As a parent who also happens to be a teacher I straddle two worlds, and each informs the other. This year those two worlds aligned even more than usual and it has me more grateful than ever for the teachers who work with my children. Let me give one small example.
Every May, I leave to help chaperone a group of eighth grade students on a trip to Washington D.C., the culmination of their time at our school. This follows a very busy few weeks at school, physically and emotionally demanding. As usual, I went again this year, but this time one of the students was my son, so the trip brought together the two strands of my life, helping me see with a richer perspective.
In the time we visit D.C., our group wanders through the monuments, memorials, and museums, encountering hundreds of other students having the same field trip. They are obvious and easy to see, often wearing brightly colored t-shirts (helpful for trying to spot wandering students from a distance). In every group there are teachers like me, outnumbered by at least fifteen-to-one. They are even easier to spot than the sea of children around them, rising up from this turbulent adolescent sea like the Rock of Gibraltar.
No matter their size or shape or specific age there is a common characteristic: tired eyes and a slightly haggard, bedraggled appearance unique to D.C. trip chaperones. They walk briskly and energetically as they hustle their young charges along, but in moments of stillness, standing in lines for example, there is a sudden slump of the shoulders and a squint of the eyes as weariness catches up.
During our trips, I frequently make make eye contact with another chaperone. Sometimes it’s when we wearily flop down on a bench in the Visitor’s Center at Arlington National Cemetary. Sometimes it’s in the gift shop at Gettysburg when either they or I tell a student something that is as obvious to us as it is elusive to the student: “No! You can’t buy eight pounds of fudge,” “Please don’t spill water on the signed books right there." You hear the teachers saying with a resigned weary voice, "Stay to the right! We are not the only one on the sidewalk!” Or, my personal favorite, "Stop body-surfing down the Lincoln Memorial!" Often these useful warnings come as one or the other of us is trying to point out the significance of a particular site, sometimes sharing a memory of an event we lived through--something we thought of a as a current event that is now considered history.
I sing these teachers, tired-eyed and shoulder-slumped, adults who form rocks of reliability in the changing seas of adolescence. I sing of these quiet heroes who leave home and family to herd puberty-stricken children through our nation’s most sacred sights, hoping that something seen or said will kindle a spark that will keep freedom’s lamp burning bright in the next generation.
You can say it’s their job, and that would be true. But there is no way of paying them for all they do. The hours they spend and the energy they give cannot be counted. The effort of trying to help explain the magnitude and meaning of the Vietnam wall while keeping the peace between feuding girls or trying to redirect belching boys to look at the Constitution is not something that can be totted up in a ledger.
All of these teachers are human and, therefore, flawed. They each have weaknesses as people and professionals. One can note and discuss these easily. Of course, weaknesses can also be found in the lives of the famous figures whose statues and monuments these educators point out. Certainly human failings are also discernible in the powerful figures that rush past through D.C.’s hallowed halls or diagonal avenues, surrounded by aides, motorcades, and the trappings of power.
I sing the teachers who have no aides and no motorcades, surrounded only by energetic, noisy teens. They call out for students to leave space on the sidewalk for other pedestrians and government workers on their lunch-hour runs. Like the security personnel one often encounters, they are always scanning their environs, watching over charges who do not always welcome the vigilance.
I sing of these teachers, heroes of our Republic, patiently explaining what this monument means and why it matters while groaning inwardly at all the emails that are piling up in their absence. Their work is demanding, but not dramatic. It is not always even obviously successful. But they are there, and their presence matters. While the world may little note what they say and do, they are on the ground, trudging through rain and heat, explaining self-government while watching for hurt feelings, food allergies and homesickness. They are there.
They are there, meaning they are not at home. Not with their families or their hobbies or their small comforts. They distribute meds and try to be aware of who is feeling left out, making sure everyone gets something to eat and has someone with whom to eat. These teachers often use the small breaks that come to solve their own problems--giving instructions to babysitters, dog walkers, counseling older children via text or refereeing fights from a few thousand miles a away.
That ought to matter to all of us, for it is from the ranks of these students that tomorrow’s leaders will be drawn. It is those students who will one day bustle through the halls of power and eventually occupy the motorcades. It is those students who will make the choices that will lead to honor or infamy. It is those students who must pick up Liberty’s banner when their teachers and parents are old and spent. Because it must be the students tomorrow, it makes what the teachers do today all the more important.
With all my heart and voice, I sing the teachers who care. Who walk. Who explain and watch and herd. Who are there. As a citizen, I salute you. As a parent I thank you.
