Coming Off the Bench


Today marks three months since  Mom’s passing. As hectic as the six months of her illness and hospitalization were for me, I knew that they wouldn’t even hold a candle to the craziness that was about to hit me after I got that fateful phone call, and I was right. These past three months have been a real rollercoaster, and even though there have been some high points in there — like the publication of my novel, The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban (please buy your copy today) — there have been dozens of low points for every good moment that I’ve been able to snag. I still have a lot of family-related business to handle in the coming weeks, and I know that I can’t count on my life getting significantly easier now, at least not for a very long time.

One of the things that happened as a result of dealing with all these personal issues is that I haven’t been writing about politics for a good long while. In defence of myself, that last election took place just ten days after Mom passed away, and I’ve certainly had more pressing personal business to tend to over the last three months. I’d like to think that no fair-minded person could blame me for taking time away from political stuff to handle my own life for a while, but as this past election cycle proved, we are not living in a time of fair-minded people in America right now.

I didn’t stop following politics during that time; it’s kind of a necessity for my teaching career for me to keep at least one eye on local and national politics every day, since the arguments going on in the political sphere can often help illuminate the rhetorical and critical thinking skills that I’m trying to teach my students. I did take a day or two off of watching the evening news when I just had too much on my plate at a particular moment, but I still start almost every day with a news briefing (sometimes using Mom’s old Amazon Echo), and my car stereo is permanently tuned to our local PBS station so I can listen to the news during my long commutes to and from work. When it comes to my own contributions to the political sphere, though, that just kind of dried up there because I didn’t have either the time, or the focus, to do that properly.

Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve regained the focus to follow everything that’s going on now. Regardless of how you feel about the current American political landscape, it’s hard to deny that the last three months — and especially these last ten days — have felt more turbulent than any in recent American memory, and if this weekend’s cross-country political firestorms are any indicator then they’re not going to ease up anytime soon. There is an instinct, during times of crisis (such as dealing with the loss of a parent), to try to simplify your life as much as possible, in order to give yourself the mental space you need to process the trauma that you’ve experienced. The American political landscape right now, say what you will about it, is most certainly not simple.

Dealing with these issues is even more difficult for me because of my bifurcated professional life. Although I may have strong opinions personally, I went through too much grief when I was younger and my teachers tried to force their politics on me (among other things), so I make a point of not bringing up my personal stances on political issues unless I have a compelling reason. Even when that happens, I make it clear to my students that I am giving them my opinion and not academic canon, I encourage them to challenge my views and assumptions, and I reiterate that (unlike all those teachers I had growing up) I will not mark their work down just because I disagree with them on any issue. I may not have done a lot of writing (or even talking) about my political views these last three months, but I’ve done a lot of keeping quiet as other people, whether on the news or in my classrooms, work out these issues for themselves.

If there’s been one aspect of teaching that’s gotten much more difficult for me these past three months, though, it’s the whole leading-by-example dynamic. Whether consciously or not, students look to their teachers for how to comport themselves in (and sometimes out of) the classroom, so it’s important for us teachers to model the behaviours that we hope to get from our students while we’re teaching them. (I certainly had enough teachers who were huge hypocrites in this area when I was younger.) Although I don’t directly encourage political activism (as important as I believe it is, that is just a belief of mine, and I owe it to my students to respect whatever they deem to be important in their lives), I do encourage them, when they can, to stand up for what they believe in — political or otherwise — because the whole point of education is to learn the tools that you need to transform your life, and if you never use those tools (or, for some reason or another, never learn them), then there’s not much of a point in getting an education.

Right now, though, standing up for everything that I believe in would be next to impossible, simply because there’s too much going on at this moment in American history for me to able to effectively respond to it all; like a lot of people, I firmly believe that this is a deliberate tactic being implemented by those in power now, to complicate the ability of their opponents to mount a cogent resistance. More than that, though, I’m still experiencing a great deal of fear about what’s going on right now, and that has played more than a small part in my recent reticence. I know that I’m far from alone in that regard — even for those who like the new administration and its Congressional allies, the large displays of public opposition these past ten days must be unsettling — but both as a teacher, and as a private citizen, I feel an obligation to lead, and I’m not sure that I’ve lived up to that obligation these past three months.

As I remind my students, though, courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the willingness to fight through your fear and do what needs to be done. I truly believe that only fools are always fearless, and if fair-minded people still exist in this country then I believe that they would agree that we all have lots of good reasons to be fearful right now. Being courageous doesn’t exactly come that easily to me — I’d always thought that Mom’s passing would have the opposite effect on me, since I wouldn’t need to concern myself with her worrying about me any longer, but I was wrong about that — but I know that I need to turn that around as soon as I can.

I still need to prioritize here, so a lot of my efforts will be focused on the issues that most directly impact me personally and professionally. Even within that narrow scope, though, there’s a lot for me to talk about, from arts funding to the upcoming battles over education. I’m kind of leery about doing anything that will cost me friends on social media,  especially because I need as much free advertising for my novel as I can get right now; like I said, though, it’s time for me to summon my courage and get back to being a political creature again. This may end up being one of the biggest mistakes of my life — I know that I’ve got far more bad times than good times awaiting me in the coming weeks — but I’ve got a job to do here, and it’s time for me to get back to it.

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