This has been quite the week. I’ve listened to, read, watched, and followed as much of the news as I can possibly stomach and talked about it to anyone who will listen, which is the vast majority of my liberal bubble. The voices outside my bubble, however, are getting louder. I’m glad every day that I live here in New York City where our local government promises to maintain the systems currently in place to keep this city safe, welcoming, healthy, and sustainable. And then I immediately begin to wonder about those who feel the way I do but are not supported the way I am. My heart goes out to all of you. We are here for you.
The negativity and discomfort in the air is noticeable even in my middle school classroom, which is the impetus for this post. An experience I had with my sixth graders this week has me thinking about the world my students are growing up in, how different I wish it was, and how we need to reform education if we ever want to make our world better for everyone.
In My Classroom
We’re in the midst of a unit on Ancient Greece in sixth grade social studies and we spent a couple days discussing art and architecture and what it tells us about Greek values. The Met has a wonderful Greek wing in its permanent collection and we went there on a field trip earlier this week.
Prior to the trip, I went over rules and behavior expectations with my students and the following conversation took place nearly verbatim in all three of my sixth grade classes:
Me: Boys, you need to wear kippot to The Met just like you do at school.
Me: This is a school trip so we behave and dress like we do in school.
Boys: But people hate Jews! What if we’re shot? What if people follow us? What if we feel unsafe? What if there’s a bomb?
Me: You will be fine. People wear kippot in public every day and they’re fine.
Boys: But what if we’re not?
Me: Myself, the other chaperones, and the museum guards will take care of you. That’s our job.
I had this conversation three times. This week. In the suburbs of New York City. In 2017.
On the Streets
Obviously, my students are scared. Though we didn’t discuss it in class, I wonder about the instances of antisemitism that they’ve encountered in their lives. I wish I could tell them that such experiences are uncommon, but they’re not. I wish I could tell them that things will get better, but I’m beginning to question that, too. New York City is the most Jewish city in the country and the US has the second-highest population of Jews in the world. (Israel is first, though by under a million people.) That my students, growing up in and outside of this most Jewish city, are concerned about antisemitism is heartbreaking.
Again, I am left wondering about the many people who don’t live in our bubble here. I grew up in a town that was not very Jewish next to a town that was very Jewish, so I got used to explaining myself and what Judaism meant but it wasn’t a foreign concept to anyone I encountered. (Until college, but that’s a different story.) And yet, the synagogue I grew up in was vandalized more than once in my memory.
I can’t blame my students for being afraid, not when I’ve seen more antisemitic graffiti here in New York than anywhere I’ve been, particularly since Trump’s election.
Racism, antisemitism, and hate for Muslims, immigrants, the LGBT community, and women have all come out in the open since the day in November when everything changed. We all heard Trump’s discriminatory rhetoric during the campaign. None of this virulence is a surprise.
So the question becomes, “Now what?”.
Of course, there’s no right answer. The only wrong answer is inaction. In the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel:
The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.
I can’t tell you what to do. I can only hope that if you’re angry or afraid or hurt or concerned, you choose to do something about it. We have clearly sat back for too long without making our voices heard and we can’t afford to do that again.
What To Do Now
There is literally no time to waste. This isn’t going away and it isn’t getting better. And it won’t, unless we decide to act.
While my friend and I drove to work on Friday, we made phone calls to a list of senators to ask that they not confirm Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education. We left messages where we could but unsurprisingly, most of the mailboxes were full. The media have done an excellent job explaining why her appointment will be damaging to our schools. Here’s Trevor Noah’s take because if you’ve read this far, you could probably use a laugh.
- Donate to a variety of organizations that have pledged to support anyone in need of help in any number of ways
- Attend marches and protests
- Make phone calls to elected official
- Volunteer for good causes that are short staffed
- Run for local political office
- Get involved with communities that need support
- Change your consumption habits
- Pay for good journalism
Doing anything is better than doing nothing.
Back in the Classroom
On a fundamental level, I think many problems in today’s society come back to education. We are living in a world that is incredibly diverse in every way, but those in power in America right now have decided that the world no longer matters. Trump’s “America First” means that we are discounting the vast majority of the world. America cannot survive alone. No country can. No country should.
I believe that we need to teach these lessons to our students so that they develop a nuanced understanding of how the world works, global interdependence, and the necessity of working together to advance overall well-being. Putting some people before all others will ultimately harm even more.
Over time, we have developed school systems that allow for little room to have these conversations and engage with the reality of a modern world. Schools insist on desks, bubble sheets, and testing when the rest of the world operates in clouds, inventions, and innovation. The vast majority of schools do not match the real world and do not prepare students for it. It is no wonder there is so much hatred, bigotry, and discrimination against so many different types of people; we don’t have the time and space, or even sometimes permission, in school to learn about what actually matters.
That’s one of the many reasons I am unequivocally opposed to Betsy DeVos as the new Secretary of Education. She has no sense of how the world works and therefore how to build an education system that prepares students to succeed in a future that we can hardly imagine today.
Our students need to be confronted with people who are different from them, ideas that are on opposite ends of the spectrum, crises around the globe today, and projects that aim to solve current world problems. Students today need space to develop their talents, direct their energies, and explore their questions. We need to think very seriously about what we want from our schools and we need to commit to building those schools.
In order to do that, we have to act. Now.
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. -Aristotle