Friday, December 21, 2007

The trouble with the truth.

I’ve been thinking about this essay since the day it was published:

What’s a Teacher to Do?

No teacher wants to tell her students that their president is a liar and a criminal. And yet, our president is a liar and a criminal. As a teacher, should I tell children the truth, and act to uphold our Constitution and Bill of Rights?

I am charged to do just that through the legally binding state and local professional educator standard, requiring me to model the democratic ideal. My failure to do so could be grounds for my dismissal. But here’s the catch: doing so could also be grounds for my dismissal! What’s a conscientious teacher to do? Seize the teachable moment! Model the democratic ideal of participatory democracy by writing a guest opinion, a right all citizens have, thanks to the First Amendment. Kids, listen up. Here’s the truth.

This president has led us into a disastrous war through lies and deceit. It is a “high crime and misdemeanor” to lead a country into war through lies and deceit. Everyone agrees that students should have consequences when caught lying or cheating on tests. Teachers would get fired if caught lying or cheating on professional documents. Should we let the president get away with lying and cheating the American people?

And for the rest of the piece, teacher Wendy Rochman ponders the question: Aren’t we as teachers obligated to tell our students the truth, especially when they ask us for it, even if the truth as we see it might ruffle some feathers (meaning that Junior or Buffy might take that truth home and tell Mum and Daddy, who will then call the principal, demanding the teacher’s head on a pike)? Isn’t this especially true when we have a president who seems to have a severe allergic reaction to the truth, and who is destroying this country because of it?

We expect teachers to treat all students in an equitable manner. In fact, teachers are required to provide “equal learning opportunities” for all and be fair and equitable in upholding policies. Blatantly under-serving any student or ignoring any policy would put a teacher’s future employment into jeopardy. Furthermore, it’s against the law. What’s a professional educator to do? Expose and repair inequities!

This president claims that not all legislation needs to be enforced equally. With his signing statements, he decides what laws he wants to ignore. This undermines our constitutional system of checks and balances, which protects us from dictatorship. Should this president get away with ignoring the law and treating legislation inequitably?

The rest is here, and it’s worth your time.

Of course, critics of Ms. Rochman’s thesis will say that this is not “truth,” but opinion. She’s foisting her opinions on her kids, who are a captive audience. What I call “teaching,” right-wing critics of public education call “indoctrination.” And they’ll claim that teachers aren’t being paid to offer their “opinions.” We’re supposed to deal in facts, and most parents expect that facts should be it.

[This reminds of when Mrs Agitator and I went to Back To School Night this past September at my younger son’s high school. A smirking, rather smarmy parent asked the teacher in my kid’s World Civ class, “Do you believe everything you teach?” The teacher looked startled, as I would have been, coming out of the blue as the question had. I think the guy was trying to set the teacher up, and I sensed a follow-up pounce. The teacher was great, though. He collected himself, and then looked the dad right in the eye. “Yes,” he replied, “I do. And I will continue to do so until somebody can prove me wrong.“ And that was that. Next question.]

And, of course, that doesn’t happen. The facts-only part, I mean. That’s because education isn’t just about “facts.” It’s about ideas, and thoughts, and emotions, and, yes, opinions. Forming them, weighing them, pondering over them, sharing them, discussing them, arguing over them, changing them (sometimes).

Students, especially kids in the age group that I teach, want to know what their teachers think. They ask about our opinions on things all the time. They want to know how you feel about last Sunday’s Eagles’ game, about some pop star’s latest antics, about your favorite movie. Many kids these days feel more and more disconnected from their parents, even if they live with both biological life-givers. Many kids have their lives so heavily scheduled that they rarely if ever spend time just talking about stuff with one or both parents. Some kids spend virtually no free time with a parent, because the parent(s) are working so much, or are so caught up in their own busy-ness that they make no time for them. And many kids spend lots of time bouncing between two (and sometimes more) “homes,” and have no real connection to any of the adults in the lives.

Except us, their teachers. Because like us or not, the kids have to deal with us from 7:30 am to 2:00 pm, and sometimes longer, 180 days a year. And they really do want to know what the adults in their lives think. They really do care.

You’d think that discussion on topics like war and peace and social justice and stuff like that would be restricted to just a social studies class. Wrong. I teach reading and writing (and hopefully, soon, social studies, too), and what’s going on in the world comes up all the time. These topics come up when we discuss literature, because that’s what good literature does: it makes you ask questions about life. About the world. About the human condition. And when I teach writing, well, now, things just get completely out of control, especially when I teach persuasive writing or research writing. All those controversial topics! All that debate! All that argument! It’s amazing! We get loud, we get passionate, and everybody gets heard. We always discuss both or all sides of whatever issue is being kicked around, and at some point, the kids will inevitably ask me what I think. Sometimes, I pass on the opportunity. Just like when I blog, there are some topics I don’t share about, like my feelings about abortion. But sometimes I do share. I weigh my words carefully, but I tell them what I think. I share my “truth.”

