When opinionated teacher problems collide head-on with transracial family subject matter, cultural angst takes over part of my brain. As a trans-racial adoptive mom, social issues are always on my mind, even when I’m teaching.
This week in tenth grade literature, we reviewed sonnets, and I chose four of my favorites to read and potentially discuss, one of which was Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus.” You may remember it as the source of the famous “Give me your poor, your tired… your yearning to breathe free,” which is engraved on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty.
Here is the full text, shared because it’s beautiful, and passionate, and brilliantly naive.
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
I love those words. I love the hope and passion and courage they embody. I love that they represent the dreams and aspirations of many of my ancestors. I love that they’re in iambic pentameter in a Petrarchan sonnet on a giant statue that represents the all the good America can do. I’ve always been an idealist.
One of my students asked why the sonnet was on Lady Liberty, and without thinking, I said, “It used to be sort of a motto for our country, it kind of represented what we stood for.”
I didn’t think about the emotional or political impact of this poem or my quick answer as it spilled out of my mouth, but I have been tossing them around in my head for a few days now.
As soon as they left my mouth, I knew those words were going to start a discussion, one I would have loved, but wasn’t prepared to have.
And it did; here’s how it played out in about 27 seconds:
Student A: “You don’t think that’s true anymore?”
Student B: “Trump sure doesn’t.”
Student C: “What do you think it changed to?”
Student D: “Now it’s ‘We’re all offended.'”
I stopped it there, saying, “Guys, I would love to have this conversation with you, but we can’t do it during class time– maybe over lunch or after school.”
General moans and groans and objections were mounted, but gradually we got back to the business of the sonnet, the grand dame of fixed form poetry.
Five years ago, I wouldn’t have given a second thought to the political ramifications of that sonnet, and clearly, 36 hours ago
I hadn’t either. Five years ago, I didn’t have black children, and the ones I had, while slightly tinted, didn’t inspire in me the angst and introspection my three youngest do. What’s my excuse for 36 hours ago? I don’t have one.
Why can’t I have a conversation about immigration politics as exemplified by the sonnet and current events with my 9th and 10th graders? Why must I worry so much about politically offending students by asking them to support their opinions with facts?
There are two schools of thought on this; the first, that teachers must be absolutely neutral about their political leanings and beliefs so as not to inappropriately influence the students. Our jobs are to impart facts and let the kids figure out what they think.
The other, that teachers are not automatons and that what we think and believe comes out subtly any way, so why not discuss and hash through issues with logic and respect? Our opinions, with logical and respectful conversation are foils to our students’ developing ideas about how the world should work.
I am definitely in the latter camp; I’ve tried being a neutral presence in my classroom, but I would never want or expect my students to remain neutral. To me, neutrality is a form of cowardice; when you fail to choose a side, you are giving tacit approval to whatever you’re refusing to deal with. Think Switzerland circa 1943.
I tell my classes at least once a semester that they have to get the fence posts outta their backsides and take a stand. I don’t care which side of the fence they choose, but choose they must because life and democracy demand it. Persuasive writing requires that students take a stand and defend it, and address counterclaims to their ideas. We require our students to take stands and defend them, so why was I so hesitant to do the very thing I expect my students to do?
When student B asked me why I thought we were no longer the country that embraced the poor, dejected, and needy from other countries, I realized there is no way to respond with the necessary detail in the ten minutes we had left in class.
The ideals embraced by “The New Colossus” only applied to those of Western European descent, and then only as long as you didn’t have dark hair and eyes or speak with an Irish accent. Only two students in this particular class fit this description; heck, half of my ancestry does not fit that demographic either; Italians were too dark, noses too big, and food too smelly. And the Native American part? Let’s not go down that rabbit hole tonight.
And why is it so hard for me to admit that as lovely as this sonnet is, our country has never really embraced the homeless of the world, let alone the homeless within our own borders?
In my class of 27, 25 of them would not have been welcomed no matter how much they huddled or yearned, because their complexions are too dark, their hair too coarse, or their accents too thick. A painful moment of honesty, that; and I was unwilling to have the awesome conversation we could have had because of the political implications, and my own painful sadness about what all of that implies for me, my beautiful brown-skinned babies, and all of my students.
It’s easy for me as “an old white lady” (what I often call myself when we talk about issues of current politics and cultural differences) to spout off about how great and welcoming Ellis Island’s Immigration might have been to some of my ancestors.
Except not really. Officials at Ellis Island dropped part of one of my ancestor’s names because of its complicated spelling and pronunciation–a historic microaggression that immigration officials were kind of infamous for.
I have always considered myself a patriot. But patriotism is difficult when painful truths about the country you love, and its history, are staring at you with dark brown eyes waiting for you to explain what they already know: that there are unspoken parenthetical limitations in the promises our country has made.
In case you wondered, the other three sonnets were:
- Shakepeare’s Sonnet 116, “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds Admit Impediments”
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s, “How Do I Love Thee”
- John Donne’s Holy Sonnet #10, “Death Be Not Proud”