6 min read

Words are arrows
and can pierce you hard.

Anger drips
from the
used like

And pain
is remembered
in the
— White Deer of Autumn

Mr. Horn walked into the sixth-grade classroom. Without speaking, he picked up the chalk and wrote on the board, Words are arrows. Then he asked his students to say the first thing that came into their minds when he mentioned a particular race or nationality. Whatever they said, he’d write on the board.

Some of the students squirmed in their seats. Others glanced at each other with suspicious eyes. Perhaps Mr. Horn was kidding. Even the class thug, Wayne Cassidy, almost smiled—something he never did.

His comrade, Lincoln Crosswell, laughed. “We gonna get into trouble for what we say?” he asked.

Mr. Horn assured them that they wouldn’t, but he did require them to be honest in their responses. He also asked them not to think too hard about it. For some students like Wayne and Lincoln, that wasn’t a difficult request to follow. “Tell me about Italians,” Mr. Horn said.

“What about Mazzada over there?” sneered Cassidy. “He gonna get mad or something?”

Mr. Horn glanced at David Mazzada. Bright, strong-looking, and of Italian descent, he was a special student. “He’ll get his turn, Wayne. I assure you; everyone will get his turn.” The students were spooked by the way Mr. Horn said that.

“What’s this got to do with our lesson on American Indians?” asked Stephanie O’Neil. She was probably searching for a way not to do anything and to go to sleep, as she usually did.

“Maybe nothing, Stephanie. Maybe everything.”

“Greasers!” bellowed Wayne. “Italians are greasers.”

“Gangsters!” Stephanie shouted, surprising everyone because she was usually asleep by now. “You know, like that movie, ‘The Mafia Father.’”

“I think you mean The Godfather, Steph,” said Mr. Horn. “The Mafia is an organization of crime.”

“Yeah,” said another, “and they wear a lot of gold jewelry and stuff.”

“That’s because they’re into gambling and smuggling,” added Stephanie. “And aren’t the men really hairy and the women all fat?”

Mr. Horn was writing their responses on the board as he had said he would. Occasionally he would wince as one of the word arrows struck, but the students couldn’t see him. “What are Italians called?” he asked.

“Wops!” was the unanimous reply. Someone else said “Guinea.” Cassidy emphasized “greaser” one more time.

David Mazzada sat in quiet disbelief. He wanted to defend his nationality, but too many students were yelling comments. Mr. Horn couldn’t write them down fast enough. For the first time, David realized that he really didn’t know much about being Italian.

He felt bad for his dad and mom. They worked hard. It hurt him to think that people thought of them this way. His dad had struggled to establish his own electrical business, and his mom was a nurse on the night shift at the local hospital.

Next, Mr. Horn wrote black people on the board. A wave of words washed over him.

“Niggers!” shouted some. “Buckwheat,” laughed another. “They steal.” “They do drugs!” exclaimed others.

“Good runners.” “Yeah, good basketball players.” “Not very smart at school, though.”

“Rap music,” yelled Laurie Barnes, eager to include herself in the “discussion.” Laurie was considered by many boys and girls to be the school’s most beautiful girl. Her long blond hair glistened. Her soft, rosy cheeks yielded to a wide, pretty smile. “Blacks are good dancers, but they swear a lot and do drugs and . . . they beat women!” The fact that she was sitting in front of Bernita didn’t seem to matter. Maybe Laurie had never realized that Bernita was black.

Mr. Horn just kept writing. Bernita was one of his best students, particularly noted for her exceptionally well-written papers. She sat with almost the same expression as did David Mazzada. Lincoln Crosswell, who hadn’t hesitated to reveal his ideas about Italians to the class, slouched silently at his desk.

“My father never beat no woman,” he mumbled angrily.

“What about whites?” asked Mr. Horn. “Do you know anything about whites?”

Most of the students were white. Mr. Horn’s question brought on a major silence in the room, but Lincoln Crosswell smashed it hard. His buddy in tyranny, Wayne Cassidy, sank into his desk as he braced for similar treatment. Wayne hadn’t hesitated to express his ideas about blacks, and he had hurt Lincoln.

“Honkies!” cried Lincoln. “Rich honkies!”

“Poor athletes and pretty lazy,” Bernita added softly.

“Yeah,” said one white student. “Whites aren’t good athletes, but they do much better in school.”

“All white people care about is money!” snapped Lincoln. “And the reason you do good in school is because white people are always cheating.”

