My civic education students taught me to honor an imperfect country on July 4th

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays from educators, students, parents, and others who think and write about public education.

Through Tamara Mann Tweel

I’m not celebrating July 4th, ”my student Charlene announced in class. “How can I? It’s their birthday, it’s your birthday, but it’s not mine, it’s not my family’s.

Charlene’s honesty opened a conversation that shapes the way I teach and think about America. Human beings, I remind my students, are worthy of love, even when they disappoint us. But are the nations? Can we celebrate, can we love, an imperfect country?

Tamara Mann Tweel

Every summer, I teach New York City public high school students in Columbia University Liberty and Citizenship program, a university-leading initiative that offers low-income students the opportunity to study essential civic life texts. And every summer we read Funeral oration of Pericles and recite the words, “Fix your eyes on the greatness of Athens, until you are filled with the love of it …” My students love their friends, family members, moro de habichuelas, some novels, some sports teams – sometimes even the Yankees. But only on occasion would they extend that love to America – a place they said disappointed and even betrayed them. It is a feeling that springs from misery, whether it is deportation, false accusations, incarceration of family members, food insecurity or the deportation of their only caregiver.

Patriotism, or love of one’s country, has never had a simple place in my classroom. America’s history is different for every student, depending in part on whether their ancestors came to this earth by force or by choice. As a civic education teacher, it is my responsibility to strike the right balance, somehow find a way to introduce students to a democratic tradition worthy of their affection and honest with their experience.

I invited Charlene to explain why she chooses not to celebrate. She thought about it and replied softly, “I don’t think America wants me. I don’t feel like America is for me. It’s for the rich. “But don’t you think you’re going to get rich someday?” Jon replied. “Isn’t that why we study here in the summer?” “We will never be rich,” lamented Mike. “But is money everything? Natasha weighed in, noting that there had been war and hunger where she came from, and America offered her family more stability and opportunity. “Isn’t that enough to celebrate?” she wondered. Rose responded that she too was grateful to live in America, with her free summer programs and college scholarships.

“We’re the exception, Rose, and even then it’s only temporary,” Charlene replied. “My uncle is in prison. We taste freedom, then it disappears, again and again. We don’t really live in a free country, she explained. We live in a country that “sparkles with freedom”.

“Class,” I jumped out, “let’s look at the next assigned reading, a speech by Frederick Douglass, pronounced almost two centuries ago in commemoration of July 4th.

That day we read Douglass aloud, each taking a paragraph and standing up when the words resonated. Charlene stood up and recited:

“The blessings you rejoice in today are not common. – The rich heritage of justice, freedom, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought you life and healing, brought me scratches and death. This fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You can rejoice, I must cry. Dragging a man in chains into the great illuminated temple of liberty, and inviting him to join you in joyous hymns, was inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.

Charlene pointed out Douglass’ use of “you” and “your”. Rose said Douglass understands what it’s like to be close to something you want, like freedom or prosperity – so close it almost taunts you. The beauty of aspirations and the possibility of success compound our difficulties, Malik explained. “Does that mean to be American? ” He asked. “I never thought of it that way. Getting robbed, being beaten, then being confronted with the truth that for others it is freedom, they feel free while we feel… beaten?

“I don’t think that’s entirely true,” Jamal replied, pointing to Douglass’s admiration for parts of America’s founding, citing how he called the declaration of independence “The link in the chain of your nation’s destiny… The principles contained in this instrument are saving principles. Respect these principles, be faithful to them at all times, in all places, against all enemies, and at any cost. Douglass wants us to stick to the principles of the Declaration, Freedom and Equality. “He shows us how to really celebrate – no, ‘celebrate’ is not the right word – how to keep July 4th,” Jamal said. “We think about what we’re meant to be.”

“Professor Tweel,” Charlene looked up at Jamal and the class, explaining that she wanted to read Douglass aloud every year on July 4th – and we, as a class, made a pact to do just that. Douglass knew how difficult it is to see freedom so up close and not be able to make it your own, she said. He also knew that this country will only be strong and noble if we stick to its ideals and point it out again and again when we all fail.

This July 4th, I will honor our class pact made years earlier and participate in a national ritual that can contain disappointment, admonition, hope and purpose. I will recite the Declaration of Independence, and I will recite Douglass “What the slave is on July 4th?” “ I will proudly remember the voices of the students in my class who struggle with America’s reality and still hold fast to its promise. My students taught me to keep the Fourth, to celebrate and love an imperfect country.

The names of the students have been changed.

Dr Tamara Mann Tweel is the Director of the Civic Initiatives Program at Teagle Foundation. She is the co-founder of Civic spirit and member of the Kogod Research Center of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.


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