The ability to be heard. The ability to make a difference. The ability to evoke positive change. The ability to use your voice in the world around you. These are things I think most people value. With myself and my own family, I try to encourage each child to understand who they are, what is important to them and how to express themselves effectively.
Last week, I found myself expressing myself in a way that became very public. I asked a simple question about the appropriateness of a reading list, and now the world is debating it. Here are some places I have commented: BuzzFeed, Lagniappe, al.com, Huffington Post. In each post and in each comment I have made on social media, I have been very intentional about being respectful even in the face of very harsh criticism.
And there is a reason for that. I believe that in the political climate in which we are living, the one with hate, vitriol, name-calling and anger, most of us have lost the ability to be heard. When you lead with intention to vilify the other’s point of view, where do you expect to go from there? Do you truly believe you will lead someone to an alternate perspective? No. And that means the intention is to hurt and rant and rage. The intention is to be divisive, not unifying. And as a community and a nation, we need to get past this attitude.
I have four teenagers and a ten-year-old. They are learning how to navigate the world and how best to express themselves. I have worked with each of them to use their voices and own who they are and what they want in their lives. The funny thing about teens, is that they are often literal in their understandings. They are young and idealistc and believe they can change the wrongs they see in the world. I want them to believe that so that they will go out and invest in the future. But while they are learning, they make a few mistakes.
My oldest daughter found herself in a group text thread in which one participant was saying things that were racist and sexist. So she told him he was racist and sexist. Now, she was correct. His communication was quite offensive, but by resorting to name-calling, she was perpetuating the negative tone of the conversation. She was struggling with what we all struggle with right now. We want to stand up and let someone have it when they are awful. But is that really productive? I suggested that maybe rather than direct her comments to him, should could have directed her comments to the subjects of his harsh attitude and offered words of support and compassion. In the group text, he would have seen it and her message would have been clear without calling him names. In the name-calling, you completely lose your ability to be heard even if you are right. I love her passion. She is very involved in social justice and in her community at college. And she usually gets it right. But it is my job to help her retain her ability to be heard.
My middle son is also involved in politics. It is he who brought the reading list to my attention. He watched as the story unfolded and as he was asked for comments by news sources. He has had to be deliberate in what message he wanted to present. And so we have had a lot of discussion. He loves his school. He sees the problems in our community with inclusivity and tolerance, but he prefers to work with the school for the betterment of the community. Not to alienate anyone. It can be very difficult, because as a 17-year-old, he is very emotive and passionate. He has made the mistake of sending impulsive, angry messages before, and he wants to learn how to communicate in a way that helps, not hurts.
I recognize that the attention Mr. Ponder and the Spanish Fort High School community has received for this has not been easy or welcomed. I remained focused only on the reading list. I have seen other commentary that has brought out other issues. I have seen people calling for Mr. Ponder’s job. Here is my take on that: I do not know Mr. Ponder. I know that his list was inappropriate. I know that his listed resources were inappropriate. I do not have first-hand knowledge of his teaching.
When I spoke to the principal, he said he had not seen this list. I have to take that at face value. He took the list down, took my call and reacted how I hoped he would. I have to applaud that. From what I can tell, no one complained about this list or these resources before. Now that it has been brought to the county’s attention, I am willing to wait to see if Mr. Ponder makes the adjustments needed to present a better class and if the administration insists on that.
When my youngest daughter’s friend played games mocking other girls behind their backs and she went along with it, we had a big talk about being the kind of person you want to be, being a leader not a follower and doing the right thing when no one is looking. I asked what she thought we should do about this friend. She said, “not be friends anymore?” I told her that when someone makes a mistake, you give them the chance to do the right thing. If they continue the same wrong path, then you reconsider.
I am willing to give Mr. Ponder the chance to do the right thing. As far as any other issues, I think there are times and places and ways to go about communicating. I prefer to work within a system and within a community. You can’t bully someone over everything just because an opportunity presents itself.
There are a lot of good things about our community. And there are a lot of problems. I hope that I can become more involved in being a force for change. And I know that it will be incremental. And I welcome our citizens to join me in open, respectful and productive dialogue.
I write a lot about not only accepting your reality but embracing it. The good and the bad. The idea is to accept so that you can learn from your life situations and embrace so you can find value even when things feel unbearable. I call it The Gift of the Struggle. It’s what gets me through a lot.
