By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
You couldn’t pay me enough to be a public-school teacher these days. I say that as a public-school bus driver who gets $22 an hour to haul squealing, squalling, obstreperous students to and from their places of (theoretical) learning.
With the pandemic, mask and vaccine hysteria, political controversy, student misbehavior, parental meddling and the threat of school shootings to handle, it’s no wonder teachers are quitting in droves or not entering the field at all.
Then there are the laws being proposed and passed in at least 16 states that prohibit the teaching of subjects in ways that cause students to feel discomfort, guilt, shame or other negative emotions based on their race or gender. Florida is legally limiting discussion of LGBTQ issues.
In the interest of avoiding discord and conflict, we now flirt with a time like that of my upbringing in the 1960s. LGBTQ people were closeted then and American history was whitewashed as a purely heroic proposition of Good (Christian European settlers who became Americans and cowboys) vs. Evil (indigenous people otherwise known as “Indians”) that created the richest, most powerful, “greatest” nation on Earth.
I grew up in the all-white, upper-middle-class Long Island town of Garden City where Blacks were routinely stopped by police while passing through. There were occasionally one or two Black kids in my school and a few Hispanics or Asians. Slavery and segregation were taught so matter-of-factly that they barely registered with me as horrific wrongs that still affected this country. I just assumed Black and Hispanic people lived in ghettos and rundown neighborhoods because they were lazy and not as smart as whites. I didn’t actually get to know a Black or Hispanic person until I was in my late 20s.
It wasn’t until high school that I was given something to read — Richard Wright’s graphic description, in his novella Big Boy Leaves Home, of a fictional but historically accurate lynching, castration and burning alive — that vividly drove home the reality of the darkest chapters of our history. I was sickened, horrified and saddened. I don’t recall the Holocaust being taught and it wasn’t until college that I took a thoroughly haunting course about it.
So in this time of roiling racial animosity, it seems to me that the most crucial lesson kids can be taught is why people adopt racist views and treat others who are different in harmful and sometimes unspeakably brutal ways. Many of us, regardless of age, need to learn how racism affects a person’s daily life socially, economically and psychologically. If you want a good idea, read Trevor Noah’s autobiography, Born a Crime. It is set in South Africa during Apartheid, but the dynamics are similar to much of our history. I really don’t believe it’s up to white people to say how good or bad minorities have it in America now.
At what age to introduce harsh truths is a question best left to experts in child development and education. But the best way to counteract prejudice and bigotry is by getting to actually know different people and their lived experiences. Leaving it to parents to discuss difficult issues like racism with their kids is likely to perpetuate a family’s own ignorance and prejudices.
My parents never talked to me about race. They subtly had reservations about the Civil Rights movement, but they weren’t as bad as my virulently bigoted uncle by marriage who hated just about everyone who wasn’t white. His ugly rants made me sense there was something profoundly unfair about the status quo of my “normal” American world. Ethnic jokes flew like confetti. I was called “N-Word Lips” because my lips were full. I don't know what many of my childhood friends’ views are now. I do know I felt awkward around minorities well into my adulthood.
The district I drive my bus for in New York’s Hudson Valley recently reported an uptick in racial incidents in February that has coincided with Black History Month. The superintendent has called for a multi-faceted effort "to curtail future incidents through on-going educational efforts, counseling, and corrective action." But in Nineveh, Indiana, Sprunica Elementary School has offered parents the option to keep their kids home when Black history lessons are being taught.
The trends are in the wrong direction and teachers are facing a difficult uphill fight. I don't envy them. Their situation makes my raucous school bus look like a bargain.
I asked a former teacher about her thoughts on the new laws that seek to regulate instruction about such subjects.
