Making the Horses Drink

A few mass shootings ago—that is, a few months ago—I faced my freshman comp students and asked them why. Why was it, did they think, that gun violence was such a problem for the United States?

A hand shot up. “It’s because our gun laws are too strict, so it’s hard to get weapons to protect ourselves.”

The student beside him agreed. “They won’t let us have guns on campus so if someone comes in here then we’re all screwed.”

I gritted my teeth. “Well,” I said, “That is certainly one point of view. But the U.S. actually has the laxest gun laws in the entire world. And guess what? We also have a much higher rate of gun-related homicide than any other country.” I pulled up the statistics on the projector to further illustrate my point.

“Correlation does not equal causation,” someone blurted out.

“Drugs are illegal and people still do drugs,” still another student argued.

I was leading this band of horses to water but they refused to drink.

After class I commiserated with my colleague, Celia Laskey, who had met similar opposition when trying to share the tenets of feminism with her English class. To her credit she stuck with it, designing an entire unit around feminist literature, weathering a storm of resistance each class period.

As MFA students, we teach writing to mostly 18 year olds. Are we out of line bringing up politics or forcing discussions on social issues? To what extent can we make our own viewpoints known? Is it ethical to try to sway the minds of our flock?

At 18 I took a creative writing class from the poet Keetje Kuipers, then a grad student at the University of Oregon. The day George W. Bush won re-election Keetje broke down in class. “We’re all very upset. I’m very upset,” she said. At the time, I thought this wildly inappropriate. Why was she bringing politics into a poetry class? What difference did it make how she felt about the election? Wasn’t there supposed to be some separation between the personal and the professional?

Twelve years later I couldn’t be further from that stance. Last semester, when talk of the impending election arose in my class, I called Donald Trump a racist and a fascist. I told my students that I thought the support for his xenophobic and misogynistic rhetoric was terrifying.

A student interrupted me, aghast. “You can’t talk about that here.”

To what extent can we, as educators, voice our own political beliefs, our own critique of the broken world we live in? I teach writing—is it wrong to force a conversation about politics?

At 18, I was ambivalent and apathetic to the goings-on in the world around me. My political beliefs were ill formed and hinged largely on what I’d heard my parents say about various issues. In 2004, my Catholic mother voted based off a single issue. She was pro-life and that election cycle she tearfully pleaded with me not to vote for Kerry. “You don’t have to vote for Bush,” she’d said. “Just please don’t vote for John Kerry.” To my mother’s credit, she has reversed her political leanings and voted Obama the last two elections. She recently claimed that a dead dog would be a better president than Trump.

During the 2004 election, I hadn’t felt strongly enough one way or the other and so I didn’t vote. Bush won. In retrospect, I count this as a colossal failure of my civic duty. Had I understood the issues—that Bush was a warmonger, that I was absolutely in disagreement with all facets of the Republican platform—I would have voted and I would have voted for Kerry. How many other 18 year olds were in the dark like me back in 2004? How many blindly followed the political leanings of their parents, unquestioning?

More than a decade after the fact, I do not fault my poetry teacher for breaking down in class after Bush won re-election. I commend her. I only wish she had forced us to understand, to argue the issues sooner, before the race was sealed. As teachers, it’s not our right to tell students how to vote or what opinions to form. It is, absolutely, our obligation to make them understand the issues and the facts—that Eric Garner said “I can’t breathe” 11 times while the police choked him to death because they thought he was selling loose cigarettes, that Trump wants to build a wall to keep out the “rapists,” that American gun violence is through the roof and that the NRA pays Republican senators millions of dollars each year to ensure the flimsiest gun laws in the world.

We are educators; we must educate.

Jason Thayer is the co-Editor-in-Chief of Blue Mesa Review. His fiction has won contests judged by Antonya Nelson and Bret Lott, respectively. You can read his stories published in Hobart and The Rumpus. When he isn’t writing, he is recording bleak and unusual hip-hop. If Trump wins the election he is moving to Mexico City.

Jason Thayer