Dignity in the Twenty-First Century or How to Overcome Your Inner Seventh Grader

We can learn a lot about how to treat one another by reflecting on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and our own most embarrassing seventh-grade blunders.

THIS SEMESTER, I again taught Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which on March 3 celebrated its 50th anniversary of publication. At the book’s conclusion, the narrator, in conversation with his friend Bernard O’Hare, predicts the world’s population will reach seven billion by the year 2000. Envisioning all of these people, the narrator muses, “I suppose they will all want dignity.”1 

Each time I teach Vonnegut’s novel, I think about this assertion. Do we all want dignity? Do we all need dignity? What to tell you, some of whom studied Vonnegut’s words with me, about dignity? 

This thinking led me to a vivid recollection of one of the most undignified times of my life: my seventh-grade year at Nevin Platt Junior High in Boulder, Colorado. Perhaps this is because my youngest son, Isaac, is now in the seventh grade. Isaac is maybe the nicest kid I have ever known—cheery, optimistic, mostly guileless—and as his dad I confess that watching him enter the meat grinder of seventh grade has been difficult for me. When I was a seventh grader, I was not the impressive physical specimen you might see before you now but a skinny kid whose stretched-out T-shirts hung on him fairly unattractively. Like Isaac, I was friendly, kind, and smart—or at least I like to remember I had all these qualities—and to make matters worse, I was my family’s oldest child, which meant that I entered seventh grade alarmingly unaware of what awaited me.

The keenest distillation of those unknown horrors was seventh-grade PE class. First, we had to change our clothes in a locker room, and too late I found out that no one really wore that athletic supporter that all the boys were supposedly required to use. After I endured a day of brief mockery, I adjusted my attire, but there was no escaping gym class itself, which for the boys meant several weeks of wrestling. All of us would be asked to sit around a huge circle printed on a padded mat, and after some brief instruction about wrestling’s rules and techniques, the gym coach would shout out two boys’ last names, ask them to enter the circle, and at his whistle’s blast, wrestle until one of us pinned the other or a certain amount of time elapsed. The coach would repeat this Darwinian drill with other pairs through the end of class. Names, whistle, takedown, pin—over and over again.

Much to my chagrin, the coach shouted out my name early into our first wrestling session. He matched me with a boy whom I didn’t know since we hadn’t attended the same elementary school. Presumably this boy’s school had been at the other end of a magical beanstalk because whatever he had going on could only be described as glandular—early onset of puberty or some other malady that left him a teen behemoth. Moreover, as I could observe even before the fateful blast of the whistle, this man-kid sweated profusely, which all but eliminated any chance that I could successfully grapple him and which introduced a special ick factor that turned my already-fluttering stomach. In mere seconds, this gargantuan pancaked me, and there I lay soaked in the syrup of his prodigious perspiration. Surely, you think, this had to be the nadir of my early seventh-grade year, right? Nope. Day after day, the coach paired us in the padded panopticon. “Hickman,” he cried, as once again the mammoth boy stood to meet me, the two neurons in his lizard brain firing one-two-one-two at the whistle’s blast, propelling him toward me with his punishing draft horse legs and his weird, wet glow.

As time and again I picked myself up out of the oil slick my slight frame and the boy’s beefy body left on the padded mat, I assure you that all I wanted was some dignity. I didn’t even care if I won—that would have been nice, I suppose, but inasmuch as it was a virtual impossibility, I would have simply settled for something to save some face in front of my friends, anything that didn’t look like me running for my life with a dripping Goliath one more grab-and-smash away from my crushing loss. You’ve probably heard that stupid saying that “pain is just weakness leaving the body.” You know what? Sometimes it’s just pain, and you hope that it doesn’t puddle around you to deepen your humiliation.

We all want dignity, don’t we? In my American Literary History class, one of the texts I most like to teach is Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, a fine sample of some of the literature produced during the Civil War and a masterful example of American oratory. At the time Lincoln delivered the speech, the Civil War was a mere month away from its formal conclusion. As such, Lincoln could have used the occasion to rub the Confederacy’s nose in its inevitable defeat, but Lincoln chose instead to remind his audience that people on both sides of the conflict “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.” Lincoln concludes with these famous words:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with

firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,

let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind

up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall

have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his

orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish

a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with

all nations.2

Lincoln understood that what people finally wanted was dignity and a fair shake—to start anew, to put bad ideas and poor decisions behind them while saving some face. He also saw that the path to this shared dignity comes through its precursor, civility—the act of treating others with graciousness even if we disagree with them or find them or their views unpalatable.

As students of the humanities, I hope that in our mastery of languages, literatures, and philosophies we also learned why dignity and civility both matter. It would be a tragedy if in teaching how to think, to analyze, to write, and to persuade all we have done is to weaponize students to attack, to defame, to demean, or otherwise to eviscerate intellectually those with whom we don’t see eye-to-eye or to take down those whose skills with language, reason, and thought are not as fully developed. “Who is my neighbor?” a smug lawyer asked Jesus.3 I turn that question to you: is your neighbor someone who holds different political views than yours? Is your neighbor an anonymous troll on an Internet message board? Is your neighbor the boorish guy at work whose uncouth nature nauseates you? The truth is that as we more fully enter the world, we find out that many adults never left seventh grade. They feel that their cliques, their name-calling, and their viciousness helps them to get ahead in life, and sometimes it does, as they get the laughs at the party or beat you for the promotion. But let us choose civility so as to afford all people their dignity, with malice toward none, with charity for all, whether we feel they deserve it or not. That way, when sometimes we falter and revert to our worst seventh-grade selves—and we all will at some point— we can hope for the grace of similar forgiveness, love, and charity to come our way from civil people around us who have enough character not to take advantage of our weakness.

As I’ve gotten older and wiser, I’ve learned to imagine my wrestling nemesis not as the caricature of the story I shared but as an actual human being with complex character. It has occurred to me, for instance, that perhaps PE class gave this oversized seventh grader a moment to shine at a time when he craved the respect of his peers as much as I did, stabilizing his own shaky self-esteem and soothing untold anxieties. Hopefully, he grew up to have a heart as big as his body and hopeful for the future. Maybe civility and dignity first emerge in charitable imaginations of each other like these as we push past our preconceptions into new possible perceptions of our nuanced lives.

1. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (New York: Dell, 1969), 212. 2. Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address,” in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, shorter 9th ed., edited by Robert S. Levine (New York: W. W. Norton, 2017), 1:802. 3. Luke 10:29.