The Challanges of Teaching Truth in the Age of Trump: If I Had Not Retired, I May Have Been Fired!

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I remember when my daughter announced that Donald Trump had entered the race for the Republican nominee. I laughed, thinking it was a joke. How could a shady businessman and reality TV host earn the trust of the American public? It seemed absurd. I watched The Apprentice for the first few seasons – it was entertaining enough. However, after witnessing what I perceived as sexist comments directed at Aubrey O’Day (no relation) and Lisa Lampanelli, I quit watching the show. My ambivalence to “The Donald” transformed into disdain, and I could no longer view a TV show that supported misogyny in any form. It was unfathomable to me that such a man could be elected to the most powerful position in the world.

For the 2015-2016 school year, I transferred to Western High School, the largest Title I school (essentially the poorest school) in Nevada. Demographically, the school was roughly 71% Latino, 14% African American, 10% White, and 5% other. The first question upon meeting me that my students wanted to know was whether or not I supported Donald Trump.

Previously, I never revealed my political affiliation to students. In 2012, at my students’ urging, I surveyed my students to determine which primary candidate they thought I supported. Mitt Romney received the most votes. Clearly, I had done a good job at presenting a neutral perspective. Only the most politically astute students ascertained that Barack Obama was my candidate – I was, in fact, an Obama delegate to the county and state conventions in 2008 and 2012.

At Western, when asked point blank if I supported Donald Trump, I could not take a neutral position. As a white woman at an ethnically diverse school, I would have had no credibility if students suspected that I was a Trump supporter, and it was important to me that my students knew that I did not support a man who I believed was not worthy of the job. Many of my students at Western were undocumented, or their parents were. Their fear was real. Throughout the year, I reassured students that there was no way Mr. Trump would gain the nomination, let alone win. We observed the spectacle, we discussed the issues, and we watched in horror as Trump’s campaign gained traction. Nearly every student in every class was outspokenly against Donald Trump.

Only one of my students at Western vocally supported Donald Trump. This student also insisted that President Obama was a Muslim. I calmly stated that he was mistaken and inquired about what factual evidence he possessed to support this claim. From his phone, the student showed me a photo of Obama in front of a large piece of cloth hanging on a wall. The student said that Obama was standing in front of a Muslim prayer rug. I pointed out that the president was at an official function in what appeared to be a foreign country where he had no control over the decor. Plus, the wall hanging was significantly larger than a Muslim prayer rug. I explained how Obama was criticized for attending the church pastored by Jeremiah Wright. It did not matter, there was nothing I could say to shake him of his misguided convictions. He was a smart kid and a good student, who did not impress me as a racist.

At age 15/16, most 10th graders are just becoming politically aware and engaged. It was my job as their Social Studies teacher to nurture their political mindfulness.Thus, current events were always an important feature in my classes. I encouraged students to debate the issues, and whenever either side of a debate was lacking, I would play the devil’s advocate in the argument. About a quarter of my students preferred to stay out of the fray and just listen to the classroom debates and discussions. No one was ever pressured to share or justify their political beliefs, as the classroom should always be a safe place to examine the facts and explore one’s ideas.

The Ugly and Uncomfortable Truth

  • During the presidential campaign, I was shocked and appalled at the words that came out of candidate Trump’s mouth:
    • Calling Mexicans criminals and rapists.
    • Stating that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose support.
    • Denying that John McCain was a war hero.
      • While I do not support most of McCain’s policies, his service and sacrifice to our nation was heroic.
      • McCain further impressed me when a woman at one of his rallies attempted to malign then-candidate Barack Obama by saying he was an Arab, and McCain politely and unequivocally shut her down, stating that he was “a decent family man and citizen.”
    • Mocking the disabled reporter.
      • CNN,My brother died from Muscular Dystrophy, (see my blogpost “Christmas Stockings” for a glimpse into my childhood), and this action cut me to the core.
    • Spouting demeaning comments about the Muslim Gold Star family.
      Boasting on the Access Hollywood tape about sexually assaulting women.
  • Since becoming president, Trump’s actions have been even more disturbing.
    • Declaring that there were decent people on both sides of the Charlottesville protest.
    • Retweeting scandalous and misleading videos about Muslims attacking Whites to incite racial tension.
    • And now, making derogatory comments about Salvadorans, Haitians, and the entire continent of Africa.

