in every school in the country. Unfortunately, these problems are often ignored. These children are all too often labeled as “bad” and then punished for what they are doing wrong without anyone ever attempting to get to the root of the problem and finding out why they are behaving this way. Then when these children grow up to be criminals, their former teachers shrug it off because they knew all along that the kid was worthless and destined to lead a life of crime.
I have always thought that bullies are made, not born. Of course, I can’t say that bullies are never born that way. I am sure there are cases where the children of “good” parents are bullies due to mental illnesses that make them behave that way. In such cases, our society needs to provide better access to mental health care to keep these people from traumatizing others. But for the most part, I would venture to guess that most young bullies behave the way they do because they are bullied at home. Yet, how often does society stop to ask what is happening at the home of bullies when they go to school and traumatize other children?
Why do so many American teachers rush to punish a child who constantly misbehaves rather than attempting to understand why the child is acting out? I believe that ALL of our schools need programs like KGA, for ALL children. We need to stop judging children and treating them like they are bad and start treating them as though they are trauma sufferers who require special care. Because there are far more children in our schools who are suffering the effects of trauma than most Americans would care to believe.
Teachers need to take the time to figure out which students need this special care and address the problems while the children are still young. Furthermore, the school system needs to provide these teachers with the resources necessary to help teachers do their jobs to the best of their abilities. Mental healthcare should be a part of every school system. It may be expensive and difficult to implement, but imagine the future savings and the peaceful society we may one day get to live in if we take the time to combat these societal ills in the schools today!
Even if this support for teachers never comes about, there is still one thing that every teacher can do. That is to act as though they care for each and every one of their students, even when some of those students insist on behaving like little shits. Because you never know but one child might decide to care about himself just because that one teacher showed him he is worthy of care.
America by the Numbers will teach you about the cultural diversity that exists in America today. It will prepare you for the increasing diversity that is coming in the next few decades, whether you like it or not. Perhaps most important, it will show you where these “different” people are coming from and will perhaps help you see how much they have in common with you rather than focusing on how different “they” are.
The United States has a long and glorious, but in many ways traumatic history that greatly influences our society today. It is important for us to know and understand that past. In a country of immigrants, it is essential to understand that the history of all of our immigrants – no matter when or how they came to be here – is the history of our entire American society.
As Seng So says, “No history, no self. Know history, know self.”
Watch the full episode here.