I talked recently to a friend of mine. He's English, but has lived in both Australia and the U.S. He thinks highly of America, but said something interesting. He said that Americans struck him as particularly fearful lot. He thought it odd, indeed, he was almost incredulous, that the most powerful country in the world was so full of fear.
He was speaking mostly of geo-political matters, but his comment went along with something I've been thinking about lately.
If you've read my blog before you likely know that one of my own greatest fears is that we are slowly tearing ourselves apart as a nation. We seem to have lost much of the common ground that once allowed us to have different opinions. Bitter, acrimonious division seems to be the rule now. I don't know how long a country can last like that. Yes, I know there have been contentious times in the past. This seems different to me, and I find it alarming. Perhaps the thing that worries me most is that more and more people seem to see a lack of empathy with others to be virtuous, something to be celebrated.
I've wondered, with growing anxiety, what we could still have in common. Then I happened upon an article about the new adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. It's a chilling premise--religious fundamentalists stage a coup and impose a system of grinding oppression, reducing once-independent women to slaves.
As might be expected, those with a more progressive bent find the series to be both excellent and chilling, while those who are more conservative find it to be pretentious and paranoid.
This reaction reminded me of another cultural phenomenon that elicited the same reactions but on different sides of the aisle. Back in the 90s, there was a very popular series of books, the Left Behind series. Written by an evangelical pastor and speaker, this was about a group of Christians persecuted by a one-world government bent on their destruction. It was first a book series, then some movies. These books were a big deal to conservative Christians, while they largely drew snickers and scoffs from more liberal, secular sorts.
Full disclosure: I have not read either Atwood's book or the Left Behind books. I haven't watched the new series based on her book and my only experience with the film adaptation of Left Behind was about ten minutes of the film adaptation once while home sick. I was flipping through cable channels (as I recall, it involved poisoning Bibles and snowmobiles kidnapping Kirk Cameron. But I could be wrong. Like I say, I was sick.)
My point in writing is not to laud or criticize either of these works. And if you comment, please be courteous. People can have different literary and film tastes.
My point is that both secular progressives and conservative Christians embraced a series that was based on their deepest fears. As my friend observed, we Americans really are a fearful lot, sure that the people in Red or Blue states want to take away our freedoms. Clickbait headlines to the contrary, I think either of these dystopic futures are not exactly imminent, even if we don't like specific current developments. If we take counsel from our fears, we can find conspiracies and frightening omens in almost anything.
Converting bogeymen and nightmares into entertainment isn't new. Ghost stories, Grimm's fairy tales, and any number of other storytelling traditions go way back. We have always coped with the shadows around us by confining them into the confines of a story.
Progressives scoffed at the ideas that shaped Left Behind and the certainty many on the right had that the Obama years were the opening lines that would lead us into this nightmare; conservatives think it's ridiculous to imagine Massachusetts as a giant fundamentalist cult and don't think it likely that even if he is a serial harasser, Donald Trump is going to lead us into this future.
Right now, you are likely rallying arguments for why your side is right, why your fears are different. The other guys are demonstrably hysterical and irrational. Your fears, by golly, are the fears of any right-thinking, intelligent person with half a functional brain who is not evil and stupid.
Can we set that aside for a minute? Don't focus on the content of our fears, and let's not shout at each other about whose fears are more rational or likely. Let's focus on the underlying human emotion. Fear is fear. It is a terrible thing, something none of us want.
These books/film adaptations remind us that we all fear. Red, blue, purple--we fear for our loved ones and ourselves. We fear what the future holds. Most frightening, we don't fear foreign armies, we fear each other. And that is frightening. Truly frightening.
When I was a kid, I worried about nuclear attacks and Russians parachuting into the country and quietly taking over. I didn't fear what other Americans would do if they got in charge. But now, many of us do.
Ironically, this fear leads to anger and hate, which perhaps then increase our polarization. Should any of these terrible situations ever come about, I suspect it will be because we so feared the other that we struck preemptively. Fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy at some point.
But that does not need to happen. My hope is that we can look at each other and realize that we all know fear. We are human, at the end of the day, not so very different in the ways that matter most. And our fear, while different in form and shape, feels the same. Perhaps if nothing else we can start to find some sort of humanity in the other, developing some empathy here. A sort of compassionate confederation where we retain our disagreements but see the other side as acting on emotions that also stir us.
And perhaps, by doing so, we can prevent the worst dystopias from every coming about.
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