One of my favorite non-English colleagues came by my office yesterday. She wandered down from the nursing department looking for a favor. She wants me to serve pie in her church kitchen this Saturday. I made my usual non-committal noises and reminded her that I was a heathen.
“I go to that other church,” I said.
“Oh, you mean the other brick building right across the street that does the same thing we do every Sunday?” That’s the one, I thought. It took my family five years to decide which building we should intermittently show up to on Sunday mornings. There are four identical brick churches within a three block radius of our house.
“You know,” she cocked her head and put her hand on her very tall hip. “I am just tired of picking sides. After this election, I’m tired of choosing teams. Come help me with the pies.”
I never get that rule right – the one that says you shouldn’t talk about religion and politics. I stick my foot in my mouth nearly every day with half-baked ideas and enough-knowledge-to-be-dangerous opinions. I am excellent at choosing sides, at least initially. I love the idea of being committed, to stand up and speak loudly about some well-considered certainty. I can argue with a brick wall.
My office space is crowded with politics. We compare churches and political parties. We yell across the Writing Center about New York Times commentaries and TV coverage. We share political cartoons and compare ideologies. I’ve convinced myself that we could solve proverbial world peace if it weren’t crucial that we teach community college English. The presidential election kept us busy for the same 18 months it kept the major news stations distracted. We showed up every day eager to deconstruct the candidates’ latest gaffs, to roll our eyes and wish we could deal with “real” problems.
And then we’d retreat to our classrooms to teach King’s Birmingham letter, Walden, and Dracula. English teachers have the luxury of the abstract. We can climb into fiction and consider divisive ideas from a fictional character’s point of view. We can think about sexual politics and culture in between vampires and European countryside. We can deliberate the construction of King’s nearly perfect argument from the safety of an anthology and a classroom – a space significantly removed from the violence of race and class. We do not have to choose sides in our classrooms. We model using evidence and supporting arguments with sound reason, but we practice restraint and consideration. I often get to play devil’s advocate, balancing the classroom and ensuring that the driving ideas of a text aren’t lost to the chaos of undergraduate discussion. I have to practice moderation.
It’s good practice for me. I was born arguing, born choosing sides, and hoping to solve problems with partisan certainty. At some point, either due to education or really great parents, I did learn that the gray area is usually where the answers are. I look to choose sides, but the little gray voice niggles at the back of my brain reminding me that it’s never that simple, never so easy as right and wrong, black or white. And occasionally I am reminded that the opposite side of the street is not so different – just another brick building.