Thursday, November 10, 2016

Trick or Treating at the Trump House

My neighborhood takes trick or treating very seriously. Some neighbors give out full candy bars. Tons of adults (including yours truly) dress up in costumes right alongside our kids. One house gets fully decked out in a theme every year. This year it was The Wizard of Oz - with all the characters and beautifully detailed decorations, and even a white screen with the film playing on it. One woman dresses as a gorgeous witch each year and serves "witch's brew" (aka hot apple cider) in cups to all who visit, warning them to watch out for errant eyeballs.

And many, many of the homes around here had Hillary signs out front. In fact, seeing a Trump sign in our neighborhood was so rare that my daughter even joked that the one we pass each day had the spookiest decoration of all.

On Halloween night, my kids and I reveled in the warm weather. We strolled from home to home, prompting my three year old to say "trick or treat" before greedily gathering his candy. I felt, once again, so lucky to live in this magical place.

And then we approached "The Trump House," as we'd started calling it. I noticed the residents - our neighbors - had moved their sign from where it once stood to right next to the house, out of the way. I also noticed that many, many trick or treaters started to go up, saw the sign, and then just kept walking.

But then, worst of all, I noticed my neighbors' faces. This elderly couple, sitting on their chairs, looked sad. Really sad.

I prayed that Stella wouldn't see their sign. But if she did, I was prepared with a speech. "Honey, in America, we have the right to disagree on politics. We may not agree with them as to who should be our next president, but we can still celebrate Halloween with them."

But Stella didn't notice. She happily skipped up - with Sam right behind her - and sang, "Trick or treat!" They smiled and gave her candy. And we moved inches closer to my kids' yearly late-night candy binge.

My family and I didn't see eye to eye on a lot of things when I was growing up, but I was raised to care about people. About people who look and act like me - and about people who don't. I was raised to love with an open heart, fully accepting that that will bring pain, and will often not be reciprocated. It was these lessons that I learned at home and at church that resonated with me - people matter. All people. Judging others is stupid, because you've got your own issues, lady. Just love people. Help people. Support people. And don't expect anything in return.

I don't know how many people know this, but when Dave and I made the decision to move to Kentucky from New York, it was partly so I could teach at a rural school. I told Dave that I wanted to teach kids who grew up in similar situations to mine. I wanted to be the spark that would ignite their passions, like the many incredible teachers I had who helped me become who I am today.

And I got a job in an area right outside of Louisville that seemed perfect. While not quite as rural as my home town, it was very economically depressed and was culturally VERY southern. The student population was nearly 100% white and Christian. My kids had rough home lives, suffering homelessness, unemployed parents, malnutrition, family members with drug-addiction, and many, many other atrocities. These kids looked like me, and they gave me flashbacks to my own youth and the issues my friends and I faced way down in Hardin County.

I loved them. They were funny and sweet. They liked my lessons, and while sometimes it could be hard to motivate them to work (a common issue when working with kids who are dealing with trauma and have their minds on issues bigger than school), once they caught on to my lessons, they often wow'ed me with their work.

But certain things happened that challenged me. Right after the Colorado movie theater shooting, a boy wore a shirt to school with an AR-19 on it surrounded by blood spots. After the Newtown massacre, a boy yelled out that Sandy Hook was a hoax to try to take away everyone's guns. When one group of kids found out (not by me) that I was Jewish (I converted), they started drawing swastikas on the desktops and drew nasty caricatures of the "Short, Fat Jew." Obama was called a terrorist. A kid wasn't allowed to study Greek mythology because it "conflicted with her religion."

I took deep breaths. I explained how a blood-stained shirt went against our dress code. I lovingly asked for factual evidence to support claims that Newtown was a hoax. I worked with the school to have someone from the board talk to the kids about harassment, and accepted their apologies for their anti-Semitism.  I explained that Islam is an ancient and beautiful religion that President Barack Obama doesn't follow. I allowed the Greek mythology girl to do alternate assignments.

And I loved them. They were complex creatures, as wonderful as they were trying. One year, a boy wished me happy Hanukkah on the first day - a perplexing date that he had to have researched on his own. One kid performed a slam poetry about how gay people should have the right to marry (before they actually did). Many kids were shocked and outraged to find that marrying someone outside of your race used to be illegal.

But still, that pervasive ideology prevailed. Beware of education. Don't listen to the media - they're too liberal and they lie. Yet believe everything some radical conservative talk show host says. Be scared of those who are different - they are threatening your way of life.

I had to leave. It was so hard to see kids start to become independent thinkers, start to open up to a new world that's more diverse and less fearful than their parents' world, only to spend a weekend or vacation at home and come back more xenophobic than before.

I love where I work now. It is truly the most diverse school I've ever seen. And I don't experience the same frustration of watching a culture constantly tear away all the work I do.

Don't get me wrong - I love my culture. I love quilts and sweet tea and chocolate pie and porch swings and hospitality and (arguably) the best storytelling in the country. And while xenophobia was there when I was a kid, too, I guess that other lesson - the one of loving the holy hell out of people - always just, pardoned the term, trumped all that for me. I fear that it doesn't work that way for everyone.

Wednesday, the day after this historic election, one of my Hispanic students came up to me and said, "Well, Ms. Skaggs, are you happy or sad about the outcome?" His face was crestfallen, and became even more so when I told him I couldn't tell him. One of my Muslim students, usually the class clown, was ashen and quiet. One boy told me it was nice knowing me, but now he was going to have to move to Canada. And when the Pledge of Allegiance came on, half of my home room remained seated.

I love them. I love every one of them. The ones who look like me, the ones who don't. The ones who worship like me (if there are any), and the ones who don't. The ones who speak the same language I do at home, and the ones who don't. That's how I was raised.

And I love the Trump people, too. Even if they don't love me back. Even if they elected a man who incites hatred and fear. A man who's used terms that make me and my friends feel degraded. A man who's inspired such hate from some people that I and many of my friends fear for our own safety and the safety of our children. Because I was also raised to know that loving people can be complicated and hurtful, and often not reciprocated.

A few days after Halloween, I told Stella that she'd trick or treated at the Trump house.

"I know, Mommy. I saw their sign."

"Oh, I didn't know that. I thought you might be afraid to go up."

"Of course not. They're just people. We don't have to agree on things."

"That's right, Stella. That's so right."

"And besides, I wanted more candy."

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