The Littlest Victims

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Kids banned from field day if they owe lunch money. School says there’s a $55,000 tab (nj.com)
Inside the old Walmart where 1,500 undocumented immigrant kids are being held (Vice News)

Every class I teach, I make a point of trying to hold class outside at least once during the term. This tends to be easier in some terms that others (it’s almost impossible to hold a summer term class outside, due to the heat), and I’ve had my fair share of outside classes get derailed by things like sudden windstorms and bees and the like, but my students usually appreciate that I’ve made the effort to get them outside the confines of our stuffy classroom at least once during the term.  If nothing else, I always get better student evaluations at the end of a term when I’ve held at least one class outside, so that just gives me even more incentive to do it.

Part of the appeal of holding a college class outside comes from the simple fact that the change of venue helps stimulate the brain and the senses; no matter how good a class is, changing things up will almost always throw students for a loop, jarring them from the routine of their academic lives and helping them pay a little more attention than they would have if class had been held in the exact same space where it had been held for every session before then. More than that, though, holding class outside evokes childhood school field trips and other outdoor activities for a lot of students, and for most of them, those are happy memories. (Not so much for some of us, but that’s a topic for another time.)

It would have been impossible, back when I was young enough to be going on field trips, to think about schools prohibiting students from taking part in these kinds of activities because they had an overdue school lunch bill. Particularly for very young children, like the ones at that school in New Jersey, the idea of effectively punishing them for their parents’ actions (especially when those actions are likely caused by financial hardships they had little to no control over) would be considered nothing short of barbaric, the kind of thing that prompted immediate mass movements to get the school administrators responsible for such callousness fired on the spot. I have deep sympathy for school districts struggling to make ends meet in this era of American educational politics, but no matter what challenges a school faces, making poor children suffer to “teach their parents a lesson” should never, ever be an option.

For close to three decades, though, this suffering has been slowly permeating American schools. From the cutting of arts education, to forcing young student-athletes to pay for their own equipment, to levels of neglect in places like Michigan and Oklahoma that make some currently-used school buildings look like remnants of a long-forgotten war zone, this process has been going on for two generations of American schoolchildren. Just like that school in New Jersey, less-advantaged children have been inordinately saddled with the consequences of these actions, when they were already the ones most in need of additional assistance, and these situations have only gotten worse year after year.

The story of kids being barred from school activities because their parents haven’t paid their lunch tabs would be hard enough to deal with on its own, but it’s being thrown into sharp relief now by the horror stories coming from America’s southern border, where immigrant children are being deliberately and cruelly separated from their parents, held in cages and treated like animals. What we are seeing right now is not so much an image of modern-day America being painted for our eyes, but rather an x-ray being made of our country that’s exposing the internal ugliness that’s always been there, and which for more and more Americans is becoming not something to be ashamed of, but something to crow proudly about.

President Trump’s rhetoric of referring to non-white people as “animals” is a level of racism just barely removed from the open use of slurs like the n-word. Because this rhetoric hasn’t been challenged nearly as much as it needs to be, its use has been adopted by such a large swath of the American public that it’s practically been normalized. We’ve now reached a point where non-white skin colour has been so demonized that even small children with brown skin are now regularly portrayed as future burdens on America’s government at best, and future murderers and/or terrorists at worst. It should come as no surprise, then, that so many Americans see no problem with, or even applaud, images of immigrant children being held in cages. To them, those children are, quite literally, animals that they feel a need to be protected from.

As with so much this administration doing, a steady stream of lies about who created this monstrous notion of separating immigrant families, and obfuscating the difference between people who cross into America without going through the proper channels and people legally seeking asylum, and denying how quickly this growing atrocity could be reversed, is being fed into the right-wing media echo chamber to try to drown out all dissenting voices. All the while, this moral catastrophe gets bigger and bigger with each passing day, and the possibility that the main bloc of opposition to this administration lacks the backbone to take stronger action to stop the separation of immigrant children from their parents, let alone their being caged like animals, seems to grow even stronger.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this, though. As politicians and their venal enablers have gutted the American public education system, and generations of already-disadvantaged children have been made to suffer as a result, maybe the idea that Americans just don’t care about what happens to even less advantaged children from another country — or, worse yet, applaud their mistreatment in the belief that it means they’ll get more money and/or government services — should be seen as just another step in this country’s slow descent into inhuman avarice and heartlessness. By the standards of what’s happening to those immigrant kids cooped up in cages, New Jersey kids being prevented from taking part in fun school activities doesn’t seem like much of a problem.

Maybe there is a way to turn the tide here. Maybe there is a way to convince the president’s die-hard followers that what is happening to these immigrant children is barbaric and needs to be stopped, and that every child — American or otherwise — deserves to be treated with the dignity and respect that should be accorded all human beings. At the rate things are going, though, it wouldn’t surprise me to see poor American kids being kept in cages at school before too long, and for the same people supporting the president’s policy of separating immigrant families to applaud the caging of even more children. The only question now is what those of us who are opposed to this cruelty are going to do about it.

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