On my first class following Election Day, I wrote on the whiteboard the percentages of Electoral College votes. I told my high school students that if our class was in any way a microcosm that reflected the nation, then approximately half of them would be happy, and the rest would be sad with the results.
I dissected the origin of the word democracy (demos + kratia, which could be roughly translated as “the rule of the people”). I told them about the importance of having choices, and how in my native Cuba we have sporadic elections in which voters get to pick between the one candidate of the only political party that is legal.
There were some laughs. This joke never fails, but it is not a joke.
I told both ideological sides to recognize that their peers might be experiencing feelings different from their own, and invited them to treat each other with civility. And then I proceeded to teach literature and language, and started by asking them why each and both mattered.
I did this for all my sections. In one class, one of my students asked me if I would have given the same speech had Hillary won the presidency. I thanked him for the thoughtful question, and assured him that I would have.
My commitment to education extends to Republican, Democrat and third-party students, and I care for all of them. I am not in the business of indoctrinating my pupils. If anything, I aim to instill in them a desire to question reality, challenge the status quo, and stand up for what they believe in.
I am adamant about this because I know all about indoctrination.
The much-heralded free Cuban education is neither free nor worthy of such high praise. Article 3 of the 1976 Cuban Socialist Constitution (amended in 2002), establishes that “Socialism (…) shall be irrevocable, and Cuba shall never return to capitalism.”
Article 39 of the same document sets the “educational and cultural policy” of the island, which includes “to promote the patriotic education and communist training for the new generations.” Since the Cuban regime has a certain predilection for involuntary hilarity, the clause immediately after states that “artistic creativity is free as long as its content is not contrary to the Revolution.”
These quotes from Socialist Scripture will help explain that when I was taught the letter “F” as a first grader, it was just the first step towards teaching me how to spell the most revered word in Communist Cuba: Fidel.
That is to say that I am a product of the Cuban education system as much as I am a product of everything I have done in my life to deprogram myself from its doctrine. To purge it, I have written books, essays, opinion pieces, and even satirical poems in which I have condemned the systematic violation of human rights perpetrated by the Castro brothers.
If you’re a right-leaning Cuban-American or anyone else who voted for Trump and have read this far, before you accuse me of being a staunch liberal, or a hidden communist, allow me to offer you these credentials: I was born under, grew up in, and fled Communism looking for my promised land. I have criticized Obama’s naive thawing of relations with the longest (still active) dictatorship this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
I am a member of the Board of Trustees of the Cuba Archive, an initiative that documents deaths and disappearances resulting from two ideologically opposed Cuban dictatorships (Batista: 1952-1958 and Castro 1959-20??).
Please know that I value freedom (your freedom, my freedom) to object to the decisions of a sitting president, as much as I value the right (your right, my right) to object to the tone and content of the upcoming tenant of the White House.
I write this because it will become increasingly hard to remain impartial in front of a classroom. The mission statement of my school establishes that we “will contribute to the world engaged individuals instilled with a passion for learning, a standard of excellence, and a generosity of spirit.”
This leads me to an overwhelming question: What do we do when our pedagogical goal and the rhetoric of the president elect are mutually exclusive?
I fear that the young generations will be harmed by the gradual normalization of a man whose political campaign was bookended at the beginning by accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists and criminals, and towards the end was shown bragging about grabbing women by the genitals. Please forgive me for repeating this, but I believe that false equivalencies and apathy, among other ingredients, have delivered us our flamboyant new leader.
Mario Cuomo once declared that politicians campaign in poetry, and govern in prose. Donald Trump campaigned in vitriol. It remains to be seen how he is going to behave once he sets foot in the Oval Office. Truth be told, I am not looking forward to it.
But this leads me to my dilemma as I face my students: my objection to Donald Trump is not ideological. It is moral.
If the ultimate objective of education is to give the students the tools to distinguish right from wrong —what do I owe them?
Because I live in a democracy, I did not seek the approval of my school administration to openly voice my opinion in society. But what about what I say in the classroom? Where do we, as teachers, draw the line?
I suspect that if we turn a blind eye, we will do a disservice to the young minds we are helping to shape. We mustn’t forget the warning from the late Elie Wiesel: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”