Teens from SF and Oklahoma City build bridges
Waking up on November 9th in San Francisco, I felt unprepared to teach that day. How were we going to move forward as one country with such a palpable divide? In a search for understanding, I posted a call for pen pals, one that read like a dating ad: "Blue State students looking for Red State pen pals."
With the help of some colleagues and handy listserves, we found a willing partner to begin a correspondence with Friends School eighth graders by winter break. Below is my window into the exchange.
The first letters from Oklahoma arrive. “She’s me!” a student calls out noting that her pen pal is also a dancer, loves Christmas, has a sister and is 14. We laugh as another shares a part of his letter, a letter that states, numerous times, that “nothing ever happens in Oklahoma.” We learn the names of far-away pets, names like Oliver and Ruckus. We hear sadness and anger at the loss of Kevin Durant to the Warriors and a bit of joy from one student who insists that he isn’t even any good.
They read on and the room sobers. Now our pen pals are dipping into serious topics; they describe their beliefs in their right to own guns and the necessity of the death penalty. They share their value of honesty, hard work and effort. Some talk about the importance of family.
Eighteen students gather in a circle to discuss. We note the shared values, but reflect on how those values seem different when looked through a conservative or a liberal lens. We are struck by how many are undecided as to whether they identify as conservative or liberal; how some even have one Republican parent and one Democrat. A student asks the class whether here, in this liberal school in the liberal city of San Francisco, they would be able to respect and to listen to a classmate who believed in President Trump and no one has an answer. Another worries that few of them can even explain why they believe the liberal things they do.
I feel gratitude to the teacher who answered our school’s call for pen pals. For the first time since the election, I feel some semblance of hope. We write back immediately.
One student cries on my couch at break. I am wondering if I was naive in thinking that teenagers could find a way through the country’s divide. It is a while before we feel ready to write back.
A second round of letters! This time, more individual personalities take shape. It is clear that the students from Oklahoma do not all think the same way. A Jehovah’s Witness admits that she lacks confidence and doesn’t like to discuss politics. One student writes about unborn babies and how he is “obviously pro-life” because he thinks “it is wrong to murder a child before it is born,” and how he also loves to watch “The Walking Dead.”
The pen pals share that they can relate to being nervous about high school but not to the stress. They, too, have to take tests to get into high school, but they are confused by the anxiety we feel about whether or not we’ll get an acceptance letter. There, in Oklahoma City, “everyone gets in.”
Some tell us a bit about Oklahoma City; it is clear that even though the one student continues to insist that nothing ever happens there, there is pride in their hometown. Some kayak on the river that flows through downtown, while others zip line over it. Another rock climbs. For many, a local pizza place serves as a Friday night hangout spot. We laugh, reading how one boy really just cannot understand how someone could be vegan or shop for used clothes for fun, and how he wonders what a zine is.
This same student, however, shares that their class recently had a debate about poverty, one that asked them to choose whether poor people are victims or losers. He is confident that poor people are losers and that “the government shouldn’t help the poor, if the poor are done with living poverty then they can work hard enough and get out of poverty.” He is not the only one to talk about this debate. The teacher clearly instructed each of her students to share a position from the day’s class debate, and the opinions weigh heavily.
Losers. Victims. Losers. Losers. Not sure. Losers. Victims. Both. Losers. Losers. One student cries on my couch at break. I am wondering if I was naive in thinking that teenagers could find a way through the country’s divide. It is a while before we feel ready to write back.
Carefully, we write back to them from San Francisco. We begin our letters with thoughts about the Warriors, descriptions of family, confessions of fears of being on stage, a shared love of Kiera Cass, and the inability to get a volleyball serve in consistently. There is the debacle of The Oscars to discuss. Surely, we can agree on that, can’t we? We include copies of our recent projects, projects meant to capture the spirit of the city of San Francisco in the style of FDR’s Works Progress Administration, projects that include photography, music, radio, oral histories, travel writing.
Niceties taken care of, it is time to address their poverty debate. Some start slowly, looking for shared political beliefs. “My family hunts, so keeping guns legal is a good thing for us because it is our roots.” One describes a fierce belief in equality for LGBTQ rights but admits that the “bathroom thing” makes him feel unsettled.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether they start slowly or dive in; all share confidently that they “strongly, strongly disagree” that they are “shocked” “horrified” and “surprised” by the poverty debate. “Labeling isn’t respectful,” they point out. Some write that they are working to use the phrase "people who are experiencing homelessness" rather than "homeless people" because “this way people who are experiencing homelessness aren’t being labeled, which is what they feel a lot of the time…they are more than just someone wrapped up in a blanket on the sidewalk.”
In some way or another, each student voices disagreement with the “belief that people in poverty are losers.” This consensus prompts one to end her letter, “At my school almost everyone is liberal, and everyone’s opinions are the same. That’s why I find these letters that our classes exchange so interesting, for the first time we actually are hearing about people who have different views than us. SF is a very diverse city, yet there is no difference in opinion…”
For a long time, we do not hear back from our pen pals. We wonder if the chain has been broken.
