Unlearning Silence

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Nancy Pelosi writes off Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional support as ‘like five people’ (New York Daily News)
Pelosi refused to comment on Trump while traveling but openly critical of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar (opednews.com)

One of my family members bought me a leather wallet sometime when I was in my junior high years. My strongest memory of that wallet remains the time when I was at school and discovered the wallet missing from my pocket. Later that day, I found my wallet tucked away in a corner of a hallway, just by a door, and I could tell right away that I hadn’t just dropped it there because the five-dollar bill I’d had inside of it was gone. That was no small sum of money for me back then (and it still isn’t, for that matter).

Despite that, though, I never told anyone about what had happened to my wallet or the money inside. By that point, I had pretty much learned that I wasn’t ever going to be treated the same as the other students at that school, and that kind of abuse had become so normal to me that I figured it was better to just shut up. Several years later, when another student knocked me out just outside the school’s doors right after dismissal, to the point where all the students who were leaving literally had to step over my prone body to exit the building, I once again said nothing about it. None of the other students did. That was just my lot at that school, and after all the things I’d already endured there, I’d learned to just put up with that kind of treatment.

Trying to second-guess these things more than twenty-five years after they happened feels like a recipe for misery, but at the same time, I can’t help wondering if maybe I should have said something about those incidents when they happened, even if it was only to Mom. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but looking back at all the incidents I’d endured at that school up to that point — including, after another student beat me up, a teacher asking me what I’d done to “deserve” (his word) getting assaulted — I can now see how I’d been conditioned to believe that I would always be treated as less of a person than the other students there, not just by the other students but also by the teachers and administrators. I can’t remember what exactly was going through my mind way back then, but I was probably scared that I’d suffer even worse if I didn’t keep my mouth shut and accept the abuse.

A lot of my adult life has been spent unlearning those “lessons” I was taught at that school so long ago. I spent a good deal of time after I left there trying to adjust to my new freedom, and learning that just because I could say anything I wanted didn’t mean that I should, and I said a lot of genuinely stupid things as I was getting used to my new role in the world. I’d like to think that I got all that stuff ironed out by the time I got my graduate degree, but I don’t think that’s for me to say. Still, I definitely try to be wise with my words, online and in my classrooms and elsewhere, and I try to always set a good example for the people around me, and to embody the moral and ethical beliefs I hold most dear.

These past two and a half years have been a real challenge for me when it comes to giving voice to the things that bother me the most. After all the bullying and other abuse I endured when I was younger, it’s been hard not to feel flashbacks to my school days, where I was immersed in a culture where that kind of mistreatment not only flourished, but seemed to be celebrated by those in charge. Especially with Mom’s passing just before everything went off the deep end here in America, I’m constantly aware of how I don’t have the emotional bedrock I once had to get me through all the things I suffered through back then, and I no longer have anyone to catch me if I fall.

In the aftermath of the last presidential election, I was thrust into the role of counselor to many of my students, even more than I normally am. That would have tested my mettle under even the best of circumstances, but with Mom passing away less than two weeks before the election, I was already in a very bad place. What I told my students then — and what Mom had told me so many times throughout her life — was that there will be times in your life when all you can do is just survive, and that there is no shame in that. For too many of us, though, we’ve been in “just survive” mode for two and a half years now, and human beings aren’t built to function like that over such a long period of time.

As the opening machinations of the next presidential election cycle have been going on, amidst all the other insanity in this country, I can’t help worrying that relief from “just survive” mode isn’t coming soon. The same people who’ve told us day after day that we can’t get what we want — people who may be having problems now, but are nowhere near “just survive” mods themselves — are already casting their dark cloaks over the country, trying to convince the rest of us that we have to concern ourselves exclusively with their priorities, not ours, even as we are suffering and even dying. It’s as regular as politicians starting the year off by going to Iowa and New Hampshire, and television talking heads pontificating that the only successful presidential candidates will be the ones who can connect with voters in South Carolina (and no discussion of why that might be part of the fucking problem with this whole fucking rigmarole).

I now have students who weren’t even alive when the 2000 presidential election happened, and all the Monday morning quarterbacking that followed. I remember that time all too well, and looking at election results from that year forward, I can’t help but feel like that was the turning point where too many Americans were “taught” to just take whatever they were given, no matter how much they were hurt, no matter what was happening to themselves and their friends and families and communities. Especially after the traumas so many of us have endured over the past few years, I have to believe that those numbers continue to swell.

At the same time, I keep reading horror stories from this country’s southern border of children enduring infinitely worse conditions than anything I ever suffered, and too few voices are saying that the people responsible for those atrocities should be brought to legal justice for their actions. It’s certainly not been stated by anyone I know who’s definitely running for president at this point. A big part of the reason I became a teacher was so I could do my part to make sure that fewer students would have to endure the things I went through when I was younger, and if I don’t at least throw my support behind a presidential candidate who promises actual justice for those children, and pledges to take the steps necessary to make sure that we never see anything like what’s happening to those kids ever again, then I’m probably going to feel like everything I did to survive to this point in history was a waste.

If the last presidential election taught us anything, it is that sweeping change is possible in a short amount of time, and I refuse to believe that such movement is only possible in one direction. Especially with the clock running out on humanity being able to save our planet from environmental catastrophe, either that change has to come quickly, or nothing that anyone did to survive to this point in history is going to matter. I can’t afford the luxury of believing that our imminent collective doom is unavoidable. I just wish I didn’t feel so alone in thinking that as I felt when I had my money stolen at school, and I got beaten up in front of everyone, and no one did a damn thing about it.

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