On the back walls of my classroom, covering old holes and Sharpie-scribbled hashtags and Instagram handles, my kids hang their social contracts. It’s become a ritual during the first week of the school year to establish some kind of foundation, but one built by the hands of the kids themselves; I exist merely as a moderator for the activity. The contract is a document the class chooses to live by, referencing it whenever one of its core principles is overlooked either in conversation with each other or even by the teacher himself. You’d be hard-pressed to find a social contract on any school campus without words like “respect” or “treated fairly.” Children like it when adults acknowledge their not fully realized selves, and it’s charming to see this awareness manifest in their formative years.
It’s a process, however. There are countless semesters where social contracts peel from the wall like old paint, or when the transgressors and the transgressed switch sides each class period. Regardless, each of these moments in the classroom are teachable ones—moments teeming with questions and curiosities, mostly roused by one person calling another person something so upsetting that it forces the class into a standstill. Those moments help drive conversation about the appropriateness, and power, of language. It provides students an opportunity to ask, without fear of reprimand, why some words cut deeper than others.
For instance, during a lesson on rhetoric, we were discussing the structure of Dr. King’s speeches in the film Selma, when a student in class asked, “Mr. Michel, where did the word n***** even come from?” And what quickly followed were eyes darting to and from me to her, with whispers and prods from her groupmates muttering she “shouldn’t have asked that.” After all, their English teacher is Afro-Caribbean, they said. And, after all, there’s a guilt—not of their own creation—that skews conversations of this kind because of the history that precedes them. It was an opportunity to open the floor to a conversation about the history and power of language, as well as the language of those with power.
Along with their penchant for validation, high school students are perceptive as ever. Despite only a decade separating me from my current kids, there are issues and controversies they’ve grown privy to simply because of iPhones and Androids. News headlines lead conversations like they’re adults at watercoolers rather than students at fountains in the cafeteria, and many come into the classroom desperately wanting to know the political leanings of the people teaching them. Their growing interests in politics stems from the controversial and the disparaging; high school students want to know how and why and what for. After October’s rally in Houston, one of my kids asked what Donald Trump meant by claiming he was a “nationalist.”
To think the fascist roots of the term could be addressed in one class lesson was jarring. The problem doesn’t just stem from its misuse as thinly veiled patriotism, or feigned ignorance. The issue now rests on the current administration’s ineptitude with regard to language and rhetoric. Midterm elections—elections of any kind, for that matter—quite often prompt shifting rhetoric; the kind of rhetoric that turns scapegoats to targets and “patriotism” to nationalism. The word and its use are now the subject of national debate, as is the idea of political correctness, or the lack thereof, in the age of Trump. The root of the renewed use of the word “nationalism” is the preservation of a kind of exclusionary sentiment, one that stifles legitimate efforts to question the grounds of its own existence, as evidenced in the White House’s recent feud with Jim Acosta and CNN.
The last two years have seen a drastic shift in public and political discourse, as well as a building up to the current resurgence by a “silent majority” egged on by today’s administration. Nationalists marched through the campus of the University of Virginia. A nationalist gunned down several victims of Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina. Murders in the name of white nationalism nearly doubled in 2017 according to the Anti-Defamation League. Leading up to midterm elections, the hunt was on for a domestic terrorist after pipe bombs were mailed to several prominent Democratic leaders. Last month, an attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh has led more people to consider that the vitriol stemming from the White House becomes ammunition for fanatics. In the age of Trump, words coming from the White House have seemingly lost meaning.
These are very real dangers, nearly all linked to the kind of nationalism perpetuated by scapegoating out-groups and disseminating xenophobic ideas. Political ideology is grounded in common language, for those on the left and right, but if ignorance is to blame for misunderstanding such a potent and historically violent word, there must be legitimate efforts to amend that ignorance, especially by the Oval Office.
Jamal Michel, M.A.T. '15, is an English teacher in Miami, Florida.
Jamal Michel is a Duke graduate and an English teacher at Northern High School. His column runs on alternate Fridays.