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In the Age of Obama: a young teacher’s take on education, privilege, and politics in his elementary classroom

Mid-September, the Fall of 2015. The lingering afternoon heat did little to dispel the discomfort of the old classroom. My students were tackling a vocabulary unit; the word on the board was “censorship.” Attempting to gauge their prior knowledge of the topic, I asked for real-world examples, contexts in which the term might apply. In retrospect, I suppose I underestimated their potential responses, a mistake I will be wary of making in the future. Tread carefully, I thought to myself. Flashing back five or six weeks, I vividly recalled the instructors of my Boston-based training and their adamant charge not to be “too political” in school settings. Be careful what you do, what you say, what you wear; always remember, when you’re on the clock, you’re representing the organization. At times I forget that, as a teacher, I am held to careful guidelines regulating the methods I use to teach my students. For the educator in the classroom,  restrictions always apply.

Walking down one of the main hallways, one notices dozens of graduation photos, neatly displayed, each juxtaposed in chronological symmetry; one need only slow her stride to recognize the demographic shift taking place with each passing year. Beginning with near-racially homogenous groups composed of the Chicago-born descendants of primarily Western European-immigrants, over time, the pale faces, horn-rimmed glasses and slicked by haircuts are quickly replaced by brown faces, voluminous styles and coke bottle lenses. Today, the school’s student population is comprised of approximately 95% Latino students, ranging from first to third and fourth generation students.  Clearly, times change, and the most obvious focal point of this change remains the American urban context.

Pausing in my momentary reflection, I look up. That’s when it happened. A student leaned forward and said, “[Mr. Fort]…Donald Trump is racist. He hates Mexicans.” Hearing his charged words, yet not wanting to shut down a potentially beneficial conversation, I redirected the focus back to the class, asking “Joe” and his peers to explain their feelings about the GOP front-running candidate. For the next half hour, I listened as my normally lethargic classroom came to life, increasingly animated, with one student after another shouting out their grievances with the billionaire real estate mogul’s ever-lengthening list of controversial statements. Once seen by many as an early “Hail Mary” attempt at currying political favor, many now contend that the “The Don’s” blunt rhetoric is inextricably linked to his ever-increasing political support. In fact, proponents continue to laud him as a man of “the people.” It would seem that, for many, Mr. Trump is an ideal leader. Well-educated and undeniably successful, his supporters repeatedly express a willingness to overlook verbal arrogance, brash insensitivity, as well as numerous invalid claims regarding immigration, race, class and countless other hot-button topics, uncritically embracing him as the ideal 21st century American “anti-hero.”

Unfortunately, the majority of my students do not have the luxury of seeing the world, or Mr. Trump, through this exculpatory lens. For most of their young minds, his comments are more than just moments of insensitivity; rather, his biting remarks are deeply personal, consistently evoking a mixture of anger and fear. The idea that someone who wishes to lead regularly dismisses and mischaracterize so many of them, without so much as a second thought, is a disturbing reality, to say the least. For them, Mr. Trump is more than a careless politician; rather, he is one whose ideologies pose a threat to their well-being, their education, their way of life, to the very fabric of their familial and communal networks. In manys ways, the word “frightening” is insufficient to describe their context.

Undeniably, the 2008 election of President Barack Obama signified a key turning point in U.S. politics. For the first time in our nation’s history, a person of color, a Black man, had achieved the highest elected position of leadership; for many, it appeared as if there was nowhere to go but up. Nevertheless, despite somewhat significant strides in education and immigration policy reform, the reality is that, within most of my students’ communities, little has changed. As time continues to reveal, no single leader or administration can solve the systemic problems of a broken nation, regardless of her espoused foundational values or apparently limitless potential. Ultimately, bipartisanship and diverging political agendas continued to prove that the “American values” most leaders claim to hold are little more than strategic tools of rhetoric, sweet to the ears, yet hollow, in reality. Despite the strides we have taken, the journey is far from over, our destination remaining an ever-elusive point on the distant horizon. We, the American people, have much to do.

