It started with a Zoom meeting with a Stepford wife, which in itself was weird because most of the moms in the school district where I teach (soon to be “taught”) are shit-kickers, wearing stained jeans with ragged ropers and flannel or Carhart, depending on what the weather brings that day.
At least that’s when I thought it started.
In retrospect, it probably started a week or two earlier when I assigned a two-year-old article to my 10th-grade English class. It was about the GSA club at a high school in Salt Lake that, 22 years earlier, tried to form and instead got all clubs on campus cancelled.
The article was pretty innocuous, intended to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the scandal, document the problem, the eventual outcome, and provide a where-are-they-now for the key players. I liked the piece because it showed students that if they believed in something, they truly could make change, even as teens. It was inspirational and also a great example of how nothing, not even attitudes, lasts forever.
Apparently, however, it was a little too much for 15- and 16-year olds in small-town Utah. It was, after all, political because … it named politicians? I’m reaching.
Anyway, the Stepford wife with the lemon-chiffon blond hair coveted by Dallas Cowboy cheerleader-wannnabes everywhere, was seeking reassurance that we wouldn’t get political in class. Her son, an honors-student and football player, who I would later catch cheating on a standardized test intended to determine a child’s reading level, didn’t need to be bothered with that stuff.
“Well,” I told her, “we will discuss current events. Sometimes we’ll use news articles to practice informational texts standards and comprehension or for background for argument writing and discussions. I tend to take these from sites like the Salt Lake Trib, Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, NPR...”
Stepford interrupted: “I don’t want my son exposed to politics.”
This got a little tricky. Yes, I teach English, but part of the core requires we work on arguments. Other parts specify historic texts, and the list of suggestions from the state are all political. What Stepford would see as political, I didn’t know. So I stayed vague. “We try to focus on topics that matter to teens. I personally prefer to have students drive the discussions, but sometimes I do find the material and pick the topics. For this quarter, your son’s class is being asked to pick their own topics, but I do want them to select at least one article or opinion piece that reflects an alternative viewpoint.”
Stepford wasn’t impressed. As our Zoom meeting progressed, she walked through her house, giving me that rare glimpse into the home life of a student. Vaulted ceilings, which are hugely impractical in an environment where it’s winter for eight months of the year, were everywhere in her house, but they weren’t accompanied by the floor to ceiling view windows I’d expect to see in this mountain valley. Lots of wall instead. White. Very white. Really, I wasn’t judgey. Okay, maybe I was a little.
“And other viewpoints — they’re an important part of the argument standards… understanding both sides,” I said.
She stopped in front of white-painted, built-in shelves. As she spoke, I analyzed the walls. White, yes, but not bright or clean. Dingy. Painted frequently to look clean but by contractors who use cheap paint that can cover stuff up quickly.
Tchotke lined the shelves. Missing were the trail of coffee cups that led to the kitchen, Legos, stacks of junk mail, and wine stains, and books I’m accustomed to seeing in my own house.
“They pick the topic?” she asked.
“It’s not my intent to tell students how to think, just to get them to think and to understand that there’s more than one position to just about every issue,” I said.
A small metal horse sculpture rearing up on its hind legs was perched on the shelf behind her. It probably cost as much as my car, although it looked like the type of thing you’d find on clearance at World Market or Pier 1. Stepford herself appeared to be sitting at a built-in desk, a vestige of the 1990s, which is likely when her meh house was built.
She told me about her son’s plans for the future — actually her plans for her son (I would find out through the year that the son was quite intelligent but really didn’t make his own decisions about anything; decisions were made for him) and how he planned to go to law school at some Ivy League school where his uncle went and blah blah blah… I tuned out.
I’d started noticing a few months earlier that there was a very specific type of person who opted for the all-one-color blond, like Stepford’s. They were less likely to be working class like me. I’m someone who wants to eek as much life out of my dye-job as possible, which means highlights because they blend in. The all-one-color blonds were the type of people who had the time and the cash to go to the salon on a monthly basis, and who never showed roots. They weren’t looking for realism or reality.
“I just don’t think school is the place for politics,” she said. “Do you?”
Her vocal inflection brought me back. I considered the question and thought for a moment about my answer — do I remind her that her son will be in college in a few years and we’re trying to prep him for that now? Do I let her know that most students already have strong opinions but that maybe we as adults could try to build critical-thought into learning so that Gen Z’s opinions are grounded in truth? Do I tell her that seeing multiple sides is a form of learning?
I pivoted and brought up another project her son’s class would do: research information about their family’s immigrant and that immigrant group’s experience was upon coming to America. Stepford seems satisfied for a minute, possibly because she was mulling over the fact that her family wasn’t stuck at the southern border of the U.S. and she would be pretty sure that her son’s honors English class wouldn’t include any students whose family was (she was almost right — only one Latina was in a 10th grade honors English class).
Or maybe she realized that I was a problem that she’d need to do something about, that talking to me wasn’t going to fix the agenda that I no doubt had.
I never heard from Stepford again, at least not directly. I did learn that her spouse, a tiny guy with a huge bank account (hot, right?) was on the school district’s education foundation — the non-profit that provided schools with extra funding for stuff not covered by tax dollars. The Stepford wife was a small, rich guy away from the ear of the administration. I naively didn’t care. I just did my thing, which apparently ruffled more than a few feathers.
Did we talk about LGBTQ rights again? Probably, although I shied away from the topic after I saw how many students wrote in their reflections that they don’t agree with people being gay. Does that make me a puss? Probably but I couldn’t understand the logic of “not agreeing with” gay since gay isn’t something anyone gets to agree upon.
Plus, by November, I knew my work in that district was pretty much done. We hadn’t solved the myopic views of the students, but I closed my ears to almost everything because I couldn’t hear about one more complaint registered by a Q-anon mom.
How many were there?
A lot apparently. When we discussed cancel culture in class, which was a taboo subject (if I had been watching Tucker Carlson, I would have known), they called administration. When I asked students to read an infographic that reflected survey data about teens and their pro-gun-control attitudes, they called administration.
When a student brought up Defund the Police in an early morning class, I mentioned that the slogan was a great example of how you can grab the audience’s attention with very few words but that it was also terrible because it could turn people off from the message immediately. They called administration because that discussion of rhetoric was blatant indoctrination. They called administration when we read Langston Hughes and compared the theme, delivery, and message to Childish Gambino. They called administration all the time. Sometimes before we started class. They just knew I was up to some indoctrinating.
In retrospect, however, it probably didn’t start with that Zoom meeting or the GSA article. It may have started days earlier when I asked students to respond to a getting-to-know-you-survey question that asked which social movements they cared about. I left Q-anon off the list.