Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Red Hat

            In the fall of last year, a student in my 12th-grade English class walked into my room wearing a hat I knew about, but had only seen through the news media. But now here it was on the head of a young man in the first row – a bright red cap, with the words “Make America Great Again” printed in white letters. The student, with whom I’d been developing a nice rapport thus far in the year, saw me look at his cap and asked me a question.
            “So, Mr. Hynes, what do you think of Donald Trump?” he inquired.
            I smiled, and gave him an answer: “I like Donald Trump for real estate, but not for the White House,” I said.
            Throughout the year, we talked on and off about the presidential campaign, and listened to each other. When we studied rhetoric, the student wrote about the ways in which Donald Trump was using pathos to engage his listeners’ emotions, just as successful candidates had done in the past, from Kennedy to Reagan to Obama. He quoted Trump speaking in South Carolina saying, “People are fed up. They’re fed up with incompetence. They’re fed up with stupid leaders. They’re fed up with stupid people.”
My student understood the power of emotional language – in this case, words of anger – to connect with individuals more deeply than facts sometimes can. He knew that factual evidence, or logos, wasn’t Trump’s calling card. “Donald doesn’t use facts very often,” my student wrote. “However when he does, they are usually yelled, are slightly vague, and tend to be large numbers.
Later in the analysis, the student summarized that Trump was angry, and so was he and a lot of other Americans. Trump’s words were connecting with that anger and resonating, the student wrote.
My personal preference is for words that seek out avenues of fellowship, not anger. But this was no time for me to share that preference; I did so every day through my behavior in the classroom, after all. What I did was help my student analyze Trump’s rhetoric, and discuss the power of pathos with him and all my students as we shared our analyses.
I also spoke with all of my students about the issues in our nation when the time was right. As we read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, we talked about our world’s refugee crisis, and where America should stand on that issue. When we watched and analyzed Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, we discussed race in America on a number of different fronts. Throughout this time, my student remained an ardent Trump supporter, but he engaged in all of these discussions with respect and an open mind.
In the first half of the year, he asked me to help him with a college essay he was writing. As I read it, I learned that he had struggled with a family crisis not unlike one I had experienced as a teen. I shared this with him, and helped him with the essay. Later in the year, while modeling a presentation assignment that asked students to connect Hamlet to their own lives, I shared some of my teen-struggle story with the full class in making a connection to the play.
After I’d done this and the bell had rung, my student walked up to me in the back of the room and held out his hand. “Mr. Hynes, I just wanted to say that I really respect you for sharing your story like that with the class,” he said. I shook his hand and told him I respected him for writing about his experience as well. You could tell that he felt empowered through the sharing of stories.
I stood there, watching him walk out of the room, and thought about how things might have turned out had I shut him down because he supported Donald Trump. Several months later, I still think about that moment. As one of the more than 60 million voters who supported Hillary Clinton last week, I have every right to be deeply disappointed in the election results. Crushed, even. But as a teacher, my obligation is to every student.
A month into this school year, that student stopped by my classroom while home from college and checked in on how I was doing. We chatted, and I’m sure we will do so again when he stops by during his Thanksgiving weekend or winter break. He wasn’t wearing the hat this time, but we didn’t get into politics. We had something deeper to guide our conversation – a mutual respect for each other.

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