As a recent graduate facing the daily challenges of urban education, I often reflect on my own journey, evaluating those experiences that continue to shape who I am today. An African-American male born and raised in inner-city Detroit during the 1990s,  topics of race and culture have always been at the forefront of my experience. Living and working in the city, my family was heavily invested in our neighborhood and church communities. It was within these contexts that I was taught to develop my own voice, an invaluable tool which, in time, continued to grow in both power and clarity. Without the support and guidance of those around me, however, developing this voice would have been next to impossible. For me, these individuals remain a timeless blessing, wise women and men whose guidance, words, and letters of encouragement breathed life into me, driving me to pursue greater realities, regardless of the obstacles in my path. Today, in honor of such invaluable models, I draw on the rhetorical style of my mentors, in the hopes that this, my first classroom epistle, might begin to address the painful realities of those in my charge:

Dearly beloved [students],

We are gathered here because I have a gift for you; nothing fancy-it is, after all, an apology. I suspect that to you, my gift will seem quite dull. Still, I owe it to you, nonetheless. Yes, my gift is an apology, so bear with me: First off, I need to tell you that I’m sorry; I’m sorry, but the reality is that I will never truly understand the realities of your present context. I suppose it goes without saying that you, also, will never understand mine. As I watch your mouths struggle to pronounce “African American,” I smile, knowing that you mean well when “chocolate” is the word you settle upon. As your teacher, I came to terms with this a while ago. After all, I’m both older and wiser; at least, that’s what I’ve heard.  

But still, I need you to know something. I need you to know that I’m sorry; I’m sorry that I will misunderstand, and at times, misrepresent your ideas, to both your peers and others. More importantly, I’m sorry; I’m sorry that I, your teacher, cannot protect you from the challenges, the suffering, the pain, the reality of a world that would send you away without asking your name. For a cruel era full of those that would, unwittingly, crush your dreams with the flick of a pen or a misplaced word; those whose cameras and computers constantly feed you false perceptions of who you are, at times more tasteless than your cafeteria lunches. I’m sorry, sorry for the dishonest messages that are being sent regarding who you are, all the while ignoring the bright images, the brilliant women and men I so vividly see you becoming. I’m sorry that others will reduce you to, at worst, an “unfortunate” stereotype; a “delightful” exception, at best; for a broken world, with pearls ever-elusive, though an open oyster it may appear.

Dearly beloved students, we are gathered here to share the pain of learning; Despite your present circumstances, you have not yet been taught that it is wrong to dream, that some things may actually be out of your reach. I wish it weren’t so, and I’m sorry. Once again, I’m sorry that, in this truly historic age of Obama, that gifted and intelligent brown man you see aging on all the screens, that in his day and age we, the young and hopeful, have not yet solved the world’s problems. You see, the President he–he’s just a man, a person like you and me. He makes mistakes, confirming his imperfections with the stamp of “failure” that periodically visits us all. I’m so sorry to say this, but yes, it’s true that many of you will continue to live in fear, for there remain those who would snatch away your livelihood, your loved ones out of ignorance, prejudice and fear.  

But still, I need you to know something. I need you to know that I believe in you, and that there is always hope. Actually, that’s why I’m here. I don’t expect that I’ll be the most caring or gifted teacher under whose tutelage you will find yourself. Still, I care about you, more and more with each passing day. Your smiles bring me joy, your disappointment compels me to reevaluate my decisions, to adjust my strategies, my actions in the moment or for the lessons ahead. In the past few months, you have given me something invaluable to fight for: your futures. Yes, I know I sometimes sound “mean” or “angry,” that in moments of weakness, I allow a harsh tone or word to sift through the filter. And yes, I know that this is often all it takes to alter our class dynamic, to skew the trajectory of our lesson, to erect a wall between us. But still, I want you to know something; I want you to know that my labor is one of love, of quickly-aging, young idealism, my own wearied expression of that bright, hopeful light I see in your eyes, day after day.

And so, dearly beloved students, we are gathered here to celebrate you and all that you will accomplish. But, I need you to know something else: you are not alone. The legacies of those men and women who walk before you are the shoulders upon which you must learn to stand. Know that, if you ever need me, I’m here for you; as I stand on the shoulders of those who walked before me, know that my shoulders are here for you, as well; never forget that, as long as I’m with you, and even when I’m gone, you’re welcome to stand on them.

With deep affection and loving support,

Your Teacher,

Mr. Fort

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About the Author

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An alumnus of Wheaton College, John earned back to-back-back degrees in Psychology (BA '14) and Intercultural Studies (MA '15). Currently serving as a teacher with the Americorp nonprofit organization, he works to bridge the opportunity gap within the Chicago Public School system. When he isn't in the classroom, you can find him in a cafe writing, reading a good novel, researching current trends in politics, global health and community development, hitting the gym or hanging out with friends from his small group at Chi-town's Church of the Beloved.

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