Different Conversations

“So… why do you think they hate Mexicans so much? Do they really think we’re all bad people, or are they just racists, or…?

It was a sincere question from one of my most brilliant girls. She doesn’t yet know all she will, but she sees more than most and asks the most sincere, probing questions. They always grab my interest, and are rarely easy to answer.

And yeah – her family is from Mexico.

I acknowledged her concerns, and did my best to suggest maybe most Republicans (the “they” in the context of our larger conversation) didn’t see themselves as hating Mexicans and might not be overtly racist. In my best developmentally-appropriate, big picture way, we talked about fear and frustration and how the U.S. has changed in the past few generations and how difficult that is for some people – especially when they think they recall a simpler, stronger past.

We recalled discussions in class about the general narratives of the political left and the political right, and while I don’t think she walked away feeling like she owed any hugs to the Trump campaign, I hope she saw complexity where before she saw naked hostility.

Then again, people don’t yell and post “complexity” at you for being Hispanic, so it’s a tough sell, even when I’m at my most fair and balanced.

You can’t teach American Government or Oklahoma History – or any Social Studies, I would think – without social and political disputes coming up. I have a disconcerting number of freshmen boys (and one girl?) this year with the strangest Nazi obsession… they’re not proper fascists, near as I can tell – it’s hardly that developed or ideological. I’m not sure they’re even truly racists – although you wouldn’t know that from their whispered comments.

Mostly they seem to just find the whole movement strange and funny and abrasive, in the same way one watches reality TV transfixed by the shouting matches or Maury Povich announcing “you ARE the father!” They love Trump, but know little of his policies or even his daily scandals – they just like the way he’s able to be such an a-hole and stir everyone up and still do whatever he wants without shame, reason, or accountability. It’s middle school boy nirvana.

I have some very self-aware Black girls, several of whom aren’t in the least bit afraid to speak out when race or gender are on the table – directly or indirectly – and a few pockets of dragon-book blue-hairs, ready to emotionally slice apart anyone who bullies their gender-fluid friends, no matter what sex, orientation, or species they find to be their true identity this week.

We’ve got rednecks and jocks and nerds a’plenty. Misfits and nitwits and slackers. This year I have an unusually high number of thoroughly modern Asians from very traditional families who have no idea how they’re going to tell their parents they don’t want to be surgeons or chemical engineers. It’s really quite a mix.

I love many of them naturally, and all of them by choice. And that means I have a personal, as well as a professional, commitment to hearing and understanding their points of view and feelings on a wide variety of topics. All teachers do.

For as vocal as I am here and on social media, you’d be surprised how many of my students insist they’re not really sure if I’m a Democrat or a Republican (I’m registered Independent, my rational mind leans Libertarian, but my heart and daily reality drive me much further left than I can ever find comfortable). I don’t make the kind of effort I once did to hide my personal opinions and beliefs; they’re 15 – they can handle it.

But that doesn’t change my willingness to hear them, try to understand them, and – most importantly – to help them question their own thinking and better understand that of others.

I know – kumbayah and goo-goo-gachoo, right?

I have a good friend and former colleague who left my district several years ago to teach at a private Christian school. She’s one of the best examples I’ve ever known of what conservatism can be. She lives her beliefs, is uncompromising in expressing them, and easily backs them up better than most people actually running the system. Somehow, none of this prevents her from perfect graciousness towards anyone of any mindset or background, as long as they demonstrate a similar willingness to step up and own their stuff.

If she’s occasionally a bit harsh, it’s a function of blunt honestly – and I assure you, she’s not playing mamby-pamby with folks on the far right, either. As you might imagine, I adore her in all the ways one can adore.

And yet, moving from public school to Evangelical High, she quickly found herself having to explain things like why the Civil Rights movement was even seen as necessary by people of color in the 1950s and 1960s, or what exactly makes dudes think there are legal reasons they should be able to marry other dudes. And she does explain, and engage, because that’s what good teachers do. It’s not about philosophical equivocation or moral relativism – it’s about intellectual honesty. “Here’s what people believe and say to explain why they do what they do.”

The fact that I can have a few laughs at her expense as she’s telling me these stories is blue sky. But they’re sympathetic laughs; we’ve all been there in various ways:

“Why does the media just want to criticize everything Trump does and won’t give him a chance?”

“What difference does it make to them who I’m in love with? How does it hurt their marriage what I do?”

“Do you think Trump is like Hitler?”

“It seems to me like everything Democrats want is just based on feeling and none of it is about reality.”

“So does Oklahoma just hate teachers, or is the whole idea of education they’re trying to destroy?”

“She’s racist against white people.”

I’m not saying I’m unshakeable, but it takes a real doozy to knock me completely off-balance. You’d be surprised what you can hear and still maintain eye contact, listening and nodding slowly.

Not so much with other adults. It will no doubt come as a shock to many readers, but I’ve been known to lob a metaphorical grenade or two just to see what’s shaken to the surface. It’s not that I’m insincere – I just don’t always worry about audience or balance or tone before expressing whatever’s on my mind.

The audience, you see, is entirely different. Voluntary, and largely of age.

Sometimes I’m supported with intellectually honest responses; other times I’m called down with opposing facts and arguments. I enjoy and appreciate this – it’s one of my best learning styles. Periodically I offend people, which isn’t usually the goal, but doesn’t keep me up at night weeping in silent shame, either. If your values are as solid as you proclaim, you won’t be thrown off your game by one grumpy old man ranting on Facebook.

But I was reminded recently of the variety of messages people take from some of these grenades. Allen Lehman, who I know only from social media, challenged something I’d written. It involved politics as well as religion, so you know good times were inevitable. I responded in a series of clarifying rants, which in MY mind were entirely calm and focused, until I looked back at all 18 paragraphs and realized he’d used maybe five sentences sprinkled throughout to completely undermine the validity and scope of my point. And he was quite possibly right in more than three of them.

Cheap and dirty, that – remaining calm and rational while I carry on. Totally underhanded, Lehman! *shakesfistatspace*

We took the discussion to private messages, where – Disney moment here – it turns out we didn’t disagree about everything at issue so much as he found my approach to be counterproductive and unfair. “Productive” and “fair” aren’t always my top two priorities, so he may have had something there, and eventually we were completely off topic and LOL-ing back and forth.

It was a very different conversation than the one I had going publicly, and that’s OK. Different audience, different purpose, different mojo.

We talked about how important it is to have acquaintances from across the political spectrum and with a little variety in their demographics, and to “hear” them as often as possible. I am truly thankful for the angry lefties I know on social media, and the calculating libertarians – even the right-wingers whose heads may soon literally explode from the cognitive dissonance they struggle to resolve, given current leadership. I value the faith of the faithful and the cynicism of the small business owners and the artistic weirdness of all the musicians I’m somehow connected with, despite my own tonal mediocrity.

Allen was my most recent reminder that I tend to get a bit hyperbolic, I sometimes overgeneralize, and from time to time I may have to eat my words. But I’ll take that risk, because it brings me into different conversations with different people with different perceptions and priorities. They’re not the same conversations I have with my students, or even always my peers; the dynamics and goals are different and – paging Marshall McLuhan – “the medium is the message.”

So when I argue with you and mock all you hold dear, it’s honestly not personal. It’s my effort to get your attention, to administer electroshock therapy to terminal reality. I want you to show me where I’m wrong, or incomplete, or misled. I’m hoping you can bring in essential different conversations.

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