We are not cookie-cutter liberals, but a class of critical thinkers. Thank you, Oklahoma City.
The day’s lesson must be postponed. Letters have arrived! The pen pals do not start with musings on basketball or a book recommendation. Right away, we read that they enjoyed the projects we sent and have thoughts about the opinions we shared.
They share that they, too, did a project about the Great Depression, and recently they had another debate, this time arguing whether they believed in a safety net. Specifically, “Is it the responsibility of the national government to help its citizens from hard times during economic crisis?”
The word choice of the pen pals’ letters seems purposeful; they use new terms or introduce us to theirs or ask about others: “I found it very interesting that you had gone out and talked to and interviewed people experiencing homelessness...Your project was like something I’ve never seen before and it gave me more of an insight to the way they live.” “In Oklahoma there’s not as many homeless people...just a few panhandlers as we call them…”
Most are curious. One describes how he noticed that “San Francisco’s culture can be very independent but close together in the same way...I think that the world you live in is much more connected…I think you have a much different culture than Oklahoma’s; we seem to be very individual.” Another writes “I was very interested to read about the neighborhood called Castro. I really liked the idea of a neighborhood like that and wish the OKC had one.” Declaring the WPA projects interesting, one highlights the project “with the photos of the unique clothing of San Francisco citizens. They were all very different and something I have never seen. We do not have very many people wearing very unique clothing in Oklahoma.”
One pen pal’s statement produces a collective smile from the class: “We all came to the conclusion that all of you seem like really open-minded people.”
And then, the letters shift back into common experience of being a teenager: laughter at Westbrook and Curry’s shoving fight, a recommendation for Fanfiction, a complaint about a mom who only listens to Bon Jovi and Journey paired with a confession that he now likes both, a description of a walk and talk elective which is just what it sounds like, many pleas to contact them on Instagram and Snapchat with one apology that Snapchat has been taken away from her and a promise to let her know when she earns it back. And, yes, the Oscars were crazy.
A student asks me why we don’t ever do debates like they do. She tells me that we just assume that helping the poor is the government’s responsibility. She reminds me how often I talk about critical thinking. It is a good question.
Today, I have added a new lesson and they talk about abortion, leaving behind the labels of pro-life and pro-choice. Instead they are asked to wrestle with defining when (if ever) it is okay to have an abortion. At 1 week? At 15? At 20? At 25? They are given the standard visual comparisons—the size of pea, a kumquat, a honeydew melon. Flummoxed and frustrated at the lack of a clear answer, hesitant to mention that religion says it is never okay, absolutely convinced that it is a woman’s choice. We are not cookie-cutter liberals, but a class of critical thinkers. Thank you, Oklahoma City.
Today, we write back. We thank them for looking at our projects and ask for more details about what they mean when they say “safety net.” We try to answer their questions about our thoughts on the “Muslim ban.”
There are attempts to talk about race. Trying to explain how her sister is at the White Privilege Conference this week, a student struggles and ends by saying that she hopes she’s explaining it well, that she doesn't want her pen pal to think that “...it’s just a bunch of white people talking about how they have great lives.”
It is the student who tries to respond to her pen pal’s enigmatic question about Donald Trump and animal abuse who ends up reflecting on the project as a whole. “I haven’t heard much about that, but I agree that sometimes all of us, no matter our political affiliation, we can try to find a scapegoat and then blame everything on them...I eagerly await your reply and I’m glad we have been able to discuss our differences and hope that we can continue to find things we disagree upon (I know it’s sounds crazy, but I think it’s the only way that either of us will grow and understand the other side of the issues).”
Not all are serious. One laughs at his pen pal’s story about the thumb-biting monkey, and another suggests that her pen pal should listen to Enrique Iglesias. After asking what his pen pal would change about Oklahoma, one writes that if he could change one thing about San Francisco that he would make it “way hotter than it is because it’s freezing 24/7” and admits that “with the end of the year coming closer, I watch and play more sports than I do homework.” Many write about “13 Reasons Why.”
Our pen pals received our last letters and, according to their teacher, they loved them! Video hello to come.
We don’t receive a video hello, but they do send a class photo and a crowd quickly forms around it. Turns out that many know which one is their pen pal; in their free time, they have moved from our required medium of letters to their world of Snapchat and House Party. Still, they crowd around to see this group photo. “They are so pretty,” sighs one girl. “They are so white,” points out another. “No, I think that one might be Asian.”
I am told that there was a long group snap chat last night, but no one will give me specifics. They exchange looks that imply that the details are not something I want to know. I plead, and one student feels bad for me. She offers me the story of how, after sending a video of herself dancing, the pen pal snapped back, “No time for dancing. There’s a rat in my house!” The group laughs and dances and then fades away. They have another class.
Tomorrow, we’ll make a quick video saying “happy graduation” because they’ll be walking across the stage weeks before we do. Next year, we’ll open up a new set of conversations between two new groups of kids. Bit by bit, we continue.
(Thank you, Annie Gwynne-Vaughan and Ruth Ann Regens for being my colleagues of communication and to Guybe Slangen for helping bring us together.)