I fear I sound like a broken record, but since we seem to be repeating the same cycle, here I go, again. Because here’s the thing. I do a lot of the same things over and over, again. I’m a high school teacher. I’m used to repetition. I get up early, even on weekends. I know routines. I respond to bells. I say, “Turn to page 173,” which inevitably yields at least three students saying, “What page?” and two students telling me they forgot their books. So I say it, again. And again. Sometimes I tell them to ask their neighbor, sometimes a student who knew the page before I even had to ask in the first place rolls her eyes. But I’m good at directions. Like I said before, I am good at repetition.
I’ve taught for nine years. I know the drill. I know how to repeat directions calmly. I know how to lighten the mood and I’ve got the Teacher Stare down. Most of the time, I know when to say nothing, when to say something and when to raise my voice. I know when to stand up. When to say, “Stop what you’re doing. Put everything down. Listen.” I know when to back off and when to lean in and when to have a private conversation with a student and when to contact a parent or guardian. I know when to forgo the lesson plan for more important matters. I know when to stick with the lesson plan to hold a community together. I know when to praise and when to ask for more. I know when to apologize and when to ask for an apology. I’m not a perfect teacher or a master teacher, but I am a great student of teaching and I continue to learn from my mistakes along the way.
I’ve taught a thousand students and probably somewhere around 5,000 classes. I’ve taught books so many times I can recite passages. I’ve spelled d-e-f-i-n-i-t-e-l-y on a black board and a green board and a white board and a SMART board more times than I can count. I know when a quiz will take 12 minutes or a writing activity will take 22. I used to tell students to push in their chairs every day, but now the chairs are attached to the desks. At the bell I say, “Don’t forget your reading! Have a great day!” They all say “Thank you.” That’s the thing about the school where I work. The students have been trained to say “thank you” at the end of class. They all do it and while some of my colleagues scoff at the insincerity of the robotics of it all, I have to say I like the ritual. I always say “thank you” in response, and, after what seemed like a very successful class, I will admit to sometimes thinking, “Yup, you’re right. You are welcome.” [insert mic drop]
When students tell me they didn’t do their homework I say, “That’s unfortunate.” Because it is. Because I just assign reading and not reading inhibits their participation in the class. Because this phrase allows for students who are lazy to feel lazy and students who have real excuses to feel less badly and for students who forgot in the first place to remember the next time. I am careful with my words. I am an English teacher. Of course, I am careful with my words.
And yet here I am, teaching five classes in a public school in a state where the governor is a demagogue and a country where the leading nominee for the Republican Party continues to use hate-filled, xenophobic, bigoted, sexist and racist language at every turn. This is my third presidential election cycle in the classroom. I didn’t talk about politics earlier in my career, not much, anyway. I would connect our books with the news, have students name Supreme Court justices for extra credit and analyze the rhetoric of various speeches, but I avoided a lot of political discussion, partially because I was learning how to lead discussions (not to mention how to be a teacher) and partially because I didn’t want to influence my students one way or the other. We talked about the significance of the nation electing our first black president while reading To Kill a Mockingbird, but I can’t recall if I told my students I attended President Obama’s 2009 inauguration. I certainly didn’t tell my students when I went to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” in DC several years later. (Side note: it might be time for another one of those.)
But times have changed. I disagreed with McCain and Romney on most — if not all — issues, but I didn’t need to talk about it with my students. Now, while I am assigning a synthesis essay on social justice and equality, Donald Trump is saying, “Ten feet taller.” While I am listening to students discuss cultural context and points of empathy in Purple Hibiscus, Cruz is calling for the monitoring of Muslim communities and Trump is calling for registration and deportation. Trump and Cruz and my very own governor Paul LePage repeatedly, over and over again, like broken records with one racist, patriarchal track make statement after statement I would never allow my students to say to each other in our classroom. They tout their racist remarks within chants of “USA!” and recently some party leaders have finally shown up to disavow what they have been saying for years in coded language and in political policy: that power belongs to the white and the male and the Christian, but not so Christian that they uphold the tenets of decency, sacrifice and kindness. They lust for the old America. You know, the one that was apparently really great. (For whom? we might ask in an English class in a grammar, civics and history lesson combined into one.) Trump abuses his wealth to woo the fear-filled disenfranchised in the same way despots abuse religion to create a desperate flock. He spews and repeats hate speech.
This may be the only trickle-down plan the Republican Party has actually enacted successfully. Because I see the effects. I see the trickling. It’s happening in our hallways and in our classrooms and in our lunchroom and in our community and in our state and in our country. Children are repeating hate speech. Trump has normalized a type of vernacular that allows violent, aggressive and racist language and actions to become commonplace. He has normalized the news stories: white students chanting “Build a wall!” at a high school basketball game targeting a team with students of color, white rally-goers sucker-punching black protestors, Nazi salutes and death threats and trolling and more. He has normalized hatred and fear of our neediest people and denigrates all the principles upon which this country was founded. But we know this, right? Because it keeps happening again and again.
So how do I address it in my classroom when I am not supposed to influence the political beliefs of my students?
Well, I am trying my best to influence them.
Maybe it goes against the tenets of teaching, but I ask about how they feel about the Trump hats we’ve seen in the hallways. When they ask me how I feel about Donald Trump, I am honest. I tell them he’s racist. Or, I follow John Oliver’s line of thinking that if he’s not actually racist, he’s pretending to be and at a certain point there’s no difference. I would never tell my students how to vote or how I vote, but I am not going to let them defend a man whose misogynistic history is trumped only by his xenophobia and racism, and, perhaps more importantly, I will not remain silent on the issue and I will not let those who are trying to influence the adults in their homes to be kinder to think they are alone. After all, I’m an English teacher and we spend a lot of time discussing the power of words and silence.
And here’s the other thing. After we talk, the students get it. They see through the noise and the bravado and the pugnacious militancy and can talk about the books we have read, the characters they have loved, the people in their lives who were immigrants once too, the friends they have known who have been bullied or were the bullies. Because that’s the thing about teenagers. They can be mercurial and angst-y and forgetful and mean to each other, but ultimately, they have an enormous capacity for kindness. They have yet to fall victim to intractable cynicism. They want to be loved and to love in return. They might not agree on foreign, domestic or monetary policy, but they can agree on fair treatment of all people. They are generous of spirit. Because they are human.
We have to allow for that human generosity in our classrooms. We have to allow for kindness and human decency to prevail. We have to unite as teachers to not shy away from discussing the current political climate and label Trump and his cronies for exactly what they represent: bullies, hate crimes and the insidious flip-side of blindly following the American Dream in red-white-and-blue packaged racism and xenophobia.
It is our duty as adults, as educators, as citizens of this world, to step in, to speak up, over and over, again. It is our duty to challenge the notion that the loudest, richest voice gets to say whatever he wants. It is our duty to model the importance, the utmost importance, of choosing to be kind. Again and again and again.