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Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Children's Hour Reprised

Today is homecoming at Rutger's University, and although the weather is one of Autumn's best, a somber spirit looms over the football field where this afternoon, spectators will pause for a moment of silence before the Rutger's team takes on the team from Tulane. The somber spirit is because one of the students from Rutgers, Tyler Clementi, an eighteen year old freshman has died from what was apparently suicide. He allegedly jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge, a bridge that goes over the Hudson River, and connects New York City to New Jersey.
Tyler Clementi's body was found in the Hudson River, on September 29th, where he landed, after jumping off the bridge. There is speculation that Tyler Clementi did this upon realizing that his dormitory room-mate, Dahrun Ravi, and a friend of Dahrun's, Molly Wei, had secretly taped (via a web-cam) a sexual encounter that he had performed with a male and then posted their taping of this on the internet.

Photographs of Tyler Clementi, Dahrum Ravi, and Molly Wei have permeated the newspapers and the internet. The image of Tyler Clementi playing a violin reflects a sensitive soul and is heartbreaking. The photographs of Ravi and Wei are from a high school year book and reflect as much self-assuredness as photographs of that nature can achieve. The rhetoric surrounding this incident has focused on the intent of Ravi and Wei who have been charged with violating an individual's privacy. Newspapers reports indicate that many people want the charges against Ravi and Wei to be escalated to the charge of performing a hate crime.

Activists are now speculating that Ravi and Wei's actions were motivated by a desire to commit a hate crime against gays, however, I think that something deeper is going on: a fundamental disregard for humanity. Ravi and Wei were raised at a time that television programs like “Saturday Night Live” (SNL) thrived on making fun of others. SNL is not the only program which did this as entertainment has now crossed the line of relaxing humor to poking fun at others. This poking fun seems to have translated into the playing of dark - anything goes - pranks, as seemingly evidenced by Wei and Ravi. Whatever their individual motives were, they are responsible for the result. Unfortunately, Ravi and Wei may have been doing what seems to come natural — making fun of someone in an over-the-top way. Where does this behavior start?

In the coverage of Tyler Clementi's death I heard a female newscaster remark that in high school she and her friends delighted in writing the word "FAT" on a piece of paper and pinning it to the back of a fat student's shirt for everyone - but the student to see - "We thought nothing of it, " this perky newscaster stated without remorse. Sadly, generation after generation have been guilty of taking actions and making remarks that have resulted in tragic results for the targeted individual.

It has been seventy-six years since Lillian Hellman's play, The Children's Hour, was produced on Broadway, and thirty-nine years since the filmThe Children's Hour, based on the play, was produced. The synopsis is this: The protagonists, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, run an all girl's school. When Mary, an angry student spreads a false rumor that these two women have a lesbian relationship, the community's willingness to believe the false rumors, and to aid in spreading malicious gossip, results in them having to close their school. The lives of Karen and Martha are ultimately destroyed when they loose a court case to defend their innocence. Ultimately, one of the women, the character of Martha Dobie, begins to think that she indeed might have sexual feelings for Karen (who is engaged to be married to a man named Joe). When Martha confronts Karen about this - in the privacy of the home that they share - Karen insists that the strain of the school being closed, and the emotional drain of defending the gossip has taken its toll on Martha, and dismisses Martha's concerns. Karen goes out for a walk and becomes very worried about the state of Martha's well being. She rushes home to find the door bolted, when she forces it open, Karen discovers Martha is hanging from a noose, and has died from suicide.

Much like Mary, the young adolescent who started the rumor in the story of The Children's Hour, Ravi and Wei apparently did not consider the repercussions for their actions. Although their actions were senseless and cruel, I am not certain that Dahrun Ravi and Molly Wei's motives were akin to plotting a hate crime.

Because I was born with Neurofibromatosis (NF), I know this only too well. I have been the target of many cruel remarks and pranks in relation to the lumps and bumps on my skin that are a result of having NF. 

I even lost a job at a well-known New York City Museum because I was accused of being contagious due to my bumps (NF is not contagious) and was told people did not want to use equipment I had touched. I have also been the target of cruel remarks attributed to my legal blindness. "Doesn't it bother you that your eye turns inward? You look like a dog going blind" "How could someone love you with all your bumps and thick glasses." " Four-Eyes," "Blind as a Bat," and "Coke Bottles" are examples of the kinder remarks that  I have received over the years.

Whether it is unkind remarks made to an individual as was the case with me, or a false rumor like the one Mary started in The Children's Hour, or the very cruel actions of Wei and Ravi, people need to stop before they make a remark or perform an action and consider the longterm consequences.

Last night, the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra performed at the Nicholas Music Center- a performance that would've been Clementi's first with the orchestra. Before picking up his baton, the conductor, Kynan Johns announced, "let's hope the lessons we should learn from such a tragedy help to make our society better."

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