This piece originally ran in Education Week.
I was going to start this piece off detailing some story of my own sexual assault(s) and harassment(s). I was going to start launch in, like I often do, with what it felt like: the way the pit in your stomach forms into a hard, cold stone. Your blood turns icy with fear. Everything stops moving for a second– it’s the adrenaline flooding your system. It courses through you in an instant as your brain very quickly registers that something jarring is happening to your body, and you become hyper aware in a way that you never want to.
Then, I realized two very sad facts.
First, I would have to choose an incident. Like most women, I face some kind of harassment or provocation on a near-daily basis. From what some mistakenly refer to as “minor” incidents like being catcalled when I walk somewhere to the multiple times where I have been physically grabbed or touched in ways I did not want.
To be a woman in America (and far too often, worldwide) is to understand that you exist in a space where your body not yours at all. It is a thing to be coveted, ogled, commented on. It is appraised. At best, my body is protected as “someone else’s goods,” instead of having an agency and will all its own. As such, there have been multiple times where that mindset has manifested itself into acts of harassment or violation against me.
Second, as I was crafting this piece in my head, a voice popped up saying, “That’s too cliché. Everyone is responding to this by sharing the details of their assault. It’s already overplayed.”
And isn’t that sad?
I had never planned to delve into politics with my writing. Of course, education lends itself to understanding and discussing points of policy and implementation. With the exception of acknowledging the election and giving my students space to voice their opinions, however, I rarely make clear political stances in my classroom. I try my best to remain neutral.
Recently, however, that has been increasingly difficult. Not because I inherently disagree with a political stance taken by one candidate, or the tax plan of another doesn’t make sense. It’s because, as a nation, we are witnessing the source, symptoms, and consequences of a culture in America that normalizes assault. We are seeing what happens when generations of men are taught that their masculinity is best portrayed in the toxic guise of “locker room talk” machismo that glorifies ownership of women. We are reaping the ramifications of women who have allowed that talk as “boys being boys.”
Here’s the thing: many of us have been saying that we don’t want to live in a “Trump’s America,” or “Trump World.” When it comes to rape culture, however, we are not seeing something created by a single man, we are seeing a political candidate embody a mindset that has permeated our culture for decades. To be a woman in “Trump’s America,” is actually realizing that a culture that has commodified your body now has a megaphone headed towards the throne.
I do not believe it is my place as an educator to sway my students politically towards a particular candidate. I adamantly believe in teaching my students to think critically, help them see injustice, and then allow them to make their own decisions.
Still, as a woman who stands in front of young people– women or men– every day, I cannot keep allowing these beliefs to perpetuate without teaching our students to question the source, symptoms, and consequences of that culture. If it is important to teach our students to critically question the world we live in, that includes not just the politics of our candidates, but the cultures they seek to create as well.
To be a female teacher, or any teacher, in America means teaching that this kind of message–one where our men are taught violence is power and our women accept that as the status quo– must not continue. We must teach our students to hear, understand, and ultimately dismantle those beliefs before another generation of women has to worry that their assaults is a cliché to begin with.
So educators, now is the time.
Start simply, “What do you think of the current scandal around Donald Trump?” Listen to your students. Critically question why they think what they do. Give them space to be angry if they feel that way.
Talk with your students not just about the horrible anti-Islam, anti-immigrant rhetoric spewed (Teaching Tolerance has a number of excellent resources). Teach your students about rape culture and why it’s wrong.
In a world where it is easy for hatred and ignorance to spew and grow and gain an audience, I cannot think of a more important time to be an educator. To be an educator today is to allow and invigorate the tough conversations that won’t just make for interesting classroom discussion, but could help ensure positive change for generations to come.