Bottom Line: Our Nation Elected a Racist.

While writing this blogpost and listening to CNN – the current background music to my retired life – at 12:20 pm Pacific time on Friday, January 12, a man interviewed in Africa stated of Trump, “We expect more of him. We expect him to be an example.”

Since WWII, the United States has been the leader of the free world. While discussing this fact with my students, I routinely pointed out what a short period of leadership this actually was, noting that while Rome dominated the Mediterranean region for 800 years, I did not expect U.S. hegemony to last nearly that long. What I did not anticipate was the demise of our leadership to come so quickly and for an American president to literally relinquish our position of global leadership. (See my blogpost “Trump’s Short Game” for commentary on the consequences of abandoning our position as global leader.) In my opinion, Trump’s actions are truly treasonous.

A subset of Americans – roughly 35% – support President Trump, including some of my friends and family members. While many Americans are uncomfortable with Trump’s Twitter rants, others relish his trash-talking tendencies. Many Americans are tired of the politically correct speech expectations of recent decades, and they wanted someone like Trump who wasn’t afraid to take on established norms. Having lost trust with the business-as-usual machinations of Washington elites, they wanted someone to shake things up, and Trump promised to “drain the swamp.” For decades, many Americans have advocated running the nation (and school districts) like running a business. And they finally elected a businessman to do the job.

Trump’s success as a businessman is undeniable. He is a master at marketing – especially himself – and he is skilled at hiring great people – especially lawyers – to enact his desires and find loopholes to maximize his profits, such as not paying subcontractors or delivering on promises. He is the quintessential Machiavellian prince, whose bad actions justify any end result that personally benefits himself and his cronies – essentially the 1%.

As an educator, my job was to prepare students for their future by building their academic skills, developing a lifelong love for learning, and nurturing their self-confidence so that they could pursue and achieve their personal and career dreams. As a Social Studies teacher, my job expanded to also prepare students to be functioning citizens of our great democracy by requiring them to analyze how the historical past affects the present and how to critically evaluate how current policies will affect the future. So how do you explain away to students Trump’s bullying tweets? If I as a teacher made similar comments on social media – not even in front of my students – I would be fired, as would most working people. Yet our president is allowed to speak his race-baiting filth and spread dangerous lies on a daily basis.

The majority of my teaching career was spent at two amazing and nationally-ranked magnet high schools. In that situation, I would have relied on simply allowing the facts of Trump-talk to speak for themselves and monitor/facilitate student debate/discussion. However, in a teaching assignment wherein students feel – and indeed are – targeted by the president’s words and actions, taking a neutral stance is complicit support. When my students and their families are maligned and threatened by the president of the United States, it is my duty as an educator, a mentor, an American, and a human being to acknowledge the injustice of this president’s words and actions.

The World Is Watching!

We are in dangerous and uncharted territory. This president needs to be less concerned with how his comments and actions play with his base (the 35%) and be more concerned with how his comments and actions play with our allies and enemies and how they affect our international status. Reputations are hard to repair. President Trump’s supporters in Congress and in the business world will be held accountable, as will be teachers – particularly Social Studies teachers at the high school level – who fail to acknowledge the truth of the matter.

In today’s world, teachers are frequently blamed for the poor state of the nation. At times it feels like all of society’s ills are our fault. Our mission is to prepare students to analyze facts in order to make wise decisions regarding their personal and professional lives. However, there are some historical and current events where taking a neutral position is unreasonable, unethical, and unconscionable. Examples include the atrocities against Native Americans, Slavery and Jim Crow, the Holocaust, and Imperialism. Taking a neutral stance on racist and sexist comments made by the president of the United States is not within my capacity.

To be clear, as an educator I would never use my position to indoctrinate students or unjustly malign a current elected official. However, in a classroom situation, students have questions and concerns. Ignoring Trump’s endless harassment of the press and the judicial system, his destruction of the agencies and organizations that protect the American people and the environment, and his dangerous taunting of Kim Jong-un is simply too much for me. On top of all that is the constant barrage of lies this president has stated or tweeted since assuming office, which The Washington Post identified as 2,000! https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2018/01/10/president-trump-has-made-more-than-2000-false-or-misleading-claims-over-355-days/?utm_term=.a2f317caa4a3 Call me old-fashioned, but I like polite society, and I want a president who behaves with the dignity expected in the office of the presidency, not a president who crudely denigrates anyone and everyone who does look like him.

