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Public Apologies as Teachable Moments

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In an old 1970s song, Elton John sang, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” In the case of recent public meltdowns, most notably those of singer Kanye West, U.S. Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC), and tennis star Serena Williams, getting the “sorry” part done doesn’t seem to be too difficult; however, one must ask the most salient question about this kind of despicable behavior usually followed by an apology: is it a teachable moment for our children?

Rep. Wilson is probably off most kids’ radar screens, but he still is a Congressman and his behavior occurred on national television. If he can interrupt the President’s address to Congress, why can’t a kid yell out something at a school assembly? Or in class? Rep. Wilson did make an apology to President Obama, but isn’t the damage already done?

Serena Williams is, as I believe all professional athletes should be, a role model for young people. She is specifically a role model for young girls who aspire to play tennis and be just like her. For her to react the way she did is inexcusable, even if she did come back the next day and submit a formal apology. What does this kind of thing actually teach kids?

Finally, Kanye West, a talented young fellow, imploded at the MTV Music Awards show, grabbing the microphone from Taylor Swift who had just won an award for Best Female Video. This is a show that kids do watch and, after seeing this, my eight-year old daughter, a fan of Swift, wanted to know, “Why did that bad man do that to Taylor?” I’d say many of the adults watching wanted to know too. West appeared the next evening on the new The Jay Leno Show and promptly gave an apology and even almost cried. What are we to make of this kind of thing?

It is obvious in these three cases that the apology is made as damage control, but in all three cases I question the sincerity of the apology. Still, as adults, parents and teachers struggle to find a way to make sense of these issues and break them down into a teachable moment, and since they are indeed teachable moments, it is a compelling necessity to address them with our youngsters.

What did I say to my daughter about Kanye West? I told her that he was obviously excited about his friend Beyonce not winning the award, just as my daughter might get upset if one of her friends didn’t win a singing contest at school. I pointed out that she knows it would be wrong to rush up on stage in front of all the students and claim that her friend should have won because her song was better. My daughter understood this example, but she wanted to know whether, if she had done something “bad like that,” would “sorry” be okay? I said it would be good, but it does not change the unacceptable behavior, and that unacceptable behavior should have consequences.

I think the biggest problem is that kids see this kind of thing and believe “sorry” is sufficient, when most times it is not. Yes, Serena Williams was fined $10,500 for her reprehensible behavior involving a call she disagreed with from the line judge, and she may face additional penalties, but do kids connect with that? My feeling is that consequences have to fit the crime, so to speak, and fining Ms. Williams a paltry amount of money (she makes $500,000 for the U.S. Open alone) seems ridiculous.

And what of Rep. Wilson’s abhorrent behavior? For yelling “You lie” as the President of the United States was speaking to a joint session of Congress, he is getting just a slap on the wrist. The House voted to “formally disapprove” of Wilson’s rant, but what this resolution does is nothing but symbolic. Republicans are calling the measure partisan politics, but do they think he should just walk away from this with no reprimand? How is that an example for our children? Sadly, it is not.

In all these cases the people who did something inappropriate basically got away with it. In fact, in some odd way, these things probably will enhance their careers. Extremists will no doubt now want to support Wilson even more, and West earns some kind of street credibility as a guy who stands up for what he thinks is right. As for Ms. Williams, she was only defending herself against a bad call. No harm, no foul, right?

Obviously, this kind of thing will continue to happen. If Wilson were sanctioned more seriously, perhaps losing his ability to vote on key issues for a time; if Williams were seriously punished, say, banning her from the Australian Open to make her really feel it in the pocketbook; and if West were forced to give a sizable amount of money to a charity of Taylor Swift’s choice, maybe we could say that the apology was more than just words. As it stands, however, it is just an easy way out, a quick fix, and kids are very smart and know that.

I think that each time something like this happens, teachers can address it and use it in a lesson on right and wrong. There also should be an extremely careful plan to highlight the proper way to do what people like West, Wilson, and Williams wanted to do. Students need to understand the true art of discourse: we can debate an issue intelligently, coming down on different sides, but always respecting the other point of view as we proceed.

In the end it’s all about making sure that our children learn that doing things the right way really does matter and, more importantly, that people put on pedestals are not always worthy of being looked up to. It is our job as parents and teachers to make certain we are there when their heroes fall, in order to not just pick up the pieces but also make clear to them that “sorry” isn’t just a word to say. They must also know that some kind of appropriate and positive action to prove the sorrow must take place. We need to make every effort to show our children the right way to handle these challenges, so they can live their lives in the best possible way.

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charlie Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • http://heymonkey.blogspot.com Jim Vivanco

    I think of all the examples you cite, Joe Wilson’s apology should have been qualified. He should have apologized for calling the the President a liar during his speech BUT he should stick by the fact he thinks he lied. The Apology should be about the outburst, not his sentiments.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Thanks for the comment, Jim. I don’t disagree with you, but the point here is that poor behavior in our society rarely gets punished, especially if it involves a celebrity or sports figure. What I am most concerned about is what kids take away from these things. Thanks again.