Like a lot of American idiots abroad I took a job teaching English. I’m working for a private company in a big city that prepares students for university admission exams. Much of the material is designed to generate conversation so that students are thinking and then speaking in their second language. New vocabulary words and precise pronunciation are the framework for discussion.
Last week we spent an entire section on marriage and relationships that culminated in a recital — each student got up in front of the rest of the class to share the description they wrote about their ideal partner.
“So it seems we’re going to be digging deep into an awkwardly personal topic,” I told them at the beginning of class, not thrilled about tasking them with publicly sharing their private dreams.
“Teacher? It’s not that awkward,” the most outgoing and fluent of the students told me. Okay then. (They preface every question and statement with “Teacher?”)
As comfortable as they were sharing their dreams of perfect love, I wondered how comfortable they would be telling their American teacher what they really think about the current American president. The curriculum this week called for me to ask them, “What do you think about Donald Trump?”
The lesson plan was a discordant combination of current US deportation policy and the economic impacts of deporting immigrants coupled with teaching them the Pledge of Allegiance. It was weird. The kids mumbled along dutifully though visibly bored.
And so went a Saturday afternoon for eight university-bound kids that, though bright and capable, would clearly rather not be in school on the weekend. I don’t blame them. I had braced myself for the questions they might ask me. I pre-scripted responses that would keep my impassioned politics diplomatic while unequivocally standing against his racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, sexual assault charges, fraud and collusion. But my prep work and all my paroxysms of outraged political heartbreak turned out to be completely unnecessary.
They didn’t ask a single question.
Not, “Teacher, did you vote for him?” Not, “Teacher, why is he so racist?”
In fact, they seemed mostly disinterested in the topic altogether. There was an unfazed and universal approval of his need to protect his people. I asked who “his people” were and they all agreed on the word “citizens”. They mentioned his racism parenthetically and with a shrugging matter-of-factness I’m still trying to wrap my mind around.
I wrote their answers on the board hoping each student’s perspective would prompt the next student to discuss the topic in more detail. To create a conversation exploring fear-based xenophobia and corrupt power structures that systematically insulate the wealthy at the expense of the greater good.
What I got instead were succinct and shockingly positive answers.
- He’s a good person
- He’s trying to protect his country just like how we protect our homes
- He’s trying to protect his people the way we protect our families
- He’s a good politician
- Sometimes he’s racist
- He can be mean
- He is really strict with rules but that’s only because he has to be
So as with all the great social mysteries, I shared this experience with everyone in my inner circle — mostly Americans, but also some Mexican friends, a Russian American, one Australian Canadian teacher and one Romanian professor of French literature.
Collectively we have various amateur psychologist theories for their answers. But ultimately there is nothing to be done with any of our hypothetical explanations. Because I am there to teach them English, not pontificate about the impending doom of an empire long overdue for collapse.
But I wanted these smart young people to know that I’m appalled by our deportation policies and the now mainstream racism seeping up from sewers that used to run quiet. That less than half of Americans espouse the same xenophobia our current administration does.
Because I feel guilty I wanted too much to make it about me. And I was afraid the students, ever respectful and polite, didn’t want to offend me so they perhaps did not share the whole truth of their opinions. And it wasn’t appropriate in that setting to share the pulpy mess of mine no matter how much I wanted to.
I wanted to pledge my own allegiance not to a flag but to a humanity that welcomes all guests and future citizens in a country defined by its immigrants. I wanted them to know that “American” is a nationality, not an ethnicity, and that whatever we are, immigrants are not endangering us.
But Saturday mornings aren’t for preaching. Teaching is about the students, not the teacher.