Thursday, January 6, 2022

Cowardly Silence

“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”


The word came out of the office pretty quickly, via a printed message that was sent out to classrooms by hand-- don't show it on tv, don't talk about it, just carry on normally. 

It was September 11, 2001, and my school administration's impulse was the typical for them--if we can just put off dealing with this Scary Uncomfortable Thing, maybe we won't have any trouble. Just hush. Just stay quiet. Just keep still, and maybe this will pass without disruption.

I used to say about my principal at the time--a good guy and a pretty good building administrator over all--that if the building burst into flames and you ran into his office shouting "There's a fire," his first analysis of "What's the problem" would be that a person was in his office yelling. Over the years, I've seen many districts that believe the best way to handle bad news ("We're closing the elementary school in your neighborhood") is to just hide it. A good day is a day without a phone call from someone who wants to complain.

I sort of get that. I'm not a fan of conflict, and I have a gut-level distrust of people who seem to enjoy it and seek it out. I can also appreciate the degree to which being a school administrator can turn into a constant Space Invaders gauntlet of One Damn Thing After Another.

But I remain convinced that the best way to deal with all of that is to keep your eye on the ball, to remember what your actual focus and purpose are. In running a school, the focus, the whole point, is to help students grow into a better understanding of themselves and how to be fully human in the world.

Sometimes, in the world, stuff happens. Schools can try to figure out how to deal with it and, especially, how to help their students process it. Or they can dig in their heels and adamantly argue for an education that rigorously avoids addressing anything in the actual world that students actually live in.

But instead some students are getting this sort of thing. The Pennridge School District, in Bucks County, PA, has issued an edict that teachers are not to "wade into" any class discussion of the events of the January 6 insurrectionist riot in DC. Administrator Keith Veverka told teachers via email that, if students ask about the insurrection, teachers should “simply state that the investigation is ongoing and as historians we must wait until there is some distance from the event for us to accurately interpret it.” Just stick to "business as usual."

This is on brand for the district, which has just axed its diversity and inclusion committee and started pulling books out of the library. The school board president was in DC on the 6th, though she allegedly did not enter the capital building. This is a district with a long list of things that it just doesn't want to talk about, because it has a hefty share of agitated parents. 

The plan, I guess, is for Pennridge students to grow up in the middle of a fiery real-world conflict in schools where that conflict is ignored, and they are daily silently reassured that their education has nothing at all to do with the real world.

Granted, there are bad ways to do this. Teachers have no business teaching about January 6 by vociferously arguing that the insurrectionists were either noble freedom fighters or despicable criminals. My own students heard a gazillion times, "I'm not here to tell you which side you should agree with, but let me tell you what they believe, and here's the evidence." It is possible to discuss sides of a controversy without editorializing. It's also possible to create a classroom where a teacher can share her own viewpoint and students can be comfortable knowing they are not required to agree with it. (It is also possible, especially given their age, students may be blissfully unaware and uninterested in an event.)

It can be done. More to the point, it can't be avoided. Maybe your district doesn't want you to editorialize, but choosing to ignore a controversial event, to carry on "business as usual" on a day like today is editorializing, a tacit attempt to argue that the events are simply no big deal and not worth our time and attention. As with most difficult moments in life, choosing not address it is most definitely a choice about how to address it. I get that some administrators and teachers really really really really really wish they didn't have to address it, but sometimes the world just doesn't give you a choice. 

For students who have awareness of the world, shying away from such discussions confirms their suspicion that school has nothing to do with real life, that their education is disconnected from the actual world that real people live in. At best, it helps convince them that school is irrelevant; at worst, it convinces them that the education system is delusional. 

Navigating moments like this one--that's a hard thing. Hard to thread the needle between all the different ways it could be mishandled, hard to face the prospect that somebody isn't going to like what you do. But sometimes hard things come to us whether we want them to or not (and really, do we ever want them to) and we either find the nerve to move forward or we back away and hope, somehow, we can avoid it (spoiler alert: we never can).

Policies like the one in place today in Pennridge are acts of cowardice, an attempt to avoid what cannot be avoided, an attempt that damages the credibility of the school itself. As Tolkein said, we don't get to pick the times we live in, but we do get to choose what we do with them. Here's hoping your school chooses well.

Addendum: I've been asked, "So what should a district do?" The short answer is "Trust teachers, who are in the best position to know what the mood and needs of their class might be."

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