Good afternoon, everybody. My name is Ian Altman, and I am the English Department Chair at Clarke Central High School. I am here to talk to you about how and why I bring up the issue of immigration in my classes, of how the same reasons that prompt me to deal with it in my classes also prompt me to advocate politically and personally for my undocumented students, what exactly I am willing to do for those students, and what I hope to accomplish for them.
I would like to begin with the simple observation that the study of language and literature is, broadly speaking, part of what in a less embarrassed age we called the humanities. I know of no better statement of the place of literature in the humanities than William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in which he said, “I decline to accept the end of man…. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance…. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” Accordingly, every semester I tell my students without equivocation or apology that I can teach the Georgia Performance Standards all day long, and train them to pass those absurd standardized tests, but if at the end of the semester they haven’t learned something more and deeper about their own humanity, then I might as well have been working in a factory building robots.
Thus, when I taught 9th grade literature, I always taught Rudolfo Anaya’s novel Bless Me, Ultima, largely because it is about a young boy learning of the compassion and sacrifice Faulkner speaks of, and because he learns that by watching many of the other characters’ willingness to stand for goodness and nobility. And now when I teach 11th grade American literature, I always begin with an analysis of the Declaration of Independence, followed by analyses of Martin Luther King’s “Dream”speech and his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” I also have students concurrently read Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men, followed by Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen. Both of these books deal with issues of friendship and loyalty. And the purpose of this combination is to raise the question of whether and how a democratic society can function unless people actually care for other people individually and not just in the abstract. It explores the connection of the political system to interpersonal empathy. Following this, I focus on the theme of integrity with a reading of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, wherein the protagonist refuses to live without that quality. Again concurrently, we study several non-fiction pieces which have to do with the integrity of our culture and our political system.
The reason I mention all this is that it provides the backdrop for our classroom discussions of immigration, immigrants’ rights, and the rhetoric surrounding those issues. In light of the place of literature in the larger context of the humanities, and of the thematic focus of my courses, there are two fundamental reasons to talk about immigration. First, it has to do with human lives, human tragedies, and human values; and second, those values are inscribed in the language with which our culture has encrusted the issue. Part of my job is to break that crust open so that my students may begin to get a sense not just of how we speak language to communicate values and the arguments surrounding those values, but also, and more importantly, how our language speaks us and largely determines what arguments we are capable of making.
Is that controversial? Yes, because it means that our ostensibly free thoughts are not necessarily our own, and are largely determined by our language, which means that the language itself must be critically examined and its structures critiqued. Is that necessary? Yes. Because while we always like to say that we create safe learning environments where students can feel comfortable, another facet of the humanities that we don’t often like to talk about is that when the humanities are done right, when they are taught as though they actually matter, which they do, they require that we genuinely risk something of ourselves. The humanities are inherently unsafe. It is not sufficient to say along with someone like Stanley Fish that serious study in the humanities should have no bearing on how we live our lives, that it should remain crystalized in the ivory tower where it can safely hurt no one, help no one, and affect no one in any meaningful way. Nor is it sufficient to agree with the likes of Max Thompson that we are teaching standards and only using books to access those standards. I can’t think of a more nefarious misunderstanding of what the study of literature and language arts actually involves philosophically, cognitively, politically, and morally. Students may acquire superb skills but not learn anything really important if they don’t realize that great literature should affect their understanding of the world and of themselves. The critical thinking we always like to invoke is barren without that real risk.
Accordingly, my students have to risk some of their most cherished beliefs. That is how, when I have a student staunch in his belief that undocumented immigrants should be treated like criminals, that student, if he has learned anything at all in my class, will not be able to look at the student next to him, who might well be undocumented, as a member of some abstract category of people against whom he has a political grudge. He will first and foremost view that student as a human being not fundamentally different from himself. That does not mean I want him to change his political views. It does, however, mean that I want him to understand the human tragedy of what has occurred in our political system, and to empathize with those who have been affected. It furthermore means that he will understand that he, too, is affected in the sense that we are all in some way morally diminished by it. That of course has nothing explicit to do with the Georgia Performance Standards, and I make no apologies for that. If it makes someone happy to call it a study of “Theme” under the standards, so be it.
But what about the undocumented student sitting in the room? Is it right to call her out, so to speak? Of course not; I would never do that. I simply raise the issue as an academic topic and focus primarily on its rhetoric. Students may speak up for themselves, or they may not. I often don’t know which students are undocumented because I don’t get into their personal business unless they come to me with it.
But some of them have come to me with it, and when that happens I am faced with the necessity to teach by example. Here is where the political, the professional, and the personal coincide. That makes it risky for me, but I believe all the more necessary, because these are my students. They are young women and men with whom I have a bond in our common humanity, and, legal issues aside, if their moral rights are being violated, then it is obligatory for me to stand up for them. Otherwise, I can’t show up to work every day and look them in the eye with any integrity. Sometimes we must teach by example.
That doesn’t mean that my concern for students is simply professional or political; those are superficial aspects of the deeper sense in which as a human being I care for them as individuals. In other words, to be their teacher is to be a political advocate for them; and that, fundamentally, is to be their friend and to be loyal to that friendship. That is the human and personal basis on which our democratic values and our whole democratic system rest.
So what exactly do I do for my undocumented students? Some of it is material. I’ve raised money for college application fees, spent countless hours helping to edit admissions and scholarship essays, more hours writing recommendation letters. All of that is just part of teaching high school students, though.
Those kinds of things are only one aspect of the picture. I have also tried to make very clear to my undocumented students, and others, that they have a safe place in my classroom if they ever need it. They can come and talk to me about whatever they want. In a rage over the ravening political viciousness they have to deal with in this state, they can come in and curse and punch the file cabinet, and know that that’s okay with me. Or, when there is something to celebrate – when college acceptance letters and scholarship notifications come in – they should realize that I want to be the first to know because it will be the fruition of all the work I’ve put into their success and because I care about their future.
And then there is the political advocacy. One student is directly responsible for my becoming so involved in this issue, and I owe her a debt of gratitude for that. I knew college education for undocumented students was a problem, and was concerned about it, but didn’t realize how close it was to me until she told me how she was being affected. So I’ve written editorials for our local newspapers; helped to organize these events at UGA to publicize the issue; I’ve called and emailed the Board of Regents and every single one of our state senators and representatives as these issues have come up in the legislature; and I’ve done everything in my power to galvanize as many people as I can reach to do as I have been doing.
All of this, to come back to where I began, grows directly from what ought to be happening in literature and other humanities classes, for two fundamental reasons: first, because it makes good pedagogical sense for a teacher of the humanities to teach by example and act like a full-blooded human being with a spine; and second, because on a personal level, undocumented children, like all people, have souls like Faulkner said, and deserve to know that someone out there understands what they are going through and cares enough to stand up for them, and to have sympathy in the truest sense: to hurt through it together in the toil of the human spirit.It is heros like Ian Altman that inspire me each day to work for justice in our immigration system. Bravo!