Sometimes I wonder where the compassion has gone. Not the kind you see while watching television, where some disembodied voice is asking people for money to rehabilitate the lives of abandoned pets, but the kind of compassion we should have for each other as human beings. I can't help but link my wonder to my growing political voice. I wish I could ignore my wonder, but I can no longer avoid my curiosity. I am compelled to ask myself the question, and I am driven to ask other people the same questions.
I wasn't always like this. I am a history teacher and I used to pride myself on being able to keep my politics to myself and I could dodge all of the difficult questions of politics like a prize fighter. "Where do you stand on gay marriage, Mr. Evans?" Side step to the left. "Do you think abortion is okay?" Shuffle to the right. "Hey, Mr. Evans. Do you believe in the death penalty?" A little two step backwards. Part of my ability to avoid these questions came from my starting my teaching career as a liberal in Utah. If you couldn't mask your liberalism in Utah for at least the first five years of your teaching career, until you were a few years past tenure, you could kiss your career goodbye. Having grown up in Utah, I could do it, and I did it for a little while. However, when I moved to Nevada, I started to notice I had a level of freedom previously unknown to me. When students asked me what I believed it was not a litmus test. They really wanted to know.
Still, I tried to maintain some sense of privacy in my politics. I know it sounds strange for history teacher to refrain from at least sharing what side of the issues I stood, but I still wanted a sense of balance and fair play in my classroom. I wanted (and still want) every student to feel as if he or she can safely express legitimate political opinions in my classroom. It's just that I use to think that in order for that to happen, I had to curb my own tongue. I no longer believe that, and I hope you will stick around long enough for me to explain why.
I was pretty happy as a teacher, trying to get people to speak their mind, but soon after I arrived in Nevada I noticed I needed to step in to the discussion. You see, I came to teach in a small border town which is entirely sustained by the gambling industry. In this town the Hispanic population is approximately 80% and only the truly naive would think everyone in this town had legal resident status. So, the first question I was faced with was the question of illegal immigration. Did I have an opinion? I quite honestly did not have that strong of an opinion when I arrived. What I knew was this: I liked my students Hispanic or Caucasian and it made little difference who was which. I saw the kinds of jobs these families had in the casinos, and I knew how fortunate I was to have graduated from college and tart my career as a teacher. Who was I to tell someone they should not be allowed to come to this nation and try to find a better life? For those of you who cannot imagine what I am talking about, put this image in your mind: Cleaning vomit off of the bathroom floors, serving drunk and rude customers on a daily basis, and putting up with blatant patronizing racism is all worth the risk of being an illegal immigrant simply because you are getting $7.50 an hour.
Because the population is primarily Hispanic, that means the population is primarily Catholic. That's right. I said it. Most of my students being Catholic, abortion and the death penalty were the next questions I got. And while I think abortion is wrong, I would never stand in the way of someone having one because it is a matter of being legal. But because my students were for the most part Catholic, there were always several young girls coming to school pregnant and hopeless. Now do I turn my back on them because they made a mistake or do I show compassion?
What about the death penalty? One of my contradictions as a liberal is that I am in favor of the death penalty in some cases. It's difficult to explain sometimes, but the quickest and easiest way I can explain it is how Dennis Miller once put it. "Sometimes you have done something so terrible, you deserve to have your membership card in the human race revoked. It's about punishment, not about revenge. However, I will be revisiting this in a few minutes, so hang on to that one for a little while.
So what else happened? To be blunt, George W. Bush was elected President of the United States. Well, let's be honest. The Supreme Court appointed him President for his first term and he won his second term because Democrats could not find anyone for people to vote for, and when you can only say "anyone but him" then you are always going to lose. George Bush became President and the idea of compassion left our national vocabulary.
Of course President Bush had help. Dick Cheney and Karl Rove helped. The terrorist attacks on September 11th helped, too. They gave the political right an excuse to take away legal rights and insert a heightened sense of fear into the American Public's consciousness. The more we were made to be afraid, the more we became rude and insensitive. No, not the craven PC crap of the early 1990's, just the simple ideas held within our Constitution, the ideas of establishing justice and promoting the general welfare. Suddenly, reality tv was teaching us to be terrible people and to ignore the plight of the everyday working person in favor of grabbing up everything in sight and hoarding it away. America became greedy and selfish. When the bottom dropped out of the economy, we had no way of reverting to being kind and considerate, and look at us now.
Now we have hyper aggravation. With President Obama in the Whitehouse, there are so many people running around scared that you would think it was the second coming of Malcolm X. Well, maybe not that, but what's the old joke? White people haven't been this upset since M*A*S*H* went off the air. Unfortunately, it goes even further. It's as if people have forgotten what it's like to be truly in need in America. Democrats, who normally should be fighting the good fight in helping sustain and assist the working poor are too busy being Kevin Bacon in Animal House. The GOP whacks them in the ass with a paddle and all they can say is, "Thank you sir. May I have another?" And you know the GOP and Tea Party are more than willing to oblige.
This is where I decided to step in. With my students genuinely scared for the futures of their families, I literally felt obligated to step in on my own and tell my students how I felt about things, that the world did not have to stay the festering shit hole my students were convinced it was becoming. I needed to let them know there are people out in the world who are concerned, think there needs to be a shift to the left, and are actively trying to make that change happen. It's not about hope or anything as abstract about that. It's about standing up and saying something honest and genuine, and I could not be honest any longer to my students or myself without starting to say what I felt. It's not a lot, but it's what I can do with my limited influence.
So back to my original question and why I even started writing all of this. Where is the compassion? Where is your compassion? As a history teacher I always like letting my students know this little factoid: There were societies in the United States to protect animals from cruelty before there was any kind of child protective service or agency. In a nation whose all consuming political focus is now placed on the debt crisis, why is it so hard to remember that the preamble of our Constitution calls for justice and promoting the general welfare of our citizenry? I have been quite vocal here and in my classroom when it comes to issues like gay rights, and I have tried to approach a lot of difficult issues for my students, exposing my thinking and how it relates to being compassionate.
Now, there is place where the rubber meets the road for all of us, and this is mine. One of my students was brutally murdered towards the end of the 2010-2011 school year. She was sixteen years old and two of my other students have been charged with her murder. In a small town such as the one where I live, there is not a resident who has not been affected. Where is my compassion? You know where this is going. Do I think the two accused people, if found guilty, should face the death penalty? Well, do I? I have already gone on at length so I will try to be brief on this point. I do not think the accused should face the death penalty, but not for the reasons you might think. I think the best thing is to be finished with all of what has been going on. I think the most compassionate thing is to sentence them to life imprisonment so there will not be the endless train of appeals and technicalities which accompany the system. It may not be the most popular opinion in this town, but it's mine, and it would be wrong for me to avoid answering the question in favor of being politic.