Undignified in School

"I'm not powerful," she said, "I'm a bi*ch."

Vanessa and another girl, normally friends, were feuding. Threats, insults, vulgar accusations. An undignified and public spectacle. One of their teachers, Diana, had just pulled them into my office.

I opened the conversation by remarking their power. "You are acting powerfully this morning. Insulting each other with powerful words. Getting people's attention. Shaping your environment." Vanessa rejected my argument. I reminded her of the impact the two of them were having in the morning hallways.

Eventually we got to discussing other ways to have power, and how school was about helping them cultivate it: their voice, skills, a diploma, college, a rewarding job that pays a dignified wage.

I took Vanessa's unopened orange juice container and looked into it. I told them it was a crystal ball and that envisioning the future is part of making it come to be. I could see three years ahead. The two girls, friends again, are coming back from "instant decision day" at a local college. They're knocking on Diana's door. She says she's in a meeting, but the girls are excited, so Diana steps into the hall, and then she hugs them when they tell her that they've just been accepted to college.

This look to the future helped change the vibe that morning. The girls became less angry. Soon the four of us we were talking about what was happening in classes that day. Vanessa had a Socratic Seminar in social studies. I told her I was having another vision: that she was going to speak, and that she was going to say something powerful.

Three hours later I stopped in her classroom. Vanessa was at a table in the middle of the room with five other students. They were discussing policing, race and criminal justice reform. Vanessa said nothing. One expectation of the seminar is that participants ask open-ended questions. A boy asked about the death penalty and finally Vanessa spoke. She argued for rehabilitation and forgiveness. She took a stand. I imagine that she was thinking of her father -- and the years he'd spent away from her in prison before he died. This is a girl who has lived a lot, who has something to say, and much to learn. After class I told her I was proud.

Undignified in Politics

"We are and we become as we see our selves being and becoming." My dad, an educator, used to say that. Educators work in words and stories and we must believe in their power. So what do educators say to our students about the man whose words, these days, are heard more loudly than any other in our country?

Like the fight between Vanessa and her friend in our school hallways, Donald Trump's loud romp through our national discourse, and into every corner of our media landscape, is undignified. And it's powerful.

I mentioned Trump back in January at our whole-school assembly, where I typically tell a story. Our school mascot is a ghost, and in my stories the ghost -- a secular school spirit -- visits and teaches us lessons. The ghost wasn't around in January, for he was out on the campaign trail with presidential hopefuls. He promised report back to us in June. But last week the school news magazine asked me to share and update from him. Here's some of what our school spirit had to report from the campaign trail:

Lately, I've spent a good deal of time with the Donald. And I've learned of the prophetic powers this man has. It's remarkable. What he says really matters. I call it TrumProphecy. Here's what I've noticed:

  • Speaking hate can lead to hate. Trump has made statements that many, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, would classify as "hate speech." Trump is not the only one, of course, but it turns out that an increase in hate speech has correlated to an increase in hate groups in our country -- a 14 percent increase! Words matter.
  • Envisioning walls builds walls. I've heard Trump prophesy that he will build a wall between Mexico and the United States. And then I read that a homeless Hispanic man was beaten in Boston by people inspired by Trump's criticism of immigrants. Trump's vision is coming true. The divisions between us are building, strengthening.
  • Calling journalists "disgusting" engenders disgusting journalism. After winning several primaries on March 15th, Trump held a press conference -- in which he took no questions from the press. This in itself is an insult to journalists. But on top of this Trump called the journalists in the room "disgusting." At the time this was happening, the major networks were neglecting to broadcast another candidate's speech. In fact, this other candidate was speaking even before Trump began his remarks, and still the networks wouldn't cover it. This is imbalanced and inadequate journalism. It's as if calling journalists disgusting gives birth to disgusting journalism.
  • "I'd like to punch him" becomes prophecy of punching. In February, Trump said of a protester at his rally, "I'd like to punch him in the face." And then later in March, a Trump supporter punched a protester in the face at a Trump rally.

I'm a school sprit who works hard with your school leaders to make sure that the words they speak are chosen wisely. Words have a kind of spirit, a kind of magic. Being on the campaign trail has affirmed this for me. It also makes me worry.

A new and troubling TrumProphecy was just spoken on Wednesday, March 16th. Trump said we'll "have riots" if he doesn't get the Republican Party nomination. Riots means bloodshed.

I hope he's wrong about that. But we should take his words seriously and note that there may be violence to come -- unless we start to hear other kinds of prophecy.

Let it start with us.

We can debate immigration without denigrating immigrants. We can dismantle each other's arguments without dismantling each other. We can debate public policy without debasing the public sphere.

Let us remember our Habits of Heart, and our essential question of this year, "How does Citizenship begin?" In many ways it begins with how we talk about ourselves and about each other...

One thing I neglected to note in that dispatch from our school spirit is that perhaps the most compelling Trump vision is his talk of greatness -- of greatness born again, of winning again, so much winning. This is the story that brings many to his church. I should ask Vanessa what she thinks. I hope she's shaping an opinion, and that the derisive discourse isn't too much shaping her. She -- like all our children -- deserves a more dignified vision of greatness.

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