This is a photo of my ewe, Magnolia, fat and happy at 6.5 years old, taken Saturday evening after I moved the flock to fresh grass.
I find myself wanting to think about my sheep instead of what is unfolding on the world’s stage. Nuclear face-off with North Korea. The KKK and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia. Violence and murder.
However I have been transfixed by the news, unable to look away.
I had not realized until recently that part of my joy in teaching U.S. history was the implied happy ending. Still far (very far) from perfect — but after centuries of thoughtless cruelty and exploitation of anyone or anything at hand, a steady progress toward justice for all and curbing human greed in order to care for the natural world. While of course we studied all the villains and knaves, I have loved teaching children about the heroes great and small who helped that progress along.
These days I feel as if our progress is coming undone, that the film has somehow jumped its sprockets to unspool on the floor, and if we are not careful, might be ruined beyond repair. I am an optimist about America’s resilience but I am worried.
Mr. Rogers famously said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” This is true. But I am not a child — as an adult it is up to me to be one of the helpers. I have been thinking about this constantly for days.
Seeing the torchlit, shouting faces distorted with hatred at the University of Virginia I thought, I have to do something. Then: what can I possibly do? Then, cravenly, Isn’t it enough that I teach children every year about justice and injustice?
I am someone who hates confrontation. I am unnerved by angry voices. In June I posted something on Facebook, a reply to a neighbor’s complaint that children didn’t learn about D-Day any more. I explained that I taught D-Day to my 8th graders, that I outlined all the challenges and problems of the day (bringing in a 70-lb pack for the children to try on and imagine themselves as paratroopers jumping out into the blind night), and then showed Saving Private Ryan. One of her friends wrote in to call me “a liberal piece of shit” and said I should be ashamed to call myself a teacher. How dare I “criticize” the greatest Americans of all time by saying there were problems on D-Day? The attacks went on and on. Reading them, I felt cold with shock. Eventually I deleted my original reply, so all this man’s venom disappeared along with it.
Then I went to his page to try to understand where he was coming from. Yes, he is a Trump supporter, but so is most of my town, as are many relatives and friends. He, however, is a white supremacist. He crowed over me by name on his page — “another liberal POS that couldn’t keep up” — moments after writing the following:
(I am such a writer that even as I was recoiling from the hateful message, I appreciated the lyricism of “out-of-town Jaspers in pinch-back suits.” I later looked it up — it is lyrical, a lyric from The Music Man, which dates him.)
This man is a mechanic at a local garage that I pass every day that I drive to town. For a moment it crossed my mind: I should go in, introduce myself, and shake hands, show him that I’m a real person and not a liberal bogeyman to attack on the internet. Then I thought in fright: he might burn down my barn.
So I did nothing. I have very little courage at all.
Still, since Saturday I have felt that evil is on the loose and that God (and all the children I’ve ever taught or loved) requires me to step up in some way. As I’ve unpacked boxes, mucked stalls, and moved the sheep, I’ve been hearing lyrics of my own, from one of my favorite hymns:
Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have no answers but with my heavy heart I am trying to pray for everyone. Even the torch-carriers and the garage mechanic.