“What about Asians and Orientals? We can’t leave Yang out.” Mr. Horn glanced at Yang and smiled. Yang was a creative boy born in the United States of a Thai father and Vietnamese mother. He grew up speaking three languages and hearing stories about how his parents had barely escaped the Vietnam War with their lives.

Mr. Horn’s eyes scanned to Tai-Ling. She was Chinese and also a good student. Tai Ling’s greatest gift was her art. All the kids admired her drawings.

“Slant eyes!” responded one student. “Chinks,” added another. “Japs.” “Gooks.” The names poured out. “Yeah, they all know karate.” “They speak funny.”

“Germans?” asked Mr. Horn.

“Nazis!” shouted Wayne Cassidy, apparently recovered from Lincoln’s idea of whites.

“Puerto Ricans?”

“Spics.” “They never wash.” “They do drugs and buy lots of jewelry.”

“And the Irish—what do we know about them?”

“Shamrocks!” one student called out.

“They drink a lot.” “They wear a lot of green.”

These comments baffled Stephanie. She wasn’t wearing green. Her parents drank only an occasional beer or wine. She had never seen them drunk.

“Don’t they believe in leprechauns, Mr. Horn?” smiled Yang. “You know—those little people who live in the woods.”

Mr. Horn wrote leprechauns on the board. “Let’s switch to Jewish people,” he continued.

“All they care about is money.” “Yeah, they’re really cheap.”

“They wear those funny beanies and they’ve got big noses,” added Stephanie—amazingly still awake!

“And what do people call Jews?” asked Mr. Horn, writing as fast as he could.

“Jew boy!” laughed one student.

“Kikes,” added another.

“What about Jamil over there in the corner? His parents are Palestinian and Lebanese.”

One student quickly exclaimed, “Terrorists!”

“Towel heads,” snickered Lincoln. “They got all that money from oil, too.”

“Yeah, and they got lots of wives,” added Laurie. “You know, like herons or something like that.”

Mr. Horn smiled and shook his head. “Herons are birds, Laurie. I think you mean harems.

“The French—what do we think about them?” asked Mr. Horn. This time he spotted Michael Roulet, who suddenly sat straight up. His face was very serious. He had been in the United States for only a year, but already was in advanced reading classes.

“Sexy women,” said Cassidy. The whole class giggled when he said that.

“What do we call French people?”

Michael Roulet wouldn’t give anyone else a chance to answer. “Oh, I know what they call me, Mr. Horn. They call me ‘Frenchy’ or ‘french fry.’ And I think it is stupid!”

Mr. Horn also included Mexicans, who most everyone agreed were called “wetbacks” and were “lazy” because they always took siestas. Everyone but Carlos Navales agreed.

Carlos thought about the meaning or the madness of what Mr. Horn was doing. Mr. Horn and his father were friends. Both taught at the same school. He knew they respected each other. That’s what puzzled him. Carlos’s dad wasn’t lazy. He had two college degrees and spoke four languages fluently.

The students went on shouting words faster than the gush of water from a whale’s blowhole. Steve Polawski got it really bad. It seemed everyone knew a “Polish joke.”

Even pretty Laurie Barnes had to suffer, especially when the guys started shouting out how blondes were all “dumb”!

All Laurie could feel was hurt and anger.

The board was filled with descriptions of everyone’s race or nationality. Everyone felt the pain of the “word arrows.”

Mr. Horn turned, took a few steps back, and looked at the class. His students sat shamefully still, feeling foolish and embarrassed. The fun was over. Now they sat and stared at what they had said about each other. They stared at the piercing words.

Bernita spoke first. “Pretty bad, Mr. Horn. Isn’t it?”

“Stereotypes are usually bad, Bernita. Worse, they are usually wrong. When we stereotype, we often take something negative about a few people and make it belong to a whole group or race of people.” Mr. Horn walked to the back of the quiet room. He leaned against the bulletin board that displayed all their finest papers. For a few moments, he stared out the window. “If we’re going to experience the pain of word arrows, I suggest that you make shields to defend yourselves,” he said.

“Tomorrow we’re going to learn some things about the American Indian. But first, I suggest that you start preparing your shields. I want you to write one paragraph responding to the stereotype of who you are. Then write one about a friend of yours in class responding to the stereotype of that person.”

The bell rang suddenly. Everyone left, unusually quiet. Hands in his pockets, Mr. Horn walked slowly to the front of the room. He kept staring at the words he had scribbled on the board under the topic Words are arrows.

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