Dean of Students: “Did you finish your work?”
Dean: “So why are you acting a fool right now?”
Student: “Because my name is Trump.”
The 5th grade teacher’s lesson plan began with instructions for me to stream the “CNN 10” — the “news in ten minutes” on cnn.com. Then we would discuss what we saw. I figured at the very least we could talk about the relevance of the news to the kids’ lives, and perhaps think critically about what CNN wanted us to think was newsworthy, and what wasn’t.
The problem was that every time I pushed play, the class wouldn’t stop talking. Each time it happened, I hit pause. “We can’t do this if no one can hear it,” I said.
Most of the students were being pretty quiet. It was just those five or six who seemed to prefer incoherent noise and abrupt bodily movement to quiet, order and discussion. After we went through this routine a few times — I hit play, they got loud, I hit pause — some of the students began to make appeals to me.
“It’s too loud in here, Mister Jerald. It’s not usually this loud.” –Tyler
“I want to do the assignment. Can you tell them to be quiet?” –Kanye
“Can I get another teacher to come in? Can I get the Dean?” –Special
“You need to start writing names down on the board. That’s how they get in trouble. That’s the only way they’ll be quiet.” –Desire
“I’m surprised you haven’t started yelling yet.” –Imani
The teacher from across the hall came in twice, silenced the class both times with a severe scolding, and revoked the class’ recess. The teacher assistant came in, silenced them, told them they could do much better. The Spanish teacher came in, yelled, shamed, insulted, and warned.
The Dean of Students came in and threatened to take the whole class’ end-of-year field trip away. They were going to a waterpark in Connecticut. “I need you to start writing names down,” she said to me. She gave me her phone extension. “Call me anytime you need me to come back.”
I didn’t write anybody’s names down. Alas, I am a bad sub.
I pushed play. It got loud, and I pushed pause. My ideals aside, it was frustrating — we were getting nowhere! A lot of the students saw my frustration, and they themselves were even more frustrated than I was.
“Mister Jerald,” said Cedrick, “can I start writing names down?”
“Sure,” I said, “if you want to.”
He froze; he couldn’t believe I was going to let him do it. “Uh, are you sure?”
I shrugged. “Go for it.”
He paused, then went for the marker. He got it in his hand but as he started toward the dry-erase board he had a change of heart. He gave me the marker back and sat down. I like to think he had realized that taking down names would have only made things worse.
It got a little quiet and I decided to vent. It came out in the form of a lecture. I asked the class what empathy was. It was a mysterious word and everyone got quiet. The hands flew up like crows. I called on five students who desperately wanted to guess what it meant. No one could define it, so I told them what it was. I told them I was impressed by the students who were courageous enough to ask for quiet, because they wanted to do the lesson. And I told them that these students were demanding some empathy from the students who kept talking. That meant they wanted the ones who kept talking to think about what the other students wanted to get out of the class. Empathy was imagining how someone else might feel.
As I said it I was also thinking about how courage also entailed not following the rules — throwing rocks in the machine. And it occurred to me that I might have asked the quiet, studious students to empathize with the unruly ones, too. But that felt like a completely different conversation. Besides, I knew they already empathized. They didn’t need me to tell them.
The whole lecture felt patronizing, sanctimonious, and I most hated that I was giving it less because I had something to teach them and more because I wanted to show them that I could get their attention if I really wanted to. I, too, had something to prove. Moreover, it struck me that empathy was the wrong term to be discussing. Maybe the students were asking for empathy, but they were also asking for respect, and power, and order. They wanted a community in which everything was okay, which their teacher could usually give them. It was a community I refused to give them because I knew it was a lie.
I pushed play, and then the great murmur began once again. I pushed pause.
Damaris walked up to me. “Mister Jerald,” she said, “can I write down names now?” I told her the same thing I told Cedrick. She was more resolved than Cedrick, and took the marker and strode up to the board. She had written the first initial of the first name when a chorus of shouts arrested her hand’s motion.
“We don’t write each other’s names,” a few students called to her. “Ms. E——- says we’re all in it together. If it’s one student, it’s the whole class. Remember?”
I liked Ms. E——-‘s stance here. But if that was the kind of classroom she was running, why was there still a space on the board, delineated in masking tape, for the punitive writing of names? Why could Ms. E——- take names but not the students? Why hadn’t the class developed a better strategy for acting as a cohesive group? Was this too much to expect of 5th graders?
That’s when the Principal came in. It got dead silent. She waited for a while, studying the silence, listening to it as though it were a sad but beautiful song, and then smiled at me and pushed play.
And then I saw it, right there on the screen. Today’s news was coverage of Donald Trump’s Memorial Day service. I cringed. This was the kind of stuff they watched for their daily current events ritual. Good old bipartisan, patriotic, political coverage. Not what it means: just what happened. The week before it would have been Trump defending himself against scandal allegations. The following week, Trump backing out of the Paris Climate Agreement, and some recycled sound bites he would use to justify the decision.
We all watched as Donald Trump followed the Memorial Day service procedure; he took one side of a red, white and blue-spangled cart of some sort, and half-marched, half-walked it, with his robotic awkwardness, across a platform. He was trying to emphasize the sanctity of the march — betraying his obvious, personal disregard for it — and in doing so he managed to come across as even more ridiculous than he normally was. There was a large crowd and as he performed the dance and then made his way to the podium the crowd stood rapt. The awesome, saturating silence of the crowd felt restless; it was sunny there, wherever they were, and for a split second I remembered being in middle school, standing with my clarinet in my hands and my marching band jacket too heavy in the late spring sun, my feet stiff from having played the same patriotic song 15 times as we had marched from the school to the cemetery and then stood there waiting as the veterans in their perfect emblazoned military gear shot rifles and cannons up at the sky and then let the explosions echo against our faces. I have always had a hatred for parades since middle school, because they remind me of days when I could least be myself.
Then CNN played a clip of Trump’s speech. He was talking about a war that the United States had fought and that had occasioned the deaths of many U.S. soldiers. “I hope that never, ever happens again,” Trump said.
The video switched back to the news anchors, and the Principal pushed pause. It was time to discuss. Though the clip had only lasted about three minutes, an hour had passed since we’d begun class. An hour these 10 year-olds had struggled against the CNN coverage, and in the end, the adults had won. The kids would get their news.
The period wasn’t even halfway over.