I walked down to the conference room in the back of our library around 3:00 today to sit in on our student news magazine staff’s interview with a state senator. He had requested that I be there, presumably because I’d been so outspoken at a forum featuring six undocumented immigrant students who described their plight to attendees.
At the forum the previous week, he had cornered one of my students, who tried to debate with him reasonably about the meaning of being undocumented. The senator was playing a semantic game, trying to get her to admit to being a criminal. She is fairly small; he is a tall, large man and could be an intimidating presence. She stood her ground and kept calm while he lorded over her, literally and figuratively speaking down to her. I am so proud of her in retrospect. At the time, though, I interceded and drew his fire away from her, physically moving in between them. Here was an elected official publicly trying to humiliate a 17-year-old kid—a kid whom I had taught twice and whom I care about a great deal.
The interview with the magazine staff had already begun when I arrived, but he stood and greeted me, and I said that this was the student news staff’s time and that I’d just sit in the back and listen. I didn’t really like being in the room with this person who’d been so rude with my student before she’d even said anything last Wednesday.
Oddly, I immediately found a way to empathize with him. He has a strange vocal tick that reminded me of my own occasional oral awkwardness: the uneven remnants of a stutter that was so bad when I was young that it was impossible for me to talk at all sometimes. One doesn’t simply get over that, orally or emotionally, and so despite myself I reflexively wanted to like him.
That didn’t last long. He was largely incoherent, some of his analogies made no sense, he was sometimes condescending to the student news staff members who are far more sophisticated than he realized, he was falsely conciliatory, and when he played at real logical reasoning he went in circles. I’ll illustrate a couple of those points.
On his coherence and analogies: When asked whether someone is to blame for the presence of undocumented immigrants, and who that might be, he said it’s like if you take a 20-dollar bill and tape it to a rock by the sidewalk, and expect to find it there the next day, but it’s missing, are you to blame or is the person who took it to blame? What if the tape just came off and it blew away so that it was not clearly placed anywhere deliberately? Is the person who took it a thief, or did he just find a 20-dollar bill on the side of the road? I’m not sure what the drawn-out analogy is really about, or how it answered the question.
On being falsely conciliatory: He said he sympathizes with the plight of students who did not make the choice to come here. In the same breath, and throughout the interview, he referred to them as “illegals” and “criminals.” Asked whether he would help an undocumented person who came to him asking for help obtaining legal documentation, he barely answered at all. He clearly knows the vocabulary of democracy and freedom and high ideals, but seems unwilling to deal with the ideas they signify and lacking any grasp at all of the deeper implications of recent anti-immigrant legislation.
After an hour, I stood and said that I had to go to a meeting. On the school’s time and property, in the presence of students, I couldn’t debate his points in an antagonistic way. He rose, too, and shook my hand again. I thanked him for coming last Wednesday and for speaking to our journalism students. He thanked me for attempting to have a civil conversation with him about this last Wednesday, and he apologized for his language and tone. I acknowledged that it had been an ugly moment and let it go. I also told him that on this issue, I couldn’t care less about Democrats and Republicans and party politics, that I only want what is right for my students. He said he understood and sympathized. I imagine that he sympathized in the way an alligator might, but at least he was civil.
Reprinted by permissions of the Publisher, From Bob Fecho, et al (eds.), Teaching Outside the Box but Inside the Standards: Making Room for Dialogue, New York: Teachers College Press. Copyright ©2016 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.