When Neutrality Isn't Neutral

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Four years ago when I was told that I was moving from 10th grade to 11th grade English, I wasn’t excited in the least. Traditionally, 11th grade English meant teaching American literature. Specifically, I dreaded teaching colonial literature because of its dryness, and American literature has never been as interesting to me as world or British literature. It’s crucial for teachers to be energetic about their content--especially at the high school level where the clientele is generally, if not mostly, apathetic about being there in the first place.

Simply put, I had to find my niche. My curriculum has evolved greatly during this time. Part of this evolution is due to the state’s English standards changing. No longer do I feel forced to teach banal texts like “Verses Upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666” by Anne Bradstreet. Part of this evolution is the result of my personal transformation from being completely neutral on controversial issues to being steadfastly opposed to staying silent.

2016 was a life-altering year for me. On my birthday, I was deeply saddened to learn that one of my idols, Elie Wiesel, had passed away. During his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1986, Wiesel famously said: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must--at that moment--become the center of the universe.” After surviving four different concentration camps during the Holocaust, Wiesel devoted his life to fighting against intolerance and hatred. He was a victim in the worst possible sense of the word, and he understood, with the clarity of a clairvoyant, the circumstances that led to him being thrust into that situation.

Later that same year Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. His tweet storms have polarized this country in a way that we haven’t seen since the Civil War. White supremacist groups are emboldened, and his administration’s attacks on women, children, minorities, and the poor and middle classes are in full swing. He also uses the power of his office to attack those who think differently from himself (i.e. the media, fellow Republicans, and, of course, Democrats). It’s not a stretch to label President Trump as an oppressor.

Instead of running away from controversial issues in the classroom, I now embrace them. School provides a unique environment in which I can press my students to rise above the political banter and provide evidence for their assertions. Through class discussion, they also have the opportunity to practice the lost art of listening. Believe me, this is a struggle for so many of them; they are often times so eager to get their own point across that they don’t listen to what others are saying. I remember a time when politicians disagreed with, but still listened to, each other and settled upon compromises. Today’s politicians are merely a reflection of their electorates, which need to learn how to genuinely listen to each other.

Therefore, I refuse to remain neutral. I will not stand idly by and remain silent when our elected representatives are going out of their way to harm others. I will diligently expose my students to multiple viewpoints, which is even more important given that some of my colleagues down the hall insinuate, if not state explicitly, that Fox News is fair and balanced.

I have come to the realization that as an 11th grade English teacher whose content is American literature, I have the somewhat unique ability to help repair the torn fabric of our society--a tear that seems to get deeper and more prevalent by the day. It’s a difficult balancing act, discussing these issues fairly and objectively without asserting my own opinions too much into the mix. At the same time, I do feel the need to occasionally express my own opinions, and I’m okay with my students disagreeing with me, as long as they know why they disagree and can provide sufficient evidence to the contrary. I want my students to be better English students than they were when they first came to me, and part of that includes them becoming better, more critical thinkers. A secondary goal for myself is to steer that critical thinking in a direction that is helpful to others, and that can’t be done with me sitting on the sidelines.