“Hey Mr. Lenci, want to hear a political joke?” Recess ended, and seventh graders arrived in a flurry of Goldfish crumbs and cold air. Abby, armed with her backpack and a sense of humor, bounced on her feet in anticipation. “So you’re ready for the political joke?” I was. “OK, wait for it.” Pause. “Donald Trump!”
At the time — it must have been the winter of 2016, with the Republican convention still many months away — Donald Trump was a political joke among those across the political spectrum, and here was a student of mine, all 12 years of age, piling it on. I was flooded with questions: Do I laugh this off? Does the idea of neutrality require that I issue some equivocating statement (“Well, not everyone thinks that…”)? Is there some threshold of political gravitas for a candidate to reach, at which point joking becomes political commentary? Has Trump reached that level? If so, do we need to steer clear? What will other students read into my response? Are there any Goldfish left?
I think often of that moment. Intuition led me to affirm the jokester (“Ha!”) and move on quickly. But what a difference a year would have made. At what moment did Donald Trump transition from a business mogul/reality show celebrity to a legitimate political figure? Once that transition occurred, did new rules of engagement apply to discussing him in school? Was his behavior as a private citizen open to critique within the classroom (in the same way a sports star might be)? Were students and/or faculty then prohibited from commenting on his behavior once he had passed into the realm of the “political?” If so, why? What are the guardrails for political commentary in schools or, more broadly, dialogue across lines of difference?
As far as I am concerned — as I said in the first article in this series — pretty much everything is “political;” the instinct to stay away from topics or discussions that could be deemed “political” is, I believe, unproductive. Setting aside that assertion for a moment, though, we can hopefully agree that it is advisable to prepare our students to navigate — and possibly mend — our polarized society. It follows, then, that we must provide them opportunities over the course of their education to reach across lines of ideological difference. If we are to lead that…