I never thought I'd miss the 50s. It was actually a
really bad time to be a feminist, and it still wasn't a great time to be a
liberal or a Jew or all of the above. But at least it was a time when
students were taught the simple things-- like saying please and thank you, and
respecting the president.
Fast forward to September 2009, and it's a different world. I am watching the huffing and puffing from my friends on the right, friends who claim they love America (but somehow think I don't), friends who say that kids need to be in school (unless the teachers are deemed too liberal), and friends who think it's just fine to teach their children to hate President Obama.
I know what some of you are thinking-- how can you have friends like that, Donna? Well, that's the other thing I learned in the 50s -- my parents (of blessed memory) taught me that people could disagree but still be friends. It's not always easy, especially these days, but it's a lesson I carry with me, and one I still try to teach my students. Unfortunately, it's getting more and more difficult to persuade young people that differences can be addressed with civility and courtesy, or that debate doesn't mean argument. Look at what they see around them: people who claim to be adults yet who call those with whom they disagree Nazis and baby-killers and traitors, people who take their kids to "Tea Party" rallies and expose them to angry rhetoric that they are probably too young to fully comprehend, but they can certainly see how something about the president must really be awful if all those adults are SO upset. These kids are growing up in the Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh world, where facts don't matter and emotions do. They are being taught that only one side is right, and the other side is not only wrong... it's EVIL. It does not even deserve to be listened to. President Obama is giving a talk? Take the kids out of school rather than let them hear what he is saying. After all, he's a socialist, communist, secret Muslim with no birth certificate... or something like that.
And this is what really bothers me. Kids are basically innocent until people fill them full of propaganda (and yes, I know, some of us on the left are guilty of doing that too, although I must admit I haven't seen the kind of rage I see from the conservatives). Kids don't know they are supposed to mistrust President Obama until somebody tells them so. In fact, most kids, even in our modern world, with its instant information and numerous ways to get the news, still look at things without a lot of judgment one way or the other. I am not romanticizing kids-- I know they can be mean and they can be rude. But when it comes to the big issues that preoccupy the grown-ups, kids are surprisingly open.
I am a college professor, so I tend to see the kids whose opinions have already been formed, but I just taught in a summer enrichment program for elementary school kids, most of whom were Chinese immigrants. One especially adorable six year old, whose family was new to America, was still struggling with English, but she already knew who the president was. She couldn't say his name right, but she had seen him on TV. She called him "Rock Bomma." One day, she started to cry, which little kids often do when they are frustrated. I asked her what was wrong. "I want to see Rock Bomma," she said. I told her he lived in the White House and I showed her a photo. "I want to see him," she insisted. I asked her why but she couldn't explain in English, so one of the teachers who spoke Chinese translated. It turned out she had seen other kids with little American flags and she didn't have one. When she saw "Rock Bomma" on TV, he was standing in front of a big American flag. She wanted to tell him to send her an American flag.
I doubt this little girl had any idea whether the president is a liberal or a conservative; she just knew he was very important, so she figured if anyone could get her a big flag, "Rock Bomma" could. I got that reaction from many of the kids-- most spoke quite good English and had already learned in school that he was our new president and the first African-American president. Since they had little experience with what a president was supposed to look like, they assumed he was the norm, and several asked if we would soon have a Chinese president. But most saw nothing out of the ordinary about the way President Obama looked. He was the president. Now, when do we have story-time?
And that is why I miss the 50s and even the early 60s. I saw President Eisenhower on TV and had little idea what his politics were. I was a little kid. My parents let me be a little kid. Although they were Democrats, my mother and father NEVER said "don't watch if he's on." They NEVER said "stay home today, we don't want you exposed to a Republican president." I was taught that he was the guy in charge of the country, and that's about all I was expected to know. Later, as I got older, I became more familiar with my parents' views, and formed some of my own. I loved President Kennedy because he was young, and I thought having a young president was a good thing. And again, although he was a Democrat, when he gave a talk, none of my teachers refused to let us watch it. As with President Eisenhower, this was the guy in charge, and students were supposed to know that. It was part of civics. It was part of being an American. There had been an election, and this person had won. The end.