You're Not Being American Enough

By Greg Queen

I teach US History to ninth graders, World History to tenth graders and Psychology and Sociology to eleventh and twelfth graders.I teach in a school district that is a first ring suburban community.We are sandwiched between Detroit and “white middle class suburbia.” The average income is about $42,000. Typical jobs are industrial to semi-skilled trades.Housing ranges from the trailer park featured in Eminem’s 8 Mile to apartment living to three bedroom brick ranches.Houses max out $150,000.Most kids are ‘white’ but there is a sizable body of African-American, Arab-American (primarily Chaldean Iraqis), and Asian-Americans (from southeast-east Asia).Fifty percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.At the same time, cell phones, beepers and expensive clothing are common.

On September 11, 2001 I was explaining to my third hour US History class how their grades would be determined.Ten minutes before the end of class, the teacher across the hall informed me that something had smashed into the World Trade Center.I decided not to turn on the classroom TV right away.My preparation period was the next hour and I wanted to have time to figure out what was going on.During my preparation period, the second tower collapsed and the Pentagon was hit.I watched in disbelief.By the end of the my preparation period, the strikes appeared to be over.I feared leaving the TV on because the commentary was mostly pure conjecture.At that point, I tended to agree that this was masterminded by some sophisticated organization and not an individual.However, I kept in mind the accusations following the Oklahoma Federal Building bombing that proved to be false.At this point, I decided not to comment upon the attacks.However, the kids continued pressuring me for some explanation.The way in which I first approached the events of September 11th are summarized in an email I sent to a friend later that day. 

I nearly cried. My throat gulped as I watched. Then I got angry. I was angry at the US Government and the corporate class, ruling for their desire to rape a lot of the world. Of course I was angry at the hijackers but I was also angry at the US Government and it complicity in this lie.

Because you live on the west-coast and had more time to deal with the situation, here in Michigan I had no idea what to do as the events were unfolding on TV. I quite frankly did not know what to say so I just listened. However, by the end of the day, kids in my classroom were able to have a very rational, reasonable, intellectual conversation around the topics you listed below (referring to an email discussing US involvement in Chile, Vietnam, Guatemala, etc.) , particularly the fact that it is terrorism when enemies of the state/ruling class conduct it, yet freedom and democracy when the US does. Many teachers felt very disillusioned at the distance kids set up between themselves and the events. I got the impression that some kids saw it as an opportunity to deviate from the normality of the their classrooms. It was a spectacle that teachers had become fixated upon and became an opportunity for kids to hang out.

We (my sociology class, seventh hour) are reading Animal Farm and we were in the part of the book where Napoleon forces Snowball off the farm. In teaching Animal Farm, I am pointing out how squealer, the spokespig, explains events to the other animals who fail to historicize the events that happen around them.Anyway, the point is to the help kids sort through the doublespeak and necessary illusions that will be raining down during the next few days…. The United States elite needed a bogeyman and this may work for them.

We discussed the idea of a bully walking down the hall with his bully wannabes and stomping left and right upon the rights of many.A little guy runs out and gets a good jab at the Bully and manages to run away. Cheers fill the hallway. The bully loses a little face but is still the bully. Stopping the bully takes a wall of people to eventually surrounds him.

In terms of psychology, Dubya, who has an inferiority complex to begin with, will feel the need to prove to the nation that he is tough and macho. The superego can not be challenged.

In today’s events, I saw parallels between the school shootings of Columbine and Santee and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It was an act of the powerless lashing out in an irrational manner but have clear targets.However, in the end, it does not go to the root of the problem.In addition, as Tom Wise has pointed out regarding the way in which suburban white America was/is blinded by its own illusion that it’s always somebody else’s problem. That kids shooting each other happened in the Urban Ghetto where “they” live. Suburbanites ask themselves “How could this happen to us?” Not unlike the inability of US citizens to see the US as a greedy, rapacious empire.

Well, thanks for your thoughts and affirmations.

Two days later, I sent the following email to the same friends.

Hi, I shared with you what I did in my class on the day of the bombing. The same theme was carried through Wednesday and Thursday. I have raised the question regarding the use of the term “terrorism.”I pointed to many of the incidents listed below (Again, referring to an email that has articles from the Free Press regarding Bin Laden’s CIA connection that I shared with students who seemed quite stunned that the past relationship existed.) At any rate, I have had two parents call the principal and superintendent complaining that I am not being American enough. The first parent complained of a picture of Dubya that I had hanging on the wall which has been hanging there all year. They wanted me to take it down. Quite frankly, I forgot it was even there. I turned it around and put up a sign next to it saying that we must be able to criticize the things we love (I do not love Bush by any means). The other was more concerned with the content of the discussion and accused me of being a communist. It is possible that I may be meeting with the second parent on Monday to clarify misunderstandings. Although I have had some of this in the past, I feel the context of this week is going to create a different dynamic. My principal who I have worked with my whole teaching career is fairly rational and usually supportive of me. Anyway, I thought I would share this since the TRSE (Theory and Research in Social Education) and you are suggesting this form of analysis and I think you would be interested in hearing the consequences.

Here is the third of three emails that I sent to these friends regarding the teaching of the current events.

