Breaking the Silence

silence photo
Photo by jsdilag

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.—Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am breaking a long silence on this blog to write about something really important to me. I did not consciously step away from blogging here, and I had ideas about things I wanted to write, but it’s been a process for me the last two months as I grieved the loss of my grandmother and coped with the normal business of school and teaching. Time is always a factor with blogging, too, and I need to make the the time for things I think are important. This is important.

I do not write about politics much here mainly because I know I have readers who don’t share my politics, and we have other areas in common. I didn’t want to unnecessarily drive them away. However, what I have to say is too important to worry about what some of my readers think, and if people decide to stop reading my blog or don’t want to follow me on Twitter anymore, that’s their choice. I have the freedom to speak, and they have the freedom not to listen. But I can’t be silent about it.

I start my American literature course with a reading of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus,” which is famously attached to the Statue of Liberty, about whom the poem is written. I want my students to examine this poem and think about whether America fulfills the promise of the following lines:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.

The President’s recent executive order banning “nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries” flies in the face of what we seek to represent in America. This is personal for me because my school has Somali students and alumni who are studying in the United States. I personally taught one of these students in my American Studies in Literature class in the 2014-2015 school year. He is currently in college in Texas. I don’t know what this means for him. Will he be able to visit his family without risking being unable to return to school? This student is one I will always remember because he was so incredibly kind, thoughtful, hardworking, and polite. He is quite religious, and yes, he is Muslim. The idea that anyone could consider him a threat is repugnant and ignorant. As you might imagine, I have been thinking about him a lot these days. In frustration, I tweeted the following yesterday:

I was thinking about how the fact that the President appears to lack empathy, and I trace it to his lack of reading. There are so many recommendations I have, but one place he might start is that old standby, Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol.

The Ghost of Christmas Present has always seemed to me to be the spirit who most effects Ebenezer Scrooge’s change of heart. Yes, the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come clinches it, but two moments in particular stand out for me in Scrooge’s conversation with the Ghost of Christmas Present. The first is when Scrooge begins to feel some empathy for Tim Cratchit and wonders if the boy will live.

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge seems at first shocked by the spirit’s heartlessness, and is “overcome with penitence and grief.” The spirit adds:

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.”

I find it impossible to believe that the President has not heard these lines, even if he doesn’t read. How can he have escaped one of the many movie versions of this classic text? And yet, it seems not have left an impression, for his executive order will not root out terrorism, but it will separate families. It will hurt students who study in the US, like my student. I do not feel safer because of this recent effort to keep my former student out of the country. Seeing Tiny Tim, meeting him and having a glimmer of understand about how hard his life must be changed Scrooge’s heart. He no longer saw the poor as a mass of people who didn’t take care of themselves and their children or didn’t work hard enough. Their plight became real to him because he met an individual child.

Later in the story, the Ghost of Christmas Present introduces Scrooge to Ignorance and Want:

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The spirit especially warns Scrooge to beware Ignorance, which will spell our Doom. Scrooge goes with the third spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, having already committed to changing his ways, as he says, “I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear your company, and do it with a thankful heart,” before telling the spirit “The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know.”

Though the first spirit attempts to move Scrooge by showing him his past so he might compare it to what he has become, he remains mostly unmoved until the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge others and helps him understand his responsibility to his fellow man. And this is what literature can do. It can show us the experiences of others. It translates our own experiences to us. It offers us a way to understand and even a chance to repent and change.

We cannot let Ignorance become our Doom. It’s our responsibility not to allow another witch hunt. We must fight back in whatever way we can against policies that do not align with our ideals as Americans and which will harm our fellow human beings. We are better than this. After the Holocaust, we said “Never Again.” I am deeply frightened by the direction my country is heading, and I stand against these policies.

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12 thoughts on “Breaking the Silence”

  1. I hate that you feel the need to include your personal political stance within the contents of your professional platform. A separation should be respected and maintained. I teach not only immigrants, but many of them illegal. One of my students has just been featured in NYT for her and her families’ struggle. I get it, but you, like many who want to use social media for a purpose other than politics feel entitled to use that to broadcast your political views to an unsuspecting audience. If that is the case, please create a separate blog in which subscribers can sign up to hear what your political views are. I had subscribed to your blog for the purpose of pedagogical enhancement and a deepening of my methods and practices. This is a shame.

    1. I am sorry you feel that way. I have enough blogs already, thanks, and I have no intention of starting a political blog. I feel strongly that we have a responsibility to speak out when we have these types of concerns. Teaching is political. However, I feel this post goes far beyond “politics.” I am concerned about human rights. And I am deeply, deeply concerned about my students. My feelings will not be hurt if you feel you cannot subscribe any longer. I understand. I will not be silenced, however, and certainly not on my own blog.

  2. Thank you, Dana. And Ms. Dudley, the answer is simple. If you don’t like what you see here, don’t visit. She has the right to free speech — at least for now 🙁 — and she is entitled to say how she is feeling on her own blog. Even if I didn’t agree with her, I can understand. This DOES relate to teaching. Most of my fellow teachers have been walking around under a cloud like Eeyore since the election. It is absolutely the lowest morale I have observed in 10 years of teaching. And in every school I’ve visited. Yes, it’s our immigrant children. I had the hardest time facing them the day after the election. But it’s more than that. In my experience, most teachers (not all, but most) are very patriotic AND very empathetic. And we have all — whether we are English teachers or History teachers — studied history. We know what happened with Hitler. We know what happened with Japanese Internment. We know what happened with McCarthyism. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So for those of us who DO remember, it’s hard to sit here and watch. Sometimes I feel a bit like Mrs. Schachter in Elie Wiesel’s “Night” who is shouting about the flames as they approach Auschwitz. But no one listens to her.

    1. Thanks, Diane. I am actually teaching The Crucible right now, interestingly enough. I would like my students to examine the amendments to the Constitution and determine which rights the accused would have had, had they lived under the Constitution (an idea provided by my friend Glenda). I think they will make connections between what they are hearing on the news and what they are reading, which is exactly what I want them to do when they read—to see themselves and the world around them expressed through literature. Do you read Robin Bates’s blog Better Living Through Beowulf?

      1. I do not. But I will now. 🙂 I think that’s a fabulous idea about “The Crucible”! I can see that exercise working in many, many different books and stories. Thanks! I’m actually doing “The Hunger Games” with my 9th graders, and they are noticing lots of parallels. Like the dividing of the districts, rich vs. poor, etc. I actually had one student say definitively that there were “absolutely no parallels” between the story and real life today. The other kids laughed so loudly that I didn’t need to make any comment. 🙂

  3. Just standing in support of you Dana and rejecting the idea that these issues are beyond political, but instead speak to our humanity. If it is too difficult for an educator to hear that you are worried for your students, that is a sad thing.

  4. Very proud to count you as a friend! I agree with everything you’ve said, and I am not offended in any way. We cannot stay silent.

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