Last week, I watched the Democratic National Convention. For the first time in what seems like many years, the party I follow and support inspired me. I turned the television off each night feeling hyped up and even more ready to support Hillary Clinton in her bid for the presidency.
Yet something did not sit well with me. I thought her acceptance speech on Thursday night was superb. It was the type of intelligent, thorough speech that I have come to expect from her, to the point where the English teacher part of my brain clicked into gear and gave her an A+ according to my rubric. MSNBC’s after-speech commentary group, however, seemed less impressed. They called it a “good closing argument” but didn’t like how much of it was a response to Donald Trump’s acceptance speech from a week earlier–you know, even though the person who closes second always has the luxury of tearing apart the argument the other side just made. The other complaint was that it did not appeal to Republicans and was “too progressive.”
Now I guess I should set aside that had she done exactly what the commentators were criticizing her for not doing, they would have criticized her for not being progressive enough or not directly addressing Donald Trump. Picking things apart to get an audience reaction is what cable news talking heads do. But the “too progressive” comment bothered me because it made me think about how for a long time I’ve hidden my own liberalism.
Okay, I haven’t exactly hidden it away and pretended to have conservative views, making my support for abortion rights my dirty little secret or anything. It’s more like I was a liberal hiding in plain sight.
I grew up in an extremely white, extremely middle class town on the South Shore of Long Island that while not wholly conservative, has its fair share of conservative-minded people. I went to a Jesuit college in Baltimore. I teach in a rural and “red” county in Central Virginia. This means that many members of my family, some of my friends from high school and college, and many of the members of the community in which I teach are conservatives. If you combine that with my general non-confrontational nature (read: I don’t like to upset people or get them mad at me), I tend to keep my mouth shut when it comes to politics. And I’m especially quiet at work–yes, I will put a bumper sticker on my car for the candidate I support, but I only volunteer my political views if asked and even then, I don’t say much.
There is so much wrong with those last two sentences that I don’t even know where to start. Okay, I want to start by apologizing, but I’ll hold off because i think a diagnosis would work better. I’m quiet because of a combination of a few things: fatigue from years of having my conservative friends imply that I don’t like America because I never liked George W. Bush and I didn’t support the Iraq War; years of hearing tales of teachers fired for their views or because they spoke up; people above and around me making blanket statements about having to “watch what we say;” oh, and that one time I did get into a political argument with a student and two of his friends went to guidance and said that I “made them uncomfortable” in class (the student simply came to me and we talked it out).
I have, for so long, been a fraud. I have encouraged students to speak their minds and yet am a wimp about speaking my own. i have repeatedly qualified or apologized for my political views so that I would not be accused by a student or parent of pushing “liberal indoctrination.” I have kept my mouth shut in the name of being polite while so many others just went off without any regard. And I even feel uneasy writing this because it is whining from the very seat of privilege.
And yet, I worry about my fellow teachers as we head back to school in a very heated election season. I have no problem calling out those students who are bigots or racists–I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again–but what about the student whose views are opposed to mine but clearly based on inaccuracies micsonceptions fed to them by their parents or friends? Can I fully engage them in a debate without being sent to the principal’s office for making them feel “uncomfortable?” And even if I do, then, so what …? Some of the best teachers I ever had were the ones who shook up my views just enough to make me think twice about who I supported or what I believed. I never considered it “liberal indoctrination” just like I don’t think it’s “liberal indoctrination” to offer up diversity in authors read in class. And I don’t think that my views are “controversial” because they don’t line up with a section of the community.
Over the course of four nights in Philadelphia, I watched so many different people speak and cheer. I heard the concerns and the voices of so many who didn’t look like me or lead lives like mine. And I walked away thinking that not only this is the America that I feel proud to be a part of, but this is America and I’m proud to be an American. That is neither a liberal nor controversial view or an opinion to be afraid of, and while I don’t think it should be a challenge to show it, I know I should be ready to accept that challenge.