I was invited, along with two colleagues, to join 60 teachers in Denver, Colorado, for a National Writing Project professional retreat last week. Even though we live in Kentucky, we decided to drive instead of fly. We wanted to see the country and knew we could get a lot of the preliminary work done on our project in the car during the 1200 mile jaunt.
We arrived on Monday evening at a lovely Hilton resort, which was to be our home for the next five days. The first night we met other teachers who had been invited to do similar work: developing instructional resources, from teaching argument writing in the science classroom to sponsoring school-wide family literacy nights.
As educators, we shared many of the same concerns about our students and the future of the country. It didn’t matter where the conversations started around the buffet tables, they ended up political. Jennifer from Mississippi told me about segregation academies, private schools in the South established by white parents in response to desegregation in public schools. Nicole from California talked about “dog whistle” words, coded messages that are only heard and understood by a particular segment of the population. Victoria from Oklahoma filled us in on the nearly criminal cuts in their state’s education budget.
One night after dinner, we watched a seven-minute trailer for a documentary featuring a cross-section of Americans talking about their conception of America’s “creed.” The trailer was slick and well-done, featuring veterans and authors and teachers, different races, different ages. Words like “freedom” and “diversity” were featured equally. I was crying by the end of it.
I may have been crying because of the relentless nature of the week’s work or because I hadn’t been sleeping well due to Denver’s altitude. Or it may have been because I desperately want to believe what the film was tilting toward: that even though Americans are deeply divided, there are basic values we all hold dear–family, safety, education, freedom, equality.
I want to believe this, but I’m also fairly cynical. Freedom doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, and the equality of one group is a threat to another. I know many people in my home community who would see the film as left-wing brainwashing, an attempt to force political correctness and West Coast liberalism down their throats.
After the viewing, we discussed how we might use it in our classrooms to start a conversation, but even the term “start a conversation” seemed vexing to me for its coded progressive intentions. The only people who ever want to start a conversation are those who think they know better than you: teachers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pampered Chef consultants.
Finally, a teacher from Montana remarked on the enduring complexity of humanity, and we nodded sagely and shuffled off to our individual hotel rooms.
At the end of the week, my Kentucky team struck out for home on I-70. The scenery through Colorado and Kansas was crushingly, achingly beautiful. The deep blue skies, white clouds layered over golden prairies. We passed combine convoys headed toward the summer wheat fields, and we passed fields of soybeans, corn, and pasture land, dotted with white-faced cows.
Somewhere we stopped at a Pilot Travel Center to fuel the car and get a sandwich. The Travel Center was packed with families of every color, class, and age, all of them hungry and tired, cautiously herding their children into the bathrooms, waiting in line for a burger. A Little League baseball team came in. An elderly couple dressed head to toe in black. A middle aged woman in a pink tank top with a pistol strapped to her waist. SeaHawks, Broncos, and Steelers fans.
We spent the night in a Holiday Inn Express in Topeka, Kansas, ten miles away from the national historic site of Brown vs. Board of Education. In the lobby, there was a man in the corner reading a Hebrew Bible. In a circle of chairs, a self-help group gave each other hugs and offered words of encouragement. In the elevator, we met some little girls who were staying at the hotel because their mom was in a powerlifting competition. The next morning we had breakfast with bikers, a church choir, and an elderly couple on their way to see a new grandbaby.
I understand public policy is not made at Pilot Travel Centers and midwestern Holiday Inns, but in many ways, we’re all just dads and moms, sons and daughters trying to get home from a long trip. I’m disheartened we are so polarized by politics. Most of us can agree with each other on a basic human level, but when we approach each other with buzzwords and ideology, the humanity falls away, and the labels become both a target and a launch pad. We may be unwittingly creating our own segregation academies, dog whistling unconsciously. Maybe if we could avoid talking about America as a grand ideological subject, and instead talk about ourselves and others in small, specific frames, we might discover a common moment, a shared feeling, a sensible creed.