The Khaki-clad Elephant: The Dangerous Waters of Teaching Politics

The minute I said it, the gasp from the class was overwhelming.

Some stood open-mouthed.  A few were clutching their mouths in a wretch of fear.  Still another student hid under his desk, not willing to withstand another onslaught.

All because I said I was a Republican. 

I didn’t say who I voted for.  Nor did I indicate my own disagreements with the policies of the previous administration.  The admission was enough to send students into a state of shock, dismay, and, in some cases, outright anger—although they wouldn’t hit me, out of respect.  I think one kid made a crack about it being obvious because I was as “big as an elephant.”

I was now the khaki-clad, L.L. Bean shirted elephant in the room (no pun intended), and I had to get used to it.

The question of politics is a tricky one in situations like the south Bronx, an area that has been overwhelmingly Democratic for decades.  As students, my children have to know about government.  One cannot divorce today’s government from politics, which dovetails into a discussion of the two dominant political parties.  It’s important to understand the sometimes fluid ideologies of both parties, as well as the histories of their development.

Yet how can a person teach effectively and accurately about our political system when one side of the political spectrum is immediately painted as a monster?

This was especially true this past winter on Inauguration Day, a day we should all celebrate as the beginning of a new Presidential administration.  This inauguration was even more significant, as the first African-American chief executive was about to be sworn in.  The students were wild with excitement, as they should be.  This was a day where we could all stand proud and watch our process continue to work as it began 222 years ago.

The ceremony inside the auditorium, however, really bothered me.  Some of the teachers had the students chanting Barack Obama’s name, almost in a Nuremburg rhythm complete with drums and jackboots.  There were songs, speeches, poems from children praising the new President.  None of this was particularly bad—how can an 8 year old think of foreign policy beyond “saving the world” and “make people happy.” 

Yet the prospect of hero worship, even if it’s somewhat deserved, was anathema to my sense of democratic fairness. 

You cannot have a hero without a villain—that’s the cardinal comic book rule.  Someone had to play the heavy (again, no pun intended).  After all, the heroes are defined by the villains they pursue, be they the Joker, Lex Luthor or Dick Cheney.  Luthor would’ve made a great CIA director.

On top of this was the tingling sense that these children were not getting a complete picture of American political reality.  We do, after all, have two political parties–with each party enjoying a sizeable electorate.  I wasn’t sure that my students were getting a fair representation of government.  As a child, I knew Ronald Reagan had faults–he couldn’t be right all the time, even if he could fill out a suit well.  As much as the liberal establishment cringes at the thought, Obama deserves the same scrutiny.

I had to provide some sort of sanity to the whole situation.  If this goes any further, there may be Obama youths walking around with multi-colored neckerchiefs.  Students may start roasting elephants in effigy.  Piles of Babar books could go up in flames.  Dumbo would be banned from the library.

After the celebrations, I was meeting with some of my older students: the same students that cringed in fear about my political affiliation.  To them, I represented everything Obama campaigned against: the war on terror, Iraq, big oil, Wall Street, the Patriot Act, all in one bald, chubby package (not unlike many leading Republicans.).

 It was then that I stiffened up and said the following:

“Guys, I’m really glad you’re excited about Obama becoming President.  You should be, and it was an important moment in our history.

 I just want to make sure that you’re realistic about what the President can and cannot do.  Remember that we learned that the President does NOT run this country—we do.  We elect a Congress and an executive to write and administer laws.  They work together, so no one person can do what they want.

Let me be clear.  You know I’m a Republican, and you may also know that I did not vote for Barack Obama…”

(another gasp from the students)

“I felt that my ideas were better represented by Senator McCain.  That does not mean, however, that Mr. Obama deserves less of my respect.  Even if I did not vote for him, he is the President of the United States.  He holds the highest office in our country, and I respect whoever is elected to that office.  Right now, that person is Barack Obama.  Who knows who it will be in four or eight years.   No matter who it is, they deserve our respect.

This leads me to my last point.  Remember that Barack Obama is a man like anyone else.  He will make mistakes—even George Washington made some.  So did Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.  Don’t expect him to make miracles.  There were 42 men who were President before Obama, and there will be many more after him, God willing.  We may even see a woman in the White House. 

The people in our government come and go.  It’s the Constitution, our plan, our engine of government that lives forever.  It was this plan that made us a great nation, and will continue to make us a great nation.  There have been good and bad people in our government, but the system they served still survives.  That’s what’s most important.”

I thought I’d be crucified at this point–or lynched, at the very least.

Instead, most of the students nodded in agreement.  Many understood how Obama fit into the context of our system.  Still others were grateful that I was so honest in my opinions.

It was incredibly satisfying to see that students, even students in a highly partisan community, can open up to different points of view.  I felt ecstatic, as if I had slain the Democratic PR machine with my use of doctrinaire constitutional policy. 

All I really did was deflate the Obama balloon and bring it that much closer to Earth. 

Flash forward to a few weeks ago.  I opened my unit on government with a new set of students.  We had discussed the heated debate over health care reform, and one of the students asked:

“I heard from an older kid that you were Republican, is that true?”

I nodded.

“Does that mean you’re one of those weirdo white people that yell and scream at one of those meetings?”

Nope.  I’m too busy correcting your terrible essays for that nonsense.

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