As a member of a religious minority, I had discussed discrimination with my children when they were quite young. Although we never could agree on the appropriate manner to handle it (the variations are too many), they knew of the phenomenon and knew they could come to us for support.
In short, religious discrimination I was prepared to confront. But political discrimination? It surfaced during the last school year and left me in that awful state between speechlessness and fury.
I first found out about it one evening at dinner when my younger son (age 9) was near tears. He told me that he had been picked on at school because he wasn't part of the majority. Aha, I thought: anti-Semitism. How awful. But before I could express this, he sobbed that two of his classmates (one of whom has been to our home numerous times) pointed fingers at him and said: "You're a Democrat; you're a Democrat."
My first impulse was to laugh. This seemed to me so trivial compared to the insidious nature of anti-Semitism. But something in his face stopped me short. Clearly this was no laughing matter to him. He was branded. Stuck because of something beyond his power (his parents' political affiliation), and this was as serious to him as anti-Semitism is to me. So we talked a bit about tolerance and about how these classmates aren't very nice anyway, and I laid the matter to rest--or so I thought.
The very next week it resurfaced. My son was assigned to write a poem about something in the news. Since politics is often discussed in our home, and television news-watching is a family affair, he quickly penned some lines about the leading story of the day:
Ronald Reagan and the Iran arms deal
Before 1986 we never heard a squeal
Then Weinberger decided to let out a squawk
That started the press into quite a bit of talk.
All the money went where Congress said it shouldn't
Reagan, you couldn't!
To the Contras it all went
Now look at all the money Ronald Reagan spent!
The reaction by his teacher was that he was being too hard on the President. Too hard on the President! Aside from his mistaken reference to Weinberger, I thought he was saying nothing more "devastating" than that which he heard on the news, night after night.
But even if he were, what of it? What about freedom of expression? And artistic freedom? As long as he was not beyond the bounds of propriety (by which I mean not vulgar or crude), shouldn't he have every right to express an opinion?
Although my son claimed that the incident was not important, I felt otherwise. And while he was reluctant to have me "confront" his teacher, I felt the need to do so. I hadn't confronted the parents because I thought it futile. Where would a kid get such ideas if not from his parents? And therefore what good would it do me to summon up all my righteous indignation and confront parents with their children's political myopia?
But a teacher is different. She has a responsibility greater than individual parents. If she can't teach tolerance, she shouldn't teach, period. And that is exactly what I wanted to tell her.
It didn't quite work out that way. She had an explanation that seemed plausible: she said her comments had been made with a wink and a smile and she felt sure my son understood that she meant no harm. Perhaps he did, and I misunderstood him--putting my own interpretation to events rather than understanding the unspoken interpretation of the parties. I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and hope this is so. When I told him about her explanation of the incident, he thought about it a moment, nodded and conceded that that might well have been her message.
Not only did he accept his teacher's explanation, but he also quickly forgave his childhood tormentors. Two days after the verbal assault by his classmates, he received a birthday invitation from one of the offenders.
I looked at it and said, "Of course you're not going to go to his party, are you? He's such a mean kid."
"But Mom," he wailed, "it's miniature golf and pizza."
While I saw attendance as a sellout of "principles," my husband vehemently disagreed. In his view, by keeping our son from the party, I would have been adding insult to injury. Our son would have been punished, not the offender. And the only message he would have gotten is that being a Democrat is more onerous than he had ever imagined.
What my son had sensed more quickly than I was that his classmate didn't seriously care that he is a Democrat. The epithet was hurled with the ease of calling someone a nerd. But I, having accumulated a lifetime of callouses from discriminatory comments (real and imagined), was about to burden my son with them all. I was making an issue, and in doing so I would make him a social pariah. No party for you, young man. You can stay home and revel in the fact that you are right.
In short, I was imposing adult solutions to a childhood problem. Our son went to the party and had a wonderful time. To the best of my knowledge, he never again thought about the schoolyard battle. And presumably the birthday boy didn't think about it either, or my son would not have been on his guest list.
For the kids, the issue is gone. At least for the moment, and perhaps I should let it rest. But for me, these two episodes are hauntingly similar. In each, for some period of time, a dissenting political view was unacceptable. For that reason, the two incidents have a frightening message, and that is that political discrimination is alive and well. It is at least as invidious as religious discrimination. In fact, it is potentially more so because religious discrimination, although widespread, is not socially acceptable. Political discrimination may be.
Yet when I mention it to people, they laugh. "Who cares? It's so unimportant." Well it isn't unimportant. This country is founded on diversity, and political thought is a sacred and precious right. To the extent that we ostracize those outside the mainstream, we are denying part of our political heritage.
At 9 years of age, my son may not understand that, but I am afraid this is a battle he will confront again. I only hope he is strong enough to face it. For to the extent that he, or any political minority, is cowed into the mainstream, we are all losers.