Elisa Barnes (who requested I use a pseudonym) frequently sent me thoughtful, lengthy responses to social-political columns I wrote for the Poughkeepsie Journal. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, where she was a middle- and high-school teacher before moving to the U.S. 29 years ago (she taught middle school Spanish), she brings a wider perspective to this issue:
“I really don't see how you can teach American history without teaching about the ramifications of slavery that are ever present today. It shaped the foundation of this country and its social, judicial and economic systems.
“In Tennessee, the legislature would like teachers to focus on the ‘exceptionalism of our nation and how people can live and work together for a greater nation.’ This is indeed a noble proposal but it does not negate the need to share historical truths. Teachers are expected to teach and promote this ideal without reference to the horrific past that has led to divisions and disunity among the populace.
“Before you can chart the way forward, you need to examine where you came from, where you are at present, and project where you go from here. Education is supposed to open minds, explore the differences of lives and opinions, and thereby broaden your horizons, and enrich your life.
“As a teacher I would seek to guide informed, open discussion on a variety of topics, and be the moderator, ensuring that both sides are heard. I really do not see that teachers can effectively do their job with the shackles that these laws impose. They would inflict harsh penalties if a teacher ‘instructs in a manner that consciously or subconsciously casts others as racist, privileged, sexist or oppressive...’
“This is indeed problematic. How do you determine and evaluate ‘subconscious bias’? Limitation of a teacher's ability to speak freely infringes on the whole concept of the right to free speech that is enshrined in the Constitution. Are speech limitations to be the norm among other professions as well?
“The law’s advocates say limits won't apply in responding to a student's questions or while referring to a historical figure or group. Students have been known to guide classroom discussion to where they want it. So there would be no protection for the teacher who is asked a ‘legitimate question’ about a controversial topic and becomes trapped in responding truthfully and offending, or declaring the topic off limits. In doing the latter, the students are deprived of a meaningful education.
“The penalties for ‘transgression" (the biblical term used) are meant to deter, almost to avoid committing a sin. The ability of students, staff and parents to report a teacher's so-called transgression would create a climate of mistrust. Students are going to spy on and record teachers they may have a beef with in order to get rid of them. Teachers will definitely leave in droves.
“These laws take away the freedom to teach your subject matter. Any reference to race can easily be misconstrued as teaching Critical Race Theory and seen as offensive. Discussions on gender identity, even if they arise from classroom disputes, can be misinterpreted and result in the teacher being censured.
“What I learned through the years is that you cannot please everyone, and in the school setting you pick your battles. The vagueness of ‘prohibited concepts' could ensnare educators in a tangled web. Who is to decide what ‘impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history’ is? Historical facts are just that.
“Teaching facts is an important part of education. But here you have the law and governmental officials telling you what facts are. Sounds like Orwell’s Animal Farm to me.
“Teaching Black History poses a real problem with respect to avoiding feelings of discontent, resentment and being offended in general. Had America’s entire history been put into proper perspective at the start, we would not now be faced with the threat of disruption.
“You have to teach truth vs. lies in the historical context. You cannot separate the pleasure from the pain, the joys from the sorrow. Both form part of the lived experiences of all people. Therefore, Black History Month is a farce. Selective history is the focus. Only the good is highlighted, the achievements of a few people are offered for a token acknowledgement. No background information or facts are put into context. I guess, it's a start but it falls short spectacularly.
“In teaching the complete American history, people are going to be offended, confused, amazed, angry, you name it. That does not mean students should be shielded from the true history at any level. Of course age appropriate content is crucial to teaching it effectively. But you cannot avoid lessons where ‘an individual may feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual's race or sex.’
“Students will experience a range of emotions and reactions. They will be changed by their new awareness from the education they receive. That's the point of education. Just reading about the graphic reality of the slave experience elicits a range of emotions that are necessary for full comprehension of how America evolved. Armed with this knowledge, students — the hope for tomorrow — can begin to initiate change and make better projections for a more perfect union.
“I sincerely hope that these laws do not spread like a disease through all the states. Facing the truth and figuring out ways to impart it would only redound to the betterment of the nation.”
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.