What kind of example are we setting for the next generation?

Whitewashing or normalizing the racist comments and tweets made by our president is beyond my capacity. Furthermore, while teaching my unit on WWII, I would have been obligated to draw the obvious parallels between the Trump and Nazi regimes. (See my blogpost on “America’s Correlation to Nazi Germany” for specifics.) Because of that, I suspect that at some point, an administrative admonishment would have come my way after a student or parent complained, and depending on the relationship I had with my administration, I could have found myself in a tenuous situation, fighting for my job and possibly my pension. My last official day in the classroom was on October 27, 2016, after which I was on medical leave for the remainder of the school year, officially retiring on August 31, 2016. So fortunately, I never had to address a room full of students during the Trump presidency. While I worry for my friends and colleagues who remain in the profession, I am thankful I retired!

 

Ageism: The Equal Opportunity Discriminator

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For the first time in a long time, I was the youngest person in the room. At age 56, this is an increasingly rare occurrence. The event that placed me in this odd situation was the first meeting I attended for the Retired Public Employees of Nevada (RPEN). This is my new retirement union, so it was no surprise that at 56 I was the youngest attendee.

Most of us have been guilty of undervaluing, disrespecting, and marginalizing the elder members of our community at sometime in our lives via rude and hurtful comments, outright discrimination, and/or deliberate marginalization. I grew up in the 1970s by the retirement community Leisure World in southern Orange County, which my high school peers nicknamed “Seizure World.” Randomly, my cousin and his wife moved to Leisure World within a year of meeting the minimum age requirement of 55. They jokingly rationalized the move, citing that it would prevent their adult children from moving back home with them. Even now, I am guilty of savagely profiling that ever-decreasing population of people older than myself. Currently, I live less than a mile from the retirement community of Sun City in Las Vegas. When a slow or otherwise poor driver is in my neighborhood, as a reaction I assume that they will be turning off on Del Webb Boulevard, the entrance to Sun City, when in reality it is usually a young or middle age driver illegally engaged with their cell phone.

I recently read the November 20, 2017, article in the New Yorker by Tad Friend, “Why Ageism Never Gets Old.” Friend notes that ageism – especially toward women – has been an ongoing drama in Hollywood, but as the article points out, Silicon Valley is an even worse offender, where the old adage – “don’t trust anyone over 30” – painfully holds true. The article references Vinod Khosla, a venture capitalist who stated, “people over forty-five basically die in terms of new ideas,” to which I say, “Bullshit.” But this is what we are up against. What ever happened to respecting our elders or at least valuing their contribution?

Devaluation in the workplace is a huge issue, especially in a time when people are expected to delay retirement by working through their sixties. While some of us have jobs and careers that support this new normal, for most of us it is unreasonable and frankly impossible. People with physically demanding jobs have often destroyed their bodies by their mid-forties. In other occupations, management is eager to ditch older, higher paid employees for those who are just starting out. I have seen this situation in my previous workplace, where older teachers – whose salaries are double that of newer teachers – get reassigned to less desirable positions in an effort to encourage them to take an earlier retirement than they had planned. BAM!

Even when you don’t feel particularly old, you have been profiled. My first ageism slap came when I changed teaching positions – leaving a tech-based magnet school for an inner city high school. I went from a position where I had garnered respect from both students and colleagues to a place where I was just an old white lady. It hurt, and it was hard to reestablish myself. Months later, I found myself back on stable ground, but it took patience and perseverance. I had to prove my professional competence and my commitment to my new community of learners. The experience left its mark. I was battle-scarred, but not broken.

On a daily basis, countless individuals are subjected to racism. I have personally experienced antisemitism and sexism. And many of us currently feel like we are living in an era of anti-intellectualism. What we all have in common is a current or impending battle against ageism. It is a guaranteed experience for all of us who pass their 50th birthday, and in some professions it reveals itself even earlier. In the end, it is a status we must all endure.