Sunday, January 21, 2018

We Get the Job Done

            It happens every time, I’m sure. But this was our night to see it. As two men rap six short words, a Broadway show is drawn to a halt mid-song by the audience’s response; actors and orchestra wait out the cheers before continuing.
My wife and I were celebrating our daughters’ birthdays (16 and 13) by taking them to see Hamilton, the smash-hit show whose soundtrack they’d been listening to for many months. Who would think that the perfect Sweet 16 gift would be a hip-hop Broadway show about a Founding Father?
            Toward the end of Act One, the cast performs the electrifying song “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” in which they depict the Revolutionary War’s final conquest. When Alexander Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette meet on the battlefield, they can see that victory is at hand. As they open the song, the two men use their shared experience as outsiders to America (Hamilton hails from the British West Indies, Lafayette from France) to explain their success. “We’re finally on the field. We’ve had quite a run,” Hamilton says. Lafayette responds with one word: “Immigrants,” to which Hamilton joins him in rapping, “We get the job done.”
            That’s when the audience starts roaring. They know that when Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote these six words, he wasn’t just talking about the immigrants of 1781; he was, of course, arguing that immigrants are still getting the job done in America as we speak.
            Debates over immigration have dominated American discourse throughout the past year, and it doesn’t seem to be letting up. As I review the news accounts of our immigration debates, I think back to my experiences as an educator. In my 19 years as a full-time teacher, I’ve worked with many immigrant students. Some were in my classroom because their parents had fled violence in countries such as Kosovo, Ethiopia, Venezuela and Afghanistan. Others were there because their parents were hoping for better opportunities than they had in Vietnam, Nigeria, South Korea, the Dominican Republic or Haiti. Still others were here because their parents had taken job opportunities, moving their families here from China, France, Egypt or Canada.
            I’ve taught a Dreamer who went from the top of her high school class to babysitting because she couldn’t apply for admission to college. I’ve taught a teen who worked 12-hour graveyard shifts at a parking garage before coming to school. I’ve welcomed students into my school’s Community Service Club from Haiti, Iran, Venezuela and China, all of them looking for opportunities to serve. In recent months, I’ve watched my service club students volunteer their time at a program that serves refugee families, most of them from Syria and Iraq.
            Whenever a student from a new country arrives in my high school in central Jersey, inquisitive American students pepper that student with questions: What was it like growing up in your native country? What’s the difference between there and here? How are you doing with schoolwork? Have you been to Manhattan? When it started snowing one December day a few years back, a student of mine from Egypt told me she’d never seen snow before. Without hesitation, the entire class led her outside, where she looked upward, spread out her arms and caught all the snowflakes she could.
            I think the American students are so eager to learn from their immigrant peers because they understand something fundamental about this country: Immigration is a sign of our nation’s overall health. When people want to come to America, it means that our country is doing some things right. It means that the freedoms, economic opportunities and sense of community we’ve built are inspiring people from around the world. It means that our tradition of welcoming others has built us a level of global respect that is beyond measure. It means that for every individual who takes advantage of America, there are countless others who are giving America even more than they’ve gotten. So when you see a new student from another country in your class, it’s a sign that you were blessed with your place of birth. And you’re willing to share that blessing with others.
            This is the way it’s gone in this New World for four centuries now. I hope that as we debate the specifics of immigration laws, we find a way to hold onto this idea, which a certain copper statue in New York Harbor tries to remind us of every day.
            When the audience finishes cheering for that line in Hamilton, the song resumes. “So what happens if we win?” Hamilton asks. “I go back to France,” Lafayette says. “I bring freedom to my people if I’m given the chance.”
            And that’s the other thing about immigration: When people have the chance to see America up close, it also can give them the motivation to bring that torch of liberty back home. But when we wall ourselves off from the world, that chain reaction becomes impossible.
            So as the government debates continue on, I’m going to follow the instincts of my students, the words of Hamilton, and the observations I’ve made over two decades of teaching.
            It really is true. Immigrants, and those who welcome them: Together, we get the job done.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Words Matter

            On Friday, I took a moment from my 11th- and 12th-grade journalism classes to make sure my students knew of the editorial decisions that newsrooms across the country had been faced with the day before. My students know that news media outlets all have their own style manuals, which includes a guide to which words the outlets consider vulgar and inappropriate for print. But sometimes, those rules must be broken.
            Thursday night, many news outlets decided to temporarily reverse their style rules regarding vulgar language by reprinting some words attributed to the president of the United States. According to numerous sources, the president had referred to certain nations as “shithole countries” when negotiating immigration law with other lawmakers during a Thursday meeting. He also had asked why we would want people from Haiti here in the U.S.
            This was not the first time that President Trump has spoken derisively of individuals from developing countries during immigration talks, according to sources who have attended meetings with him. In addition, the president has used incendiary words regarding other ethnicities and nations many times, particularly during his campaign speeches. His administration’s travel ban was developed to target a particular religion, as he had promised it would during his campaign. And his words after the Charlottesville tragedy revealed, at the very least, a clear concern with offending white supremacists.
            Due to the president’s dedicated track record of demeaning individuals who are not white or European, the news media was aware that it had a responsibility to continue reporting his approach to diversity and immigration. This included coverage of the president’s words. So when he took the shocking step of calling other nations a vulgar term on Thursday, most news outlets decided that reporting the exact words was essential to giving readers the full story. The president’s words serve as a reflection of the country he leads, and it was deemed essential that you and I know our leader is now comfortable with using “shithole” to describe would-be allies. Media outlets felt they owed us that level of specificity.
            I asked my students if they agreed with this choice, politics aside. Everyone who raised their hand said they did. The details mattered immensely here, they said. I encouraged them to keep following this story during the weekend.
            Tomorrow, we celebrate a man whose words inspired a nation and world, and whose leadership led not only to American freedoms but also to worldwide admiration for the promise of America. That promise, of a nation where all men and women are created equal, has not been fully realized, of course. We have seen this on numerous fronts, from race relations to immigration to sexual assault to educational segregation to voting laws. We have so much work to be done, which is part of the reason why Martin Luther King Jr. Day has become more and more a day of active service and reflection. But on that third Monday in January, we also have the chance to listen to King’s words and remind ourselves of just how much potential our nation has.
            And no matter your politics, it has typically been the case that the president of the United States uses words of maturity and dignity when speaking to that promise of American liberty. You could criticize the president’s agenda and executive orders, but you were likely to find no problems with his words when it came to representing the nation’s ideals.
            President Trump has promised, throughout his campaign and his presidency, to be a disruptor. That has involved clear challenges to laws that he disagreed with, but it has also involved a shift in the president’s use of language. He has used spoken word, social media and official statements in a form more befitting a barroom brawler than a chief executive. That is troubling to many, for sure, but in journalism it’s also news. It’s a shift whose impact we can’t assess quite yet, but which we must cover thoroughly. When someone chooses to alter the way in which the most visible country in the world presents itself to the world, that is a news story of the highest order. It means that for nearly every word Trump utters, reporters must share with us the policy details, the politics and – often most of all – the degree to which his words are taking us into unchartered territory.
            So yes, today it’s “shithole.” And tomorrow, we’ll see what’s next. My students get it. The words matter, and they must be covered.