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?”
“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.
Happy Constitution Day! Quotes about our US Constitution
223 years ago, a group of men in a stuffy Philadelphia government building spent a stifling summer creating a four-page document that changed the world.
September 17 is Constitution Day, commemorating the signing of the United States Constitution in 1787. In over two centuries, countries around the world have seen revolution, coups, turmoil and chaos in which governments and constitutions are remade, discarded and remade again.
Yet with only 27 changes, the same crinkly four pages of parchment have served as the basis of one of the most successful democracies in history. It stands as one of our “holy trinity” of founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the United States Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution).
Today more than ever, students need to understand the development, tenets and underlying beliefs of our system of government in order to be productive citizens.
The following are quotes about our Constitution. Many are celebratory, some offer sage advice, and others give sharp critique. Whatever the point of view, it stands to reason that one crinkly set of papers caused so much commotion.
Happy Constitution Day, everyone!
“The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” – Benjamin Franklin
“The United States Constitution has proved itself the most marvelously elastic compilation of rules of government ever written.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” – John Adams
“The American Constitution is the greatest governing document, and at some 7,000 words, just about the shortest.” – Stephen Ambrose
“In matters of Power, let no more be heard of confidence in men, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” – Thomas Jefferson
“The strength of the Constitution, lies in the will of the people to defend it.” – Thomas Edison
“As the British Constitution is the most subtle organism which has proceeded from the womb and long gestation of progressive history, so the American Constitution is, so far as I can see, the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” – William E. Gladstone
“A constitution is not the act of a government, but of a people constituting a government; and government without a constitution is power without a right. All power exercised over a nation, must have some beginning. It must be either delegated, or assumed. There are not other sources. All delegated power is trust, and all assumed power is usurpation. Time does not alter the nature and quality of either.” – Thomas Paine
“Constitutions should consist only of general provisions; the reason is that they must necessarily be permanent, and that they cannot calculate for the possible change of things.” – Alexander Hamilton
“Don’t interfere with anything in the Constitution. That must be maintained, for it is the only safeguard of our liberties.” – Abraham Lincoln
“Our constitution protects aliens, drunks and U.S. Senators.” – Will Rogers
“The government was set to protect man from criminals — and the Constitution was written to protect man from the government. The Bill of Rights was not directed against private citizens, but against the government — as an explicit declaration that individual rights supersede any public or social power.” – Ayn Rand
“I think there are only three things America will be known for 2,000 years from now when they study this civilization: the Constitution, jazz music, and baseball.” – Gerald Early
And lastly, the birthday document itself:
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