How many election years have you been teaching? This is my third, but the first time I’ve ever had students mention political campaigns in an unrelated creative writing assignment.
First: an important disclaimer and confession: I don’t talk politics with my on-level students— I do with my Dual Enrollment senior English class, but not with my sophomores. Here’s a terrible excuse: I don’t want to get in trouble. Instead, I accidentally teach a bunch of books that have political themes, such as Persepolis, A Long Way Gone, Night, Julius Caesar, and Animal Farm. We discuss democracy and free speech and civic duty but we stay away from names that start with T and C and all of the squishy uncomfortable topics in between.
So context aside, we’re reading Persepolis, a graphic novel about a ten-year-old girl’s attempt to understand government in the Middle East. When the monarchy is overthrown and girls are forced to wear “the veil”, the main character’s family plans to emigrate to America.
Last week I assigned the class homework to write two pages about their life. In full confession, I didn’t expect the kids to take the assignment too seriously. In fact, I announced it like this: “write two pages about anything you want. It doesn’t have to be serious; you can write about your goldfish or your least favorite freckle, as long as it’s true”. My rationale was to let the kids consider the details that make up their daily, free lives—as in the things that would be drawn in the background if their life were an American graphic novel (or “comic book”).
I’ve never actually been slapped in the face, but I imagine it would go something like this: I’d probably be rocking backward on my heels, making some flippant comment about the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and then scchhhwaapp the hand would come in slow motion, smooshing my lips into my nose and rotating my head a clean forty-five degrees until I was suddenly focused on everything behind me. THAT’s what I felt when I read the writing my kids submitted.
Several students wrote about their parents being deported from the United States. One girl described staying up all night with family members waiting for word from her father— who still isn’t home. Another student described the thousands of dollars his family has spent trying to get his father across the border; after several unsuccessful attempts, he made it, only to be deported a month later. One girl wrote that she didn’t believe in justice because her father is constantly bullied by his manager into working double shifts so that they won’t report him to authorities. Another girl described the way her mother was treated in court for the color of her skin.
One girl justified why she is so obsessed with grade points: she doesn’t want to be “another uneducated immigrant”. Another student shared a similar fear: “she’s afraid her life is nothing more than the clichéd story of a Mexican”.
One student wrote two pages about LGBT rights; another wrote about the “absurd bathroom crisis”. One student said she loves our school because “it’s the only one in town where it’s okay to be Mexican”. Another described what it feels like to be hated by a presidential candidate. One told me that he and his father only bond on hunting trips and now one of the candidates wants to take their guns away. Two students said their parents told them votes don’t even matter. Several students mentioned being the subject of ridicule for attending seminary. My quietest student wrote the most: he shared all of the things he’s too scared to say in class.
Let’s make one thing very clear: not all of the entries were appalling. I don’t want to do that English teacher thing where I read one sad paper and then go on a pathos tangent about how there’s no hope for America’s youth. In full disclosure, only twentyish of the entries were slaps—which leaves 90 or so entries about football and homework and dating drama and water bottle flips.
But the ones that caught me off guard— the ones I can’t stop thinking about—those ones leave me to wonder about my role in educating students in politics. As an English teacher, should I be doing more to encourage students to explore our government? Why haven’t I provided the “on-level” class the same discourse I’ve given my seniors?
I’m also shocked that by simply reading an Iranian text that mentions immigration, so many of my students suddenly trusted me with their stories. I was surprised when a student whom had previous seemed apathetic suddenly had a voice on topics such as gender equality or separation of church and state.
Most importantly, the “only twentyish” demographic is statistically small, but so humanly big. These aren’t just students, they are people. They are future voters. They are teenagers attempting to understand their country.