My English 102 students are supposed to be constructing argumentative essays. They come in to meet with me, as scheduled, with handwritten outlines and typed-up introductions. They want to argue about wolves, educational policy, abortion, technology, gun control. I sit across from them… the minimal age difference seems acutely obvious, this close… and ask what they have to say. They tell me.
“Native American rights?” I ask, swinging my shell earrings and lowering my eyebrows in a neutral sort of puzzlement “What do you mean? Land rights? Why?”
“Because they were displaced. Because their ancestors had their land taken away.”
“Hm,” I say “But lots of people groups were displaced. The Irish were displaced due to starvation. They came to the new world, and they suffered too. The Native Americans married into the new population, and that’s why I exist.” (a little Irish, a little Cherokee, a lot bastard. Are you invalidating my birth?) “Human suffering is universal, right? Why should one group get more out of historical prejudice than another?”
My student gapes silently at my sacrilege. I draw some diagrams on her paper (“answer the opposition,” with arrows pointing to the body of her text) and wait for the next student. This student wants Marijuana legalized, because it is not as bad as alcohol. Or maybe he says that sports teams provide good role models. Or maybe that parents should control their children’s consumption of video games. Or maybe that exercise is good for the body.
Suddenly, I find teaching very, very entertaining. I never realized how easy it was to be disagreeable.
I say things to them that only bigots are allowed to say. I try to do this delicately. After all, I don’t want to damage their feelings — or my job — just their platitudes. Just the unquestioned assumptions they hold so dear. One student mentions “raising awareness.”
“Ok,” I say “but what good will that do? I mean, people have this assumption that awareness is the problem, but is it? Just because you know you should do something, do you always do it? What if doing what you shouldn’t do is easier?”
Human nature, I think, and watch him fidget nervously. He should have done more research. And I think he knows it.