Yesterday, I went to the kindergarten graduation ceremony at the local public elementary school. One of the teachers, who happens to be a member of my church and a card-carrying Republican, spoke briefly of a new after-school program that she has helped initiate. It is designed for children who are in danger of not having the basic skills necessary to begin first grade – a type of program that is quite common around the nation, but that had been sorely lacking in this rural Virginia county.
I was choking back tears as this teacher called about two dozen children to the stage – most of them from desperately poor African American families – and presented them with hugs and certificates. Knowing that she also invests a considerable amount of her personal time making home visits and tutoring these students, it dawned on me what a significant difference she makes in the lives of young children who have an incredible number of obstacles thrown between themselves and academic success.
This remarkably dedicated kindergarten teacher reminds us of how incomplete and misleading the typical left vs. right dichotomy can be. It would be easy to consider her Republican voting record and her conservative views on issues such as abortion, gay rights, and gun control, and to conclude she has little in common with progressives such as myself. From this, it would be easy to assume that, like some Republicans, she takes a “blame the poor” attitude toward poverty issues and has little compassion for those who are suffering in this economic crisis. Because of such stereotyping, it would be easy to ignore the fact that she is dedicating her life to helping poor children in a woefully underfunded public school system.
Those of us who get pigeonholed into easy categories of left/right and Democrat/Republican often fail to see the common bonds we share with our so-called political enemies. We cannot allow differences on a handful of “hot-button” issues to be exploited by those with political agendas and ambitions. If people of good will and legitimate concern for the common welfare continue to beat up one another based on these outdated categories, more sinister forces that have no concern for the people or no particular stake in partisan politics will further consolidate their power.
A prime example of this sinister tactic is the recent attack on teachers’ unions in many states. In this budget crisis, in what should be a time for the people to rally around its education system and proclaim that it is always a top priority, we have allowed partisan politicians trying to increase their own power to bitterly divide us. People who care deeply about the same thing have been duped into throwing stones at one another, to the great detriment of our nation’s children. Shame on them, and shame on us for taking the bait.
So before you place yourself in staunch opposition to someone because of who they voted for or how they feel about one of those wedge issues, please consider the deeper, non-partisan values that might be shared. Both sides might be surprised if we can steer the conversation away from the oppositionalism that is consistently fed to us. “Seek common ground” is not a naïve, pie-in-the sky slogan. It might be our only hope.