We had our annual Veterans Day celebration at our school yesterday, just days after the election of Trump. I am not involved in the planning of this event, which mostly is done by the fifth grade as part of their unit on the United States Constitution. The entire fifth grade does this powerful choral recitation of the Constitution with veterans as their audience during a special breakfast. Their voices remind of the “we” of the Constitution.
After the breakfast, all of the veterans come into the gym, where the entire school is waiting. We sing songs and listen as each veteran stands up, introduces themselves, connects to a grandchild or child or niece/nephew in the audience, and then receives a loud applause from the school. The two central songs were written by our music teacher. It’s beautiful to hear all those hundreds of voices singing to the veterans, to honor the commitment to our country’s ideals. (And I am one of those who gets to listen — I served in the Army National Guard in my life before teaching and join the veterans in the chairs.)
As emotional as the event was, and always is (and this year, there were nearly 65 veterans who came to our school to be honored), I could not shake the strange sense of disconnect in myself from what I was witnessing here as celebration and what I witnessed in the presidential election. I should note that the small town where I teach is fairly conservative. I know this already from my many interactions with the community, and the way the town consistently underfunds our school (we are at the bottom of the state’s list for local funding and support for schools).
But I was still rather shocked to see that this town where I have put my heart and soul into for 15 years, my entire teaching career, voted for Clinton, yet only by a margin of about 50 votes. That means that half of the voters who turned out support a president-elect, one whom I can’t even come to grips with the fact that he made it into office (he probably is shocked, too), and against whom I will work to remove and block as much as I am able. This is not a town of struggling families, not the demographic that seems to have been the wave of support for Trump. This is a solid middle class white suburban town (with some pockets of poverty), with many families connected to the local air bases.
I looked around at the veterans in the room — some from the Korean War, some from Vietnam War, some from the Gulf Wars, and some still in active duty. I thought about the day’s theme of these men and women fighting and serving to protect our rights and freedoms. I wondered about the message we were sending to all those young people — that our Constitution allows a bigot to become president because freedom of choosing leaders is a wide net — and whether an election like this is a symbol of contradiction.
I wondered if it was just me, thinking that.
Knowing how the town voted, I suspected that while I was not alone in those thoughts, there were plenty in the room of adults who would disagree with me, and call the election something more positive.
I’d be lying if I didn’t also wonder to myself: do I really belong here as a teacher in this kind of town?
But, of course, I do. Maybe like never before. I am never overtly political in my teaching. I duck and weave when my students ask about my politics (outside of the classroom, I ‘d call myself a slightly left-of-center pragmatist but I do live in a very progressive, far-left city). I am purposeful, but thoughtful in my classroom. I am sure I have bias — in what materials I select, in how I teach my lessons, in the writing I ask my students to do. All teaching is political, to some degree.
This election reminds me of the importance of open minds and open hearts, and the role that educators can play in helping our students discover the values of our country. It’s OK that we can disagree. It’s not OK to let fear and intimidation stand, in or out of school. Active engagement in the world will become a renewed focus for me and my classroom. I’ve always known and celebrated the potential of teachers to shape lives, in a positive way.
Sitting in the midst of the dozens of military veterans, in gym full of hundreds of attentive children, it became even clearer to me what one of my paths forward to confront the results and message and tone of this election must be. Now, more than ever, teachers matter. I’m not going anywhere.
Our Veterans Day ceremony ended with a rendition of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. I’d like to believe that Woody would not stand around, either. He’d pick up his guitar and do something.
Peace (in our land),