I have not yet met a colleague who has publicly said they are against the actions and war fever of the Bush gang. I have discussed these issues with my classes. I have had calls from three parents regarding my comments in class. The reason that they have called is because 1) from the beginning of the year, I had a picture of Dubya (from The Nation magazine) which poked fun at him and a parent thought it was wrong and unpatriotic at this time. I turned it around, 2) students know my view on many things because they ask and I tell them. One quite inquisitive kid asked what I thought regarding whether I supported the current actions and I said no. A parent called regarding this. 3) My starting points for history are class and how that moves history. Because kids are talking to parents about the current events, and because I am one of the few teachers who take the time to explain some of the complexities involved in them, my teaching method and content has become an issue. I have stepped back for a few so that I can gain a little more perspective. At this point, I have been collecting materials and I think we are going to continue following this current event in greater detail in my world history class particularly.I know that I am going to get more calls though. At this point, my principal has been supportive. When the calls come in she lets me know and I call the parents. So far, after significant discussion, they feel more comfortable. Knowing that I need to watch every move I make is stressful.

While I am struggling with the delicacy of teaching a controversial current event, a teacher is sending around emails that say things like, “kick his ass” showing bin Laden riding a camel heading in one direction saying “holy war” and then retreating saying “holy shit” as a United States jet pursues him (which obviously reinforces potentially dangerous stereotyping). Also, the union president who teaches across the hall from me informed me that a teacher was so angry with me that he wanted to kick my ass.

My building principal has been respectful of my academic freedom.After the first parent call complaining about the picture of Bush, my principal asked if I was going to remove it.I protested saying that one parent should not have the power to force teachers to do what they want them to do, but I decided that this was not worth the battle.As stated above, I turned the picture around.Since I have done this a student inquired why I turned the picture around.I answered him honestly despite the fact that the child of the parent who complained was sitting next to the student who asked.When the other parents called the principal she explained to the parents that I have the right to express my opinion in class.She has listened to their concerns and requested that they talk to me.I have not been told to stop talking about the issues.I have not been monitored.There has been a level of trust that I will be responsible in my position.I think this has been appropriate.

I think students have been very interested.Although I have students who are pro-war there is a significant number who are very unsure.I conducted an informal survey asking the kids where they thought their parents stood regarding Bush’s decision to attack.A noticeable difference existed between the opinion of the students and their parents.There were far more kids who said ‘no’ to attacking Afghanistan.According to the kids, their parents were far more indecisive regarding the question of retaliation than the media portrayed.

A few weeks after September 11th, our school had parent-teacher conferences.Many parents were interested in whether I was teaching the current events.I found myself in an anticipated yet unpredictable conversation.From my previous experiences described above, I was fearful of having my thoughts regarding the whole issue become public.Going into the conferences, I told myself to listen, listen and listen.When parents brought up the issue, I asked them to explain what they thought and what they expected.I have concluded that they want their kids to be taught the complexities of the events but they want that balanced.Of course, the last part is the difficult part.

What does it mean to be balanced?Does that mean I should teach the pro-war argument and the anti-war arguments?Does teaching from a class, anti-war, anti-imperialist analysis balance the dominant jingoist media?In addition to the issue of balance, I have other questions. Here are just a few.Why does the general population not know US foreign policy? What do people need to know to understand the September 11th events?Is the media providing this information?If this expands into a larger war, who has historically served the military?Will the kids from my community where I teach be over represented?Will the class biases of the Vietnam era occur?Who gains from that military service?What can we learn from the US role in Vietnam?What has the Government learned from the Vietnam war that they are strategically using to be able to commit US troops to achieve policy goals established by the US Government without the resistance that occurred during that Vietnam era?What role does control over energy resources play in the choice to use military force? These are just of few questions. 

One of the three parents who originally called, called again but this time requesting a meeting with the building principal.She wanted me to either change the content of my class or she wanted to pull her child from my class.We discussed the issue for at least an hour.She thought that I needed to provide more “balance.”When pressured to identify concrete things that would make the class more balanced she could not.I told her that I thought that the level of discussion in class created an environment where her son could hear multiple opinions.I said that I think her son would benefit more from being in a class that took a position than a class that claimed to be neutral.As Howard Zinn says, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”In the end, the parent admitted that she had learned from the material I was providing in class and from her discussions with her son.She decided to keep her child in the classroom despite deep reservations. The final comment that sticks in my head was her concern that she may have to accept the fact that her son may have ideas different from her own.How would I have responded if my child was in a class where the teacher was using material in class that I thought was an incorrect analysis?

Michigan as well as most other states has a standardized test.It is called the Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP).The MEAP is typically administered in the spring but retakes of the MEAP are offered in the fall.The Social Studies MEAP retake test happened to land right after the September 11th attacks.The State had instructed all schools administering the Social Studies MEAP retake tests to staple together several pages.The information hidden on these stapled pages dealt with the issue of airline security, despite the fact that this was a front page news at the time.It was one of the most relevant things I have ever seen on the tests.I guess its relevance came too close to dealing with real issues. Standardized curriculum and standardized tests obviously should not address significant issues that affect lives.(In fact, I performed a search of the state curriculum for the concepts of exploitation, oppression and capitalism but none of them were used in the state curriculum.)

This was an incredibly difficult time to teach.However, I made it through another year and here I am again with this year’s current events thrusting themselves into the classroom.

Today is October 21, 2002.The President has just announced that regime change no longer means the regime change he originally claimed.If the dictator of Iraq changes his military weaponry to the expectations of the UN, then that would constitute a change in the regime, or regime change.However, Bush does not think the prison-liberating Saddam Hussein is capable of such change.In this shifting context, I have tried to create a unit providing general and particular information regarding the Bush administration’s drive for war against Iraq.

Despite the fact that I am teaching very similar material, the kids and community have not been as defensive of the United States.I have not received any phone calls from angry parents who think that I am trying to subvert this ‘great nation’ or brainwash their children into communists. Will this change if (when?) the United States attacks Iraq? 

The walls continuosly close in on ourfreedom to teach and the freedom to learn.Now more than ever, I feel it to be incredibly important that teachers teach against the elite and towards a more democratic and equal society.

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