Thirty-plus years ago, when I was a Drake Bulldog in “superintendent school,” I had a wonderful professor by the name of Ray Pugh. In addition to teaching us the standard superintendent skills (droning on at board meetings, looking sharp in an empty suit, speaking in public for extended periods without saying anything, etc.), he also taught us a great deal of school law.
Yeah, that’s why people go into education, I thought, when he began one such presentation, so they can mire themselves in the fusty field of jurisprudence. But Dr. Pugh, I soon discovered, had a way of talking legalese that was surprisingly interesting and eminently useful. When he “held court,” for example on the Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines, most of the class was spellbound.
He told it as if it hadn’t happened more than a decade before but was, instead unfolding before our very eyes, as if in real time. Tinker enshrined the legal understanding that students did not shed their constitutional rights to political expression when they entered the schoolhouse doors. I couldn’t imagine how Professor Pugh could demonstrate such deep understanding of the events that led to the Tinker decision until a review of newspapers at the time revealed he had been one of the administrators suspending students for wearing armbands in school. His experience, as well as his skills as a storyteller, left my classmates and me with an indelible understanding of the issues.
And that is important this year, as it is, seemingly, every election year but especially in 2020 when controversy fills the air like smoke from burning autumn leaves. (2020, it has been noted, has not been a particularly good year for anyone, earning comparisons to a dumpster fire and an outhouse cellar. Frankly, we are running out of vivid descriptions to use as we never seem to hit bottom. What’s left, an outhouse cellar fire?)
Every modern presidential election, it seems, is described by some as “the most divisive in our history” It’s not true, but even a student of American history has to admit this one has us feeling pretty badly at odds. Vast majorities of people will view the loss of their candidate and the victory of the “other guy” as an unmitigated disaster, signaling, even, the loss of the republic.
When you’re trying to teach school — except in classes like critical issues, American government, etc. — that can become a bit of a distraction. So when a student comes to class wearing a t-shirt with their candidate’s name emblazoned across it, it would seem easier to make it go away somehow. Easy, but not correct. Unless political expression is significantly disruptive to the educational process, it must be allowed. And it should be allowed. It’s part of our process.
The same applies to “taking a knee” during the playing of the Anthem. Frankly, I’m personally proud to say none of our athletes have elected to make this gesture before any of our games. But if they did, they would do so with their constitutional protections in place. They would not be punished for it. The band would finish playing, that student would rise to his/her feet, and the competition would ensue. As long as their expression did not prevent the game from ensuing, that would be the end of it. To summarize Tinker, no disruption, no foul.
The obligation of public school educators in these situations is to walk that line between allowing protected speech and safeguarding the educational process from disruptive expression.
Thus, dress codes remain in place. Students cannot rise in a math classroom and begin debating the propriety of the Affordable Care Act. Engaging conversations between students on the merits of approving a Supreme Court justice before the next election can go on as long as the forensic does not devolve into the fisticuff.
Sure, it would be simpler if all this “stuff” could be held at bay, beyond the schoolhouse door. Yet there is also merit in teaching and modeling such notions as part of the American Experience and part of the American legacy, its heritage, enshrined in the Constitution and the amendments to it. If we did not believe that, we would not, after all, play the Anthem before games or say the pledge at the start of the school day in the first place.
That we do and that we freely permit, even welcome, vigorous discussions of the issues of the day means that, even in a disheartening, maddening year like 2020, it is still good, very good, to be an American.