by Susan Jhirad | Leonard Vogt’s article about the possibilities and limits of the classroom as “bully pulpit” made me reflect on the disturbing election results in Massachusetts. Most of us, I think, already know what polls showed: Massachusetts voters did not vote for Scott Brown because 1. they are turning “Republican” or 2. they are against health care reform. They voted for Scott Brown because Martha Coakley ran a horrible campaign and Scott Brown ran a great one. The “lessons” are, unfortunately, not about policies, but about effective organizing. She was ahead in the polls by 15 points a mere two weeks before the election.
As a teacher, used to breaking things down in clear, lively ways for students of a variety of backgrounds, beliefs and social classes (mainly blue collar students from a wide variety of countries, religious and political beliefs), I often cringe when politicians I agree with clearly fail to do the same.
As a last ditch volunteer making phone calls for Coakley, and yes, pathetically holding a Coakley sign out in the snow on election day, I had the opportunity to talk to many people in the waning days of the elections. One woman on the phone said, genuinely,” Explain to me why I should vote for her. I generally agree with her, but a lot of people I know have Scott Brown signs…” OK. I had five minutes max to get across why to vote Coakley. I talked about health care reform, global warming and gay marriage- all in simple, but I think heartfelt terms. I even said truthfully, “I have a gay daughter and I hope she’ll have the right to marry one of these days.” At the end, she said, “You’re right. I’m going to vote for her.” I stood in the snow and talked to another woman for a good 15 minutes; she hadn’t voted for Coakley, because “She took my vote for granted. I resent that.” It was too late to convince her; she had already cast a protest vote for the independent, but she clearly wanted to talk. I had the feeling that if I’d gotten to her before she cast that vote, I might have changed her mind.
My point is the following: although as teachers we cannot ethically impose our political beliefs on our students (of course, we can open their minds to more progressive ways of thinking, as suggested in Vogt’s blog) we can also use our teaching skills as organizers outside the classroom. Most of us actually know how to talk to people better than some politicians.
Now I confess, I am 67 years old with arthritis, and though I still go to rallies, write letters to the Editor and make phone calls, my days of knocking on doors are on the wane. However, for those of you who are still young enough, I would recommend it. Grass roots groups like Neighbor to Neighbor and Coalition vs. Poverty do it to great effect, but more people are needed. You can teach, therefore you can talk to people. In the immortal words of Joe Hill (slightly paraphrased) “Don’t qvetch; organize.” It is desperately needed.
–Susan Jhirad (retired chair of the English Department, North Shore Community College, Lynn, MA.)