It is not my primary intent to with this essay solicit sympathy, but if it happens along your read, then I’m okay with being either the trigger or recipient of any momentary expressions of pity/praise. As a social studies teacher this semester has been littered difficulties and plagued with pained restraint. Always before has there been an expectation of judiciousness in our job and although the tolerance for subjectivity has certainly grown more robust, social studies teachers still must maintain an awareness that the classroom is not a podium for pontification, and that personal politics can’t be the primary message of any Mr. or Mrs. Social Studies.
I teach civics and AP American Government and Politics. I prefer teaching history and anthropology, but I don’t get paid for preferences. I have been teaching in the same building for the past 23 years, and although I still don’t know the meaning of the term pedagogy I know a few other things very well. I know it’s difficult to get high school students to take risks in the classroom, and I know that there is victory when students do. I know that people’s opinions, whether political or philosophical, are often only partially traceable. It is easy to recognize the regurgitation of rhetoric that grows from sources such as family and Fox News, but inevitably there are also mysterious places where people deviate from prediction, and explore ideas that may defy their archetype. It’s true that in order to glimpse these under explored/under expressed ideas we must be willing to wade through some well-traveled waters, but after 23 years of wading without fading, I’m more than willing to fake listen to students say things like: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” and “Reagan won the Cold War,” in order to be present for the possibility of hearing something original, something thoughtful or inquisitive, something raw, something real, and something hidden behind the peel.
When I say this semester has been difficult, what I mean is this semester has sucked. In the days and weeks leading up to the election there were good reasons to avoid “the news,” but as a civics teacher this is not unlike a bartender avoiding booze. I needed a way to serve it up, without sipping. At first I was unsuccessful; as coded media messages suggested that calculated racism was getting votes, but probably not enough to get the White House; so I indulged in the sanctimony of civil righteousness. But suddenly I was drunk on self-importance, and the betrayal of that basic desire to remain unbiased in class was compromised. My strategy shifted towards willful ignorance; since I was already in the practice of avoiding my own emails, dodging detail-less reports about Hillary Clinton’s server seemed not only logical, but pedagogical (is that right, probably not). Soon however Benghazi became interchangeable with Argo (Ben Affleck’s movie about Iran Hostage…), and Brexit provided an irresistable exit from connection towards isolation(ism).
When eventually I concluded that avoidance was also in-congruent with education I decided to open the majority of my attention to world news and current events, and only deliberately ignore the imagery/pornography of our new president. I justified my insolence with a bit of academia’s aloofness, a pinch of Pavlov, and a great deal of denial. But still if I’m being honest, I was tip-toeing through a cynical time in my career, not constructing an effective teaching paradigm (pedagogo yoyo).
One of the upsides of being a neurotic self-loather, a characteristic which incidentally motivates many to become teachers, is the willingness to martyr oneself for the greater good. So finally, as the pumpkins on my porch began to rot, I accepted that although the suffering would be significant, if I was going to call myself a Mr. Social Studies, and deposit the checks that bore my name into an account that said the same, then avoiding consequential job-pain was unacceptable. This is where your sympathy may come in handy.
Like many of you I stayed up late on election eve. As a Pennsylvanian I watched/listened with a sickening silence, tempted by conspiracy theories that I’d yet to invent, and tortured by things I already/always knew. Before acknowledging Trump’s victory I held on to some late night callousness. “Philadelphia isn’t all counted,” I wrote to my son, a student at Pitt.
“You’re misinformed pop,” he texted back. “Things are crazy out here.”
“You be careful,” I hid in parent mode.
“It’s insane,” he replied.
“Get some sleep,” advice I should have heeded.
The morning showed up like early guests at a dinner party. I wasn’t ready for this. I struggled to dress myself, struggled to sip coffee, and I cried in the car. I cursed in patriotic disgust. I couldn’t stop them; regardless of my mood, my ill-advised coffee stained outfit and my own silly state mattered not, the students were going to show; they always show, and only a few of them would be smiling. I panicked and locked my classroom door. Frantically I sifted through unread emails. I came across something from Susan at Izzit.org. I clicked on the link that said “Current Events” and printed a few articles. The information is accurate and the style scholastic. The graphics reminded me of elementary school, and the discussion could be therefore, blessed with innocence. I downloaded a free-video called “Pups of Liberty.” I showed it to all three of my classes. I wanted my students to hear names like John Adams, Paul Revere, and Crispus Attics. I wanted my AP classes to watch something animated. I wanted to shut my classroom lights and spend a sentimental moment celebrating canine revolution. I wanted to close my eyes and listen to a hound dog’s indignation. “Taxation without representation,” the pack of pups howled.
“One if by land,” yapped a tenacious Dalmatian
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” barked a grey hound with reddish fur.
“We the dogs,” growled a gregarious spaniel, spiffy as maybe Madison.
“We’ve given’ you a republic madam,” explained remarked overweight French Bull dog call Frank. My tail wags for all of the Mr. and Mrs. Social Studies, who animated our way to that weekend (Novemeber 12). We earned an extra biscuit and a nap.
It’s January now and there’s no such thing as normal; the job-pain continues, and I don’t loathe myself enough. Executive Orders come barreling from the presidential pen to unravel healthcare. Presidential tweets suggest an industrial yet indecent America. We must be able to make pipes without simultaneously manufacturing xenophobia. Oil and toil don’t have to foil the land of the free and fair trade. Pollution is a problem not a panacea-sick platform; the presidency is a person doing a job not a jagoff (for my friends in Pittsburgh) ringing a bell. Stop drooling “my fellow Americans.”
The semester has been difficult, and some days did really suck, but other days were sorta wonderful. One of those days was the 2nd Wednesday in November, when Izzit.org, The Pups of Liberty, and the 22nd amendment saved me from self-importance, self-loathing, and stained pants.
Ben Winderman teaches at Hatboro-Horsham High School and naps on the couch. Thanks for reading!