Saturday and Sunday we were working our way back from Maine to Western PA (drive-- feed babies-- drive- curse Mass turnpike-- drive-- etc etc). That meant that unlike other folks who watched events in Charlottesville unspool in real time, we got them in every-many-hours blasts. It was heartbreaking and horrifying and completely predictable, yet far more awful in reality than in anticipation. There are lots of thins to be said about events (though I think we're also operating in Onionesque headline "White People Once Again Surprised To Discover That Racism Exists" territory), but I want to talk about what jumped out at me from the disjointed blasts of news.
Twenty years old.
The white supremacist who murdered one woman with his car (while trying to murder others)-- twenty years old. The torch guy who was later shocked that his picture, face pulled back in open raw hatred, was identified and shared far and wide-- twenty years old.
Twenty years old.
So these racists are not grown men, battered and beaten by the long, hard haul of trying to make a living, trying to raise and support a family, trying to make their way in a world that beat them up so badly that they have finally retreated in a huddled posture of hatred. These are not that particular caricature of a nazi, a white supremacist, a fascist racist.
These are boys. These are nearly children.
Their lives have not been long and difficult. They haven't lived long enough to lose big or lose hard. Their life experience is short. Their life experience is not years of rattling around in the big, wide world. We cannot blame the hard edges of the world for making them this way.
Their life experience is school.
They are barely high school graduates. They walked through some teachers' classrooms, across a stage, grabbed a diploma, strode into the heart of this evil movement.
And that means that those of us who teach in those classrooms cannot escape our responsibility in all this.
Teenage boys can be jerks. Some love Ayn Rand's call to selfishness, to abuse of the weak, because it fits so nicely with their inclinations. Some have been soaked in the stew of toxic manhood, told since infancy that the only manly feelings are anger and violence. And some like to say things like "Hitler was really a great guy" not because they have any coherent belief system, but because it shocks their elders in the same satisfying way that "F@#! the government-- I'm burning my draft card" once set aged hackles up.
And those of us who see them in our classrooms are often the last people to get a shot at getting them to understand you can't go moving through the world like that.
So as I face the return to school in a few weeks, I have to ask the question-- what can I do to change that trajectory? How do I convince students who are that way inclined that there are better ways to be in the world?
There are resources out there. Xian Franzinger Barret offers a good set of recommendations on Alternet. There are several good reading lists out there-- this is just one. And Audrey Watters echoes what I have always pursued in the classroom-- teach history. The white supremacist stance feeds on hate and anger, but its foundation is ignorance. And as authorities, knowledgeable in history, it's part of our job to say "This happened. That did not."
As an 11th grade English teacher, I teach a lot of history, and I teach to it overwhelmingly white classes. I suppose it's easy for us who teach in similar situations to focus on the "white" parts of our history because that's "our" culture. But the truth has always been that while the face of American history has often been presented as white, the blood and guts and heart has always been black and brown and red and every damn shade. White students need to learn slave narratives, because that is "our" history, too. They need to know it all. And in times like these, they need to know that just because they would never have walked with those racists in Charlottesville, never said the awful things they said there-- well, racism doesn't always have such an obvious face, no matter how comforting it is to think so.
But I digress, probably because I have no good, clear answer to this. I know we can't always make an impression on our students.I know that you don't make evil go away by refusing to let students say it out loud, and I know you can't deal with uncomfortable things if you aren't willing to have uncomfortable conversations, and that means somehow making a classroom a safe place for everyone, even as you put the pressure on to stand against evil. I know that any company suggesting that we might use a battery of standardized tests to both evaluate and address such issues is a ludicrous scam. I know this is not easily faced or changed.
But twenty years old.
Maybe a mere two years from graduation-- maybe less. Meaning that the only non-related adults who may have ever had a chance to push these children in a better direction were their school teachers. I know none of us want to hear about one more thing we're responsible for, a God knows we cannot work miracles on the hardened skulls of white teenaged boys. We are certainly not the last line or only line of defense.
But the truth is inescapable. There are more of these children out there, waiting to become raging face of anger or even a murderer, and this fall, they are sitting in our classrooms, and we will have to deal with that mindfully and purposefully. And I also know that it needs most of all to come from grown-ass white men like me, that we are the ones best positioned to talk about the choices a grown-ass white man makes about how to be in the world as either a force for good or for evil. And I know most of all that in this time and place, we cannot be silent about it.