“There's a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep 'em all away from you. That's never possible.”
- Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mocking Bird
Since the election, hate and violence have slithered out of their holes. Before the election, those snakes--snakes meaning rage, not people--followed the unspoken rule for the most part: express all the malevolence you want, but confine that venom to your den. It was easy for those in privilege to pretend there were no snakes.
When Donald Trump campaigned, he let the snakes loose.
And now the poison is in the public square, in every neighborhood, at our fuel stations, in restaurant parking lots--anywhere that different people encounter each other--even in classrooms. And that hissing, venomous xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and racism is impossible to unsee. Evidence of this is documented on Twitter, by The Week,The Southern Poverty Law Center, Quartz, The Washington Post, The Nation, CNN, and the L.A. Times, among other publications.
And that should feel profoundly wrong.
"There's something in our world that makes men lose their heads—"
- Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mocking Bird
Journalist Masha Gessen writes books about autocrats. She says that people begin to normalize events that we initially experienced as shocking. Remember the first time we saw Steven Seagal weighing over 300 pounds? It just felt wrong. Now when we look at the martial artist's first movies, that thin agile guy with lightning hands looks weird.
Remember how shocked we were when Trump called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States"? Then he used phrases like "just considering" and later changed the word "ban" to the rhetorically friendlier "suspend"--all the while claiming to "want a country that loves each other.”
There's too much contradictory yapping to keep track of . . . and so much pompous stupidity. "I alone can fix it." But don't worry, his decisions will be great. "Believe me."
Naw, he wouldn't do that to Muslims, we think.
But because Presidential powers give him complete authority to implement this dumpster-fire idea, we'd better be sure.
Through his unparalleled double-speak, tortured syntax, and self-reversals, Trump benefits from our confusion.
We can't follow the shifting arguments long enough to stay mad at any single position for long. So we dismiss everything he has to say as just the soon-to-be Commander and Bloviator bloviating.
That's a danger, according to Gessen, who recommends that we "believe the autocrat" when he announces what he's going to do.
Last night, I listened to Gessen on a podcast, warning that people should look out when an elected President continues to hold rallies. And when I woke up this morning, a headline made me forget to breathe. Trump, according to the article, wanted to continue holding big rallies as the leader of our country.
I imagine another four years of . . .
overstuffing stadiums with white people,
chanting dark slogans,
ecstatically cheering a man,
shouting about endless winning,
denouncing races who threaten the homeland,
promising a return to an idealized past,
What could go wrong?
When loud nativists goad people into hateful words and actions, that's the cue for teachers step up. My wise colleague, Liz Galarza, says her code during these chaotic times is simple:
"Don't hate. Don't be afraid."
Hate speech and violence will increase, sometimes in our schools. In the face of that, our job as U.S. teachers is to remember who we are and remind students who they are.
It's the time to put button up our flat-front khakis and be our best selves, in the manner of Atticus Finch, who said,
"But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends. . .”
Should we find ourselves overcome by anger, Atticus Finch has advice for that, too:
"No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ‘em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change.”
Teaching is never neutral. Our literature choices, our beliefs about citizenship, what we talk about in class and how, what speech is encouraged and what is not, and how we treat every student are all political acts.
And we should be honored to assume this responsibility.
"When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness' sake. But don't make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles 'em."
-Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
Michael Donlea, an award-winning elementary teacher, reminded me today on the Talks with Teacher Voxer group that we are teachers, and our most effective tool is modeling. Donlea said that this election means that when we witness hate speech, we will have to step in "instead of just rolling our eyes."
This calls for us to get into the muck and say uncomfortable truths. But there is a big payoff. When teachers model thoughtfulness, clarity, gentleness, generosity, empathy, and courage, their influence can lead others back from the brink.
This is our Atticus Finch moment.
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