I ran into this problem - whether or not to share - just this week. A member of our school community came to me asking if I’d help her out. A friend of hers had lost her son in Iraq earlier this year. The young man was killed in action this past spring. The mother was still in touch with the other men in her son’s outfit, an Army unit stationed in Anbar province. They’re out in the middle of nowhere, apparently: no running water, one hot meal a day, the whole depressing litany. She was hoping the maybe her friend - my colleague - could rustle up some school kids to send some holiday cards and letters to these guys, to make their lives a little happier for a moment.

Well, of course we could.

Now, every once in a while, I hear complaints from some of my anti-war, progressive friends (and Friends) that doing something that to them says you’re “supporting the troops” means you’re “supporting the war.” I always disagree. I personally do not have one of those phony-baloney magnets on my car, and never have. I think the whole yellow ribbon thing is a crock. I do not support the war. I hate the war. And I especially hate the fact that these folks have been sent over there because of a policy based on lies, deceit, and greed. I find their deaths to be an appalling waste and a terrible, irreparable tragedy. I do not care that they “signed up” and so they somehow can be seen as “deserving” what happens to them. Sorry, but no one deserves to be blown to pieces, shot to death, or maimed for life. I respectfully disagree with their position. No matter what I think of this war, no matter how screwed up and utterly wrong the people responsible for it might be, no matter how upset I get at the atrocities I read about, no matter how angry I get, I must temper all that with the knowledge that these are human beings we’re talking about. I do not agree with their choice to “serve” in this way, but the fact is they are there, in the way my father was there during the Korean War, in the way some of my older friends and neighbors were there during Vietnam. And they are our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers, our congregation members, our former students, our students’ parents and family members. They may be members of our families. And in spite of the fact that I do not like what they are doing over there, they are God’s children, too. And every day, I pray for them, to come home safe, and soon.

It would have been very easy for me to turn down the request that was made of me. My kids are right in the middle of a big writing project - our annual Oral History Essay - and the time it might take for each kid to knock out a card or two would be time away from this work. But I went along with it, for reasons that might make no sense to hard-core opponents of the war (of which I count myself a member). It was the right thing to do, I think. These guys are a million miles away from home. If they get a couple cheery cards from some middle school kids, wishing them well and expressing some compassionate sentiment such as “Stay safe!” or “Hope you come home soon!”, I have a hard time seeing how that’s a bad thing.

Besides, I have a 20 year old son. If he’d made a different choice, he could be one of them.

So the inevitable question got asked, as my kids dove into their card writing (with relish, I might add). “What do you think about the war, Mr. A.?” Well, I do have a “War Is Not the Answer” bumper sticker on one of my classroom filing cabinets: it’s really hard to miss. Then there are the anti-war and peace sign buttons on the lanyard that holds my ID badge (my “flair,” as my colleagues call it). And the anti-war and anti-Bush bumper stickers on my little truck. So, my sentiments are pretty much common knowledge to anyone I know who pays attention. But they asked me anyway. And so I told them. I shared my “truth”:

No, kids, I don’t support the war. I think the war in Iraq is wrong, and that it was started for a lot of very wrong and very bad reasons. I also believe that all war in general is wrong. War is the first resort of unimaginative minds. (They kinda frowned a bit at that line.) This is a deeply held belief I have had for many years, I told them. It’s also what my religion teaches me. But, I added, very real people are over there right now, and you know some of them (I have a number of kids with relatives overseas this year). The least we can do is share a kind word and a happy moment with them, especially at this time of year. (The cards won’t get there for weeks, but who cares.)

In the last three days, my writing students have composed over a hundred cards and letters for this one platoon of soldiers. They will each get at least three cards apiece. Some kids refused to participate, and that was fine with me. I didn’t ask why. I told them at the outset that this was a strictly voluntary activity. Some kids wrote three or four cards to different soldiers. Their notes were respectful, kind, and thoughtful. Not a lot of “hero worship,” just warm wishes for good health and a safe return. That’s where I had steered them, and that’s where they went. I am very proud of them.

They asked for my truth, and they got it.

Now it’s up to them to find their own.


An after-thought: After our mail went out yesterday, I had a visit from our principal, who stopped down to my room for a moment. She shared with me some very sad news. Last year at our eighth grade graduation, we’d invited three former students from our school who are all now active-duty military to come to the ceremony. They sat on stage in their uniforms and were treated as honored guests. I had a bit of a problem with the “militarization” of our program, but I was really in no position to do anything about it. It was what it was, and they are graduates of our school, not just props.

Well, one of them is home now. With a traumatic brain injury, caused by an IED. His life has been changed forever. And we have some more cards to write and send in January.

I hope none of the kids asks me what I think about that. That answer might get me fired.

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