“a friend you haven’t made yet.”

With the 2012 election right around the corner, our televisions and websites have been inundated with lofty promises, public endorsements, and snarky sound bites. Furthermore, everyone (admittedly, myself included) appears to have something to say about each of the candidates, their platforms, and the “correct” vision for our nation’s future.

It’s easy to get swept up in the rhetoric, especially as many of these issues are highly polarized (and thus highly emotional). From social issues like gay marriage and abortion rights and rape to the national deficit and job creation, we are shown candidates that seemingly disagree on all topics—which in turn means that each group of partisan supporters must disagree on all topics.

Add name-calling and bullying to the mix, and the situation quickly becomes volatile.
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There’s already been a great deal of discussion surrounding hatemonger “conservative political pundit” Ann Coulter, for her incendiary and classless use of the term “retard” in reference to President Obama. I refuse to fuel the fire by engaging Coulter on this topic: her desperate words do not interest me.

What does matter, however, is the vast outpouring of support for those disparaged by her offensive remarks and the public outcry against this hateful rhetoric. But in our denunciation of her bad behavior, we must be careful: all too often, we elect to “fight fire with fire” and—although it may provide a temporary feeling of vindication—this approach offers nothing conducive to effecting change.

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It is in recognition of this fact that John Franklin Stephens’ “Open Letter to Ann Coulter” has made such a positive impact on so many people in the past few days. Where there is bitterness and division, Stephens counters with acceptance and kindness. He reminds us that “being compared to people like [him] should be considered a badge of honor” because “no one overcomes more than [they] do and still loves life so much.”

Stephens’ first op-ed piece, “Using the word ‘retard’ to describe me hurts,” is even more poignant as those of us fortunate enough to “fit in” are reminded of our blessing:

“The hardest thing about having an intellectual disability is the loneliness. We process information slower than everyone else. So even normal conversation is a constant battle for us not to lose touch with what the rest of you are saying. Most of the time the words and thoughts just go too fast for us to keep up, and when we finally say something it seems out of place.

So, what’s wrong with “retard”? I can only tell you what it means to me and people like me when we hear it. It means that the rest of you are excluding us from your group. We are something that is not like you and something that none of you would ever want to be. We are something outside the “in” group. We are someone that is not your kind.”

This is the sort of essay that needs to be present in our schools, our offices, and in our homes. The distinction between casually and callously throwing around a disparaging term (simply for the sake of being disparaging) and Stephens’ thoughtful and sensitive response is overwhelming.

As I read his words, I am filled with admiration and pride that there are still people fighting for kindness and promoting tolerance. I am persuaded, I am energized, and I am prepared to support fellowship by eliminating hatred.

size matters.

Yesterday at the Universal Blueford School, a struggling West Philadelphia charter school, Mitt Romney remarked that smaller class sizes are not significant in determining the success of our public school students. Already this has caused a considerable amount of heated opposition, and—indeed—one’s own intuition seems to reject Romney’s statement.

After all, parents and teachers aren’t advocating for more students and a higher student/teacher ratio in their schools. On the contrary, they’re fighting for smaller class sizes to ensure that each child is able to receive more individualized attention and one-on-one time to assist student comprehension.

Romney is often criticized for being “out of touch” with the American people (e.g. Biden, Baldwin, even the Auto Workers’ Union), and this may appear to be one more instance in support of that opinion. While I disagree with dismissing altogether the significance of class size as a factor, I do think that much of his statement was taken out of context.

Granted, it is an election year, so there will be an understandable amount of “tweaking” to what members of each political party say. However, Obama spokeswoman Lis Smith’s rhetorical response that “Larger class sizes are the answer to a better education?” demonstrates just how far Romney’s initial statement has been pushed.

Instead, Romney’s main point is that “it’s not the the classroom size that is driving the success of those school systems.” This is significantly distinct from the purported claim that class sizes don’t matter at all, and I think this claim is the real message behind Romney’s stance that has—regrettably—gotten lost in the political circus. Of course, smaller class sizes and student achievement are often linked, but it is not the size itself that matters, but rather the ability of teachers to identify weaknesses and provide personalized attention to students in need. Obviously, this is all facilitated by smaller classes, but it is ultimately the motivation of the teachers to inspire academic confidence and promote a healthy learning environment that makes the real difference.

I do feel strongly about ensuring a fair shake for both candidates (as long as they’re willing to play fairly in the first place). Romney has managed to alienate a large number of Americans through both comments and practices, and he is solely responsible for those results. However, it is important to listen to the whole message and remember that—while we can interpret his statements as an attack of “larger vs. smaller class sizes”—addressing the issue of class size would be treating the symptom, rather than the underlying problem.