But there are times when you should not accept. Times to stand up and speak out against that which is wrong and unjust. I work hard to teach my five kids to use their voices and stand for their beliefs. This balance between embracing your reality and knowing when it is time to reject it is sometimes a difficult line to walk.
Yesterday, however, the choice was clear. My son, an incoming senior in high school brought me a copy of his AP Government reading list.
“The reading list is pretty bad,” he said. “I think you need to take a look.”
Bad was an understatement. There were FIVE titles from Michael Savage. One from Ann Coulter. One from Sheriff Richard Mack. The list goes on and on – 31 options. They were anti-climate change, anti-liberal, pro-Christian, etc. This is a public school, by the way. Of the 31 choices, there were probably two that I found acceptable and they weren’t ideal. There was not one academic book on the list and zero historical/intellectual options.
Here is my point of view: I encourage my children to read things they disagree with. To listen to those with opposing perspectives. To be open to ideas other than theirs, but to stand up for their beliefs respectfully. This list did not encourage that philosophy. It presented one side. And one side filled with pop culture personalities who spew hate and rhetoric – not intellectual, respected authors who offer well-educated ideas from different points of view. And how is my 17 year-old son, who is the Southeast Regional Director for the State of Alabama for High School Democrats of America supposed to sit in this class and feel he has a voice?
Take a look at the list:
I posted this list in a closed progressive group in which I participate. The reaction was fierce. Outrage. Incredulity. Action. It was intense and it was immediate.
I immediately emailed the teacher and copied the principal on it asking questions. Giving the teacher a chance to offer an explanation. No response. Here is my email:
My son just printed the AP Government and Economics reading list and I have a few questions. The list is predominantly populated with one perspective. A conservative one. I would like to know your reasoning for choosing this list and what perspective you plan to teach these books from. Can you identify the value you hope to offer in terms of choosing this list?
Can you let me know why there are no titles that would offer an alternate perspective or a balance to the list you have provided?
If you had provided both points of view in your selections and had students chose one from each perspective, I would see the value in debating the points of view and showing students the presentation of opposing views. But that is not the case here.
Also, several authors are not those I would expect to see from an academic class. Those chosen are more pop culture type pundits rather than those who would offer academic, intellectual schools of thought on conservative policy.
There are several books on the list written by people I find truly offensive and believe are hateful in rhetoric and philosophy. How will these books/authors be handled in your class?
I welcome your discussion as I was truly shocked at the political slant in your selections.
I believe in giving people the chance to respond before I act. When the teacher did not respond, I called the principal. He said, and I believe he was sincere, that this was the first he had heard of the list and he was retracting the assignment and planned to speak with the teacher. I inquired about what I should do if this teacher taught his class from this perspective, and he told me he wants to know. I believe that.
Here is what I find interesting. As this post went around the internet, there were many who had experienced this teacher. Their children were not surprised about this list. They indicated that he taught class from his right-wing perspective for more than a decade and that this reading list had been used for several years. Many parents were uncomfortable and talked to their children about how to handle his class. But as far as I can tell, no one complained to the school. No one confronted the teacher. If they did, they did it quietly.
I have some thoughts on the reasons for this. I live in Spanish Fort, Alabama. It is a VERY conservative area of the country. I am not conservative at all. When I first moved here from Pensacola, FL five years ago, I did not realize I would not find any like-minded people – because they were all staying under the radar. If you are a liberal here, you tend to just be quiet to avoid conflict with pretty much everyone you know. When you unexpectedly find a fellow liberal, it’s a little private party where you jump up and down…on the inside.
This attitude of hiding has created a culture of a silent minority. Parents seem to hesitate to speak out. I think there is fear of a negative impact on our children if we complain about a list like this. That fear is not unfounded. But is that enough to remain silent?
The silver lining of the hostile political climate we are now enduring is that people are coming together for a cause. Through these closed political social media groups, I have discovered that there are a lot more people like me in lower Alabama than I ever knew. The support and common ground we have found in knowing each other has empowered more and more of us to become active locally and to speak up for our beliefs – even in the face of name calling (which has occurred to my own 19 year-old daughter in the discussion of this list). What has the world come to when a teenager is called names by a middle-aged man for expressing her point of view? Her point of view that the silent minority shared and became the vocal minority for?
I have to say, I am proud of the swift action the community took to right this wrong. And it goes to show that when people come together for a common cause and take action, change can be swift and decisive. Onward.