Obama's Speech to Students: What's Wrong With Excelling Academically And Treating Each Other With Kindness And Respect?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Dear Editor,

Today President Obama gave his second annual televised speech to students from Masterman School in Philadelphia.  Yesterday, I — like all parents of Lakewood Public School students — received a voicemail message from school administration informing me that the president’s speech would be screened in district classrooms at 1:00 p.m., and that any parent who did not want their child to view the speech could be assured that their child would be taken to an alternate space.*

At first, this message confused me. As the school year begins, I thought to myself, what parent would object to a message from the president about the importance of education and citizenship? Then I remembered news reports from last year, in which right wing conservatives asserted that Obama was going to indoctrinate children with his “socialist” political agenda. Upon realizing that school administrators were perpetuating the “Obama=socialist” discourse created by extremist conservatives, I called Superintendent Joseph Madak’s office to ask him why the administration chose to perpetuate this ridiculousness with a mass voicemail to every parent of a Lakewood City School student. Madak was out of town, but my call was returned by Mark Gleichauf, Director of Teaching and Learning.

As a historian and a gender/critical race theory scholar, I peppered Gleichauf with a number of questions: As a powerful apparatus for creating knowledge and shaping students’ and parents’ worldview, wasn’t the school administration perpetuating the ungrounded accusation that Obama might say something controversial? What would administrators have risked in not offering an optional space for parents who didn’t want to “expose” their children to the president of the United States - angry calls from parents (which, incidentally, he was fielding anyway)? Law suits? Furthermore, in the future, how will they decide which activities should have alternative spaces available for families who disagree with the political or religious ideology that is put forth (allegedly or otherwise)?

While Gleichauf was sympathetic and professional, he was unable to answer my questions; our conversation left me wondering how such decisions are made and by whom. Lakewood is a bastion of Democrats, and even socially and politically “radical” folks. It’s home to Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s local office and a thriving community of hip, left-leaning, eco-conscious, tattoo-sporting moms and dads — if our school administrators are sending mass voicemails offering options for extreme conservatives who don’t want their children exposed to their president, what must be happening in bastions of white-bread conservatism like Strongsville?

Finally, if we’re going to start listing potentially controversial school activities, I’ve got plenty of things to add to the list. How about these for starters:

  1. An alternate route past the Christmas tree that is situated at the entrance of my daughter’s (Emerson) elementary school (for all students who are not Christian and/or do not celebrate Christmas).
  2. Alternative activities/space when artwork with Christmas and Easter themes are on the day’s agenda.
  3. Alternative activities/space anytime a Disney movie or other films that perpetuate negative gender and racial stereotypes and white privilege are screened.
  4. Alternative activities/space when inaccurate or incomplete history lessons are put forth in the classroom.
  5. An alternative to gym when games like dodgeball are played.
  6. An alternative lesson on Thanksgiving (simply discussing the ways we are too grateful for the privileges that we enjoy) instead of focusing on eating dead turkeys and overeating in general.
  7. An alternative cafeteria for children who are vegetarian or vegan, for those children with food allergies, or for those families who don’t want their children to be tempted by the processed foods served and sold in the regular cafeteria.

Again, this is just a start, as throughout the school year I find my family’s values undermined on a regular basis.

As I watched the president’s speech on the afternoon of the 14th I found nothing overtly “political,” much less “socialist.” Obama talked of getting his own daughters ready for school, about students working to achieve their dreams, about treating one another with kindness and respect. This is controversial? Socialist? I guess my family is even more radical than I thought.

Lyz Bly, Ph.D.

Lakewood, OH

* Lakewood did not screen the speech last year; according to Mark Gleichauf, Director of Teaching and Learning, the 2009 speech was slated for 12:00 noon, making it logistically impossible to screen for a majority of Lakewood students.

Read More on Letters To The Editor
Volume 6, Issue 19, Posted 8:25 AM, 09.22.2010