by Tom Burns
Last week was certainly one of the more difficult and bizarre in my 27 year teaching career. I capped it off by coming across Sarah Larimer’s article in The Washington Post entitled “Middle Schoolers Chant ‘Build That Wall’ During Lunch in Aftermath of Trump Win,” in which she describes an incident that took place at a school in Michigan. When the students were heard chanting, school officials “responded” and the superintendent issued a statement reminding the community that, “We are committed to providing a safe, secure and supportive learning environment for all students…”
I am often drawn to irony and farce in literature and other art forms, and while both of those elements are here in abundance, it is the tragic aspect of this for our children and our country that compelled me to write. Since when do students have to be reprimanded for chanting in support of the president? What are these students going to be told, that they are not allowed to express their support for one of the central policies of our newly elected president? That they can now be punished for repeating a chant they have heard their president lead?
Apparently, we demand more tolerance and respect in a school cafeteria than we do in the White House. In 2012, The New York State Legislature put into place the Dignity for All Students Act which states that, “The goal … is to provide public elementary and secondary school students with an environment free from discrimination and harassment, as well as to foster civility in public schools.” Behavior that would result in DASA charges being filed if it took place in a school hallway, can now get you elected to be the leader of the free world.
Since Tuesday, incidents like the one described in the article have taken place throughout the country and teachers and administrators are now scrambling to figure out how to protect their most vulnerable students, the ones targeted in so many of Mr. Trump’s speeches and whose rights and very existence in this country are now threatened. They are essentially defending these children from our newly elected bully.
But can you blame these other young people if they are a bit confused by the mixed messages they are receiving? Yes, this small group of kids doing the chanting were no doubt just sadly parroting what they have heard at home or have seen on TV, but they are told by their teachers that this will not be tolerated at the school level and then they will see it enacted into law at the national level.
When I have taught “Huck Finn,” I have talked to my students about moral relativity. I have explained that when Huck says, “…alright then, I’ll go to hell,” when he helps Jim to escape, he is willfully committing a sin by the standards of his immoral society. On election day, our country voted to sanction hate, to legalize prejudice and to standardize intolerance. In this new world that we live in, expressing your patriotism is now grounds for disciplinary action.
The children who are not threatened by Mr. Trump’s policies saw fit to display their feelings in the cafeteria that day, and had to be shut down so that “civility” could be maintained, but hatred and intolerance are now the law of the land. In the years to come, as the wall is built and “bad hombres” are rounded up and marriages become forbidden and religions are vetted, tolerance and acceptance may come to be looked at as “sins.”
I can only imagine the meeting in the principal’s office as the parents of these chanters ask why their kids are being told they can’t voice their support for their president. I can only empathize with the principal and superintendent as they try to navigate through this world turned upside down and explain that behavior that might be right for our president is not acceptable for our students.
Tom Burns lives in Nyack and teaches English at Nyack High School.