Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ask Not What Your Administration Can Do For You, At Least on This Particular Occasion

I was planning all along to watch Barack Obama’s Inauguration with “my kids”—not my biological children, of course (don’t have any of those…yet), but the kids I teach. I had worked it all out: the swearing-in would take place near the end of fifth period, when I have Class A. Class A would lie, cheat, beg, and/or steal to be allowed to watch the Inauguration—they’re political junkies, just like their esteemed teacher. I would hook up my laptop to the digital projector, stream in CNN or whatever came in first on the wonky DOE wireless, and soak up the history along with twenty-some thirteen-year-olds.

There’s nowhere else I’d rather be on Inauguration Day, incidentally. Last year’s classes were psyched about Obama’s candidacy but repeatedly voiced their fears that he would be shot on the campaign trail. This year’s classes were much more optimistic, perhaps because, as they began school in September, Obama’s candidacy was already beginning to look like a sure thing. There were no incidents, for the most part, and for as nasty as the campaign got, it surely could have been much worse. My kids this year were occasionally skeptical, occasionally concerned, but for the most part, they were exuberantly confident about Obama. More importantly, we had a few McCain supporters in my classes who constituted a small but brave and vocal minority. Many debates we had, but they stayed respectful and on-topic on both sides. I’m shocked that eighth graders can avoid ad hominem attacks when many elected officials cannot.

I’m excited to be able to share the Inauguration with this group. I know a lot of people are planning on camping out in DC, or staying home to watch with friends and family. But, again, I’m going to be psyched to be at work next Tuesday. Obama’s Inauguration means a great deal to the many first-generation Americans I teach, the African-American children, anyone whose skin color or accent or origin doesn’t fit with the pantheon of whiteness that once constituted the American Presidency. On NYCEducator, I commented that when pundits used “Muslim” or “African” as a dirty word against Obama, they were also maligning the innocent names of the children I teach, some of whom are Muslim, or African, or the children of single parents, or immigrants, or anyone who doesn’t come from a white, Christian, native-born, two-parent American home. And those children were listening. And they understood. And Obama’s election is a reproach to all those people—the “haters,” as my children eloquently describe them—who refuse to accept a new vision of what this country is and what it could be.

But best of all—best of all in this whole situation—is that, on the day before the state ELA exam, the day when we are all supposed to be bowing before the altar of Filling in Bubbles and Writing Your Answer Only in the Spaces Provided, my administration decided to do something noble. Something cool. They announced that the schedule would be re-jiggered for next Tuesday so that classes could gather in the auditorium and watch the swearing-in on the big screen.

Think about that. We’re all losing sleep and praying to St. Joseph of Cupertino (the patron saint, among other things, of test-takers, learning disabilities, and struggling students—modern theological historians believe he was either autistic, schizophrenic, or both) that our students will “level up” next week. And of course, the message comes down from on high that they better level up or else. Any coincidence that the teacher data reports are emerging sometime in the next week? Methinksno. And these people have decided that maybe the kids need a break? Maybe they should be allowed to stop and be a part of history? Maybe they should be allowed to experience some excitement? Maybe they should be allowed to be kids for a few minutes on the day before the ELA exam?

That’s not just revolutionary these days—maybe that’s St. Joseph of Cupertino talking. That’s change we can believe in.