I was speaking with a colleague today about the Women’s March on Washington, which she had attended on Saturday. She was telling me about how inspiring, peaceful and effective it had been, and how great it felt to march with her daughters. I had heard similar praise for the march from others who had attended, from students to fellow teachers to my own wife and daughter.
My journalism students also received a lot of praise this weekend for their special inauguration edition of our school paper, in which they reached out to teens and young adults around the country and the world for their opinions on the new president and the issues that matter to them. The issue featured a variety of viewpoints and priorities, all of them shared respectfully.
One of the stories in that inauguration edition was about a “Love Trumps Hate” sign that had hung on a resident’s fence, but had been defaced and vandalized. A variety of neighbors, from both political parties, stepped in to replace the sign, and spoke to our student-reporters about the importance of working together. It was a tremendous story, one that served as a metaphor of sorts for the past two months in our country.
The same day the story was published, the replacement sign was stolen.
I’ve come to the realization, as many others have, that the disagreements we see now in American society will not be ending anytime soon. This is not necessarily a cause for concern; vigorous debate is, after all, the lifeblood of a democracy. Of course, the concern is typically over the issue that’s being debated, be it war, policy, individual rights or, in this case, the words and actions that leaders choose to define the course of our republic.
As I spoke with my colleague about the march this afternoon, I asked her for some perspective. She is a generation older than I am, so she was around for Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement. Did this feel similar, I asked? Yes, she said, it did. During Vietnam, you had disagreements within your own family, she reminded me. This is much the same. She was not trying to compare a new president to the deaths of young men and women in Southeast Asia; she was simply trying to explain the extreme differences of opinion visible in society itself.
As I spoke with my student-journalists today, I asked them to think about the issues they want to address in the weeks ahead. The kinds of stories we might typically cover, such as school policies and student achievements, will remain important – but they’ll likely be overshadowed by the next march, or the latest online dispute, or the words and decisions of our leaders. These are extraordinary times, I told them. It’s time to start making a list of the stories you want to cover. What does “America first” mean to different individuals? Is our news media indeed biased? How do the women who marched around the world plan to follow up Saturday’s powerful step? What do the words in the inaugural address mean to different people?
And perhaps most important of all, how is each individual planning to navigate the reality of our differing American opinions? Friday’s inaugural address followed by Saturday’s march clarified the state of our nation right now: The idea of a country divided is no longer confined to the ballot box or to Facebook; we saw it in person this weekend. And we will continue to experience it with our friends, family and peers – both in person and online. It’s time to determine how we’re going to step into these waters. Because they are rising, and unless we’re taking a boat to Canada, we’ve got to steer our way through using the tools of democracy that generations past have used. No one promises it will be easy, but these tools have been tested before, and they have worked.
As for my students and me, we will get back to the tool we know best – a free and responsible press – and we’ll go from there.