I don’t know how good of a teacher I am. It’s not a question that’s easy to settle. I don’t mean to invoke some sort of ultimate epistemological skepticism around it, or to deny the worth of all educational metrics, but I ultimately think the question “Am I a good teacher” is closer to “Am I a good writer” or “Am I a good man” than it is to questions like “How much does this tomato weigh” or “What if we subtract six.”
There is one aspect of my job that I am fairly confident I am good at. It is an aspect often neglected in discussions of pedagogy; some would argue it’s not part of the job at all. It’s this: I like my students. I like the earnest achievers who sit down briskly at eight to, open their notebooks to the correct spot, and arrange their faces into a smile. I like the strivers who have made the short-on-the-map-but-booby-trapped march from Detroit or Jackson to U of M. I like the engineers and nurses who expect to hate my class. I like the wealthy frat guys who are so desperate to earn my approval (because I hold the gradebook, and also because apparently I’m one of the “cool” teachers? How the fuck did that happen?) that they pry their minds open, at considerable and commendable risk to their own self-esteem, when I expose them to ideas about white privilege, sexism, rape culture, and the one percent (i.e. mom and dad). And of course I like the earnest future writers, who often stay in touch for years.
This has been a constant of my career. I liked my students when I was at Central. One or two of the more shameless plagiarists lost my respect, but only one or two. (The young man who talked all the way through my poetry class, the young woman who liked horror movies, and the wordhoarder who loved Agatha Christie and bowties remain among my favorite people, ever.) I liked my students at South Carolina. I liked my students at Marquette. Even when I find students’ ideas repugnant or their attitude toward learning frankly insulting, my disposition is to want them to be good people, to do well, and, those things accomplished, if at all possible to be happy. I cannot always manage goodwill towards human beings as a group, but students, perhaps because they remind me of an intense and important and sometimes happy time in my own life, have no trouble securing it from me.
Even in this crowd, some students stand out. I once worked with a young woman whose papers, while they suffered from certain flaws of style or structure (less so as the year went on), showed a passion for ideas and a concern with human suffering that impressed me. In conference, she told me a little bit about her life. For starters, she was from the Middle East. In fact she was from war-torn Syria. To top that off, her family was Christian and Armenian.
I gaped for a moment; and then, because I have this unfortunate propensity to say exactly what I’m thinking, I said: “I am so thankful you’re still with us.”
“Me too,” she said.
The longer I knew this student, the more extraordinary she proved to be. Except for a hard-to-pronounce first name, I had no idea she wasn’t a born English speaker; in fact she had learned the language mostly as a teenager, by immersion. She started campus organizations and ran others. She mentored younger students. She taught herself coding. But she had nothing of the belligerently self-made person about her; her demeanor was earnest, friendly, humble. She was one of those students who responds to horrible tragedy by living several lives, all of them impressive.
As of right now, Rick Snyder, the governor of my state has embraced a policy that would have kept this young woman out of my classroom. It would have kept her parents in danger during the time she was here without them, living with a degree of anxiety that would literally put me in the asylum. (And parenthetically learning to speak the language and keeping up with her homework and getting into an elite public university. As one does.) He has written an op-ed for Time, in which he makes some reasonable noises on the subject. He just wants us to review our security procedures, he says. The implication here, which he’s surely not expecting anyone to think through, is that the Syrian refugees we’ve already, with great slowness and handwringing followed by self-congratulation, let in to the state were inadequately screened. You know, under Rick Snyder. It’s sort of like when corporate CEOs tell you that taxes must be lowered so they’ll have greater incentive to work: so, you haven’t already been working up to the best of your ability? Should we really raise your take-home pay, then? In any case, Snyder is wrong. No vetting process is ever perfect, and life is not supposed to be entirely risk-free (this is something we used to expect grownups to get), but ours is already pretty good, especially if “good” means “onerous and burdensome.”
Snyder’s move is widely seen as unenforceable, a bit of grandstanding. On some interpretations of the law, governors don’t really have the ability to refuse refugees; this is something that gets decided at the federal level. For practical reasons, I fervently hope this is true. Last week’s attacks on Paris are exactly why we should admit more refugees, not “review our procedures.” (I mean, I’m always for ongoing review of any procedure, security or otherwise, but not while we stop helping people.) The folks who flee Syria are exactly like the trapped Parisians who huddled and prayed and panicked. Syrian refugees are people who badly want to escape from nihilistic assholes with weapons and weaponized religion. That’s why you hope to escape a terrorist attack. And it’s why you flee a war-torn country. Moreover, Daesh has been open about its desire to make Western politicians do exactly what Rick Snyder are doing, and what Barack Obama, in other ways a much better human being than Snyder, has also been doing with those drone strikes of his. (Take that, Afghan wedding party! Death from above!) Daesh desperately needs us to drive Muslims into their arms. They aren’t likable enough on their own to amass the army they want, because they are assholes and most Muslims are not assholes. They need us to be assholes too. They’ve said so very openly. Every refugee we take in is a wooden shoe in their asshole machinery.
On another hand, if Rick (I keep forgetting to add the “P”) Snyder is just playing to the Fox News cameras, that in some ways makes him an even worse person than if he thinks he can actually refuse to admit people like my amazing former student. He knows that the endgame is more Syrians coming to this state. In order to look cool to some very misinformed and sheltered people, he is ensuring that those refugees will come into a state that is a little more scared of them, a little more mistrustful; a state that falsely imagines Syrian refugees as a group to be connected in some nebulous way with last week’s horror. He is increasing the chances that their homes will be vandalized, their children bullied, their tires slashed when they do get here.
So Fox News pundits will like him better.
I am not being very temperate in my language here. And I don’t like myself when I get like this. I want to love my political enemies; it’s literally one of my jobs as a Christian. It’s also one of my jobs as a teacher: to model thoughtfulness and thoroughness and fairness and slowness to judge. But either my blind spot here is simply massive, or Rick Snyder is behaving in a way that defeats my capacity for patience. And that capacity has been defeated; quite overrun. I am enraged. I am thinking of that former student of mine and I am open-mouthed and teary-eyed with anger. I think my former student is worth hundreds of thousands of Rick Snyders. She displayed more courage and fortitude in an average day of her adolescence (a time when most of us, by the way, are too fear-ridden even to let Mom kiss us on the cheek in public) than he has displayed in his entire public career. She is many times the man he is.
Wikipedia informs me that Governor Snyder’s religion is Presbyterian. Jesus was a refugee, if we accept the New Testament as even minimally truthful about anything. He had a lot to say about welcoming strangers, and also about not being ruled by fear. I am willing to swallow the truly infinitesimal risk that taking in more Syrian refugees exposes me to. I take much larger risks walking in Ann Arbor on game day. (Seriously, these people can’t drive.) If Rick Snyder can’t risk some phantom political capital simply to continue in half-hearted obedience to one of Jesus’s most clearly repeated commands, I wish he’d tell Wikipedia to amend that description until, by God’s grace, he fucking grows a pair.