By Logan Cioffi
On January 20th, the majority of the student body gathered in the PAC to watch the inauguration together. But one student, senior Isabella Bulone, chose to watch the speech in the privacy of the nurse’s office.
Bulone decided to sit in the nurse’s office that afternoon because her support for conservative politics tends to isolate her at LREI. “I knew that the kids were not going to be happy about this,” she said. “There was probably going to be booing and groaning and negativity around it and it wasn’t a negative thing for me so I wanted to take as much negativity out of that experience as possible.”
Many students in the PAC sat and watched the swearing in of a man who many had spent time protesting, had voted against, or had debated with friends and family how it could be possible that he was elected. Bulone meant to respect those actions and sentiments by removing herself from the school’s general inauguration viewing. “I didn’t want to gloat. I was going to treat it like any other day. I knew as much as I can get annoyed at this school, I don’t want to invalidate anyone’s feelings. If they want to be upset about it they can, that’s totally fine.”
Bulone was the only one in the nurse’s office at that time, but there are other students who share this experience of having to or wanting to remove themselves from these political situations because their views do not align with the general LREI population. In a country that at the moment is what many are calling more divided than ever, it has become increasingly difficult for both conservatives and liberals to figure out how to start a conversation and bridge this divide. LREI is a school founded by a politically left woman, Elisabeth Irwin, who imparted her leftist ideologies in her creation of the school. She was a leader in progressive education, believed in an egalitarian treatment of students and believed in fostering a child’s growth over proficiency (a common debate in politics). LREI’s basis in progressive principles has attracted a student body that is majority left, which has made it increasingly hard for those not on the left to make their voices heard without it affecting them either socially or academically.
History teacher Peter Heinz has seen very few conservative-minded students be vocal about their politics in our school. “I can only think of one who would admit to identifying as a Republican,” he says. “I can think of one more who said I like some more conservative stuff than my classmates. And I can think of a couple others who are pretty clearly conservative in comparison to their classmates and were vocal about it. But certainly less than four in the time that I have been here.”
Senior Jakob Katzman is one of the few students Heinz is referring to. Katzman defines himself as socially liberal and fiscally conservative, but nevertheless is still met with many angry political debates. Katzman feels that when he shares his support of lowering business taxes (a common conservative policy) he is met with immediate anger. He says he is labeled a “racist, sexist, homophobe.” Katzman maintains that just because he believes in some conservative policy doesn’t mean he is any of the labels above.
Lutfah Subair, a politically left senior, agrees that these labels shouldn’t be applied to someone if they are not warranted. “I know we have to be respectful of other people’s opinions,” she says. “It’s not wrong to disagree, but if you’re being offensive and you’re saying racist remarks, does it not make sense to be called racist?” Subair feels situations where labels may be warranted are when politics has the potential to negatively affect individuals. “I’ll listen to your political opinion, but if your politics or your political beliefs are offensive to my existence or my identity then that’s just rude.”
Senior Milo Romaguera is also more on the left side of politics and thinks that in LREI we can change our political discussions to be less focused on personal attacks if we learn how to converse. “Most people think like me,” he says. “But the thing about most people in this school is that they can’t have conversations with the other side.”
Not only do these arguments happen among students, but both Bulone and Katzman said that it is not just the students who have a response to their beliefs but teachers have also commented on them.
Bulone refers back to her experience on Inauguration day when she showed up to school and a teacher said to her, “If I were you I wouldn’t have come to school.”
“I’m like how are you congratulating me for coming to school?” she said. “I should be able to come here and not have an issue with anyone. If me coming to school is a concern of the teachers than that’s an issue.”
Katzman claims he also has been met with political judgment from not only the social but also the academic part of LREI. Katzman describes a situation where he turned in a paper that ended with his support for a more conservative viewpoint and he got a bad grade and was asked to redo his work. He redid his work and except for a few grammar errors the biggest thing he changed was his ending point. Instead of supporting a conservative viewpoint he supported the liberal viewpoint. After making edits he received a better grade. He speculates that the reason for this better grade was not because of the quality of his writing but because of the ideas that he presented.
As a teacher, Heinz was able to offer an explanation to the influence of politics in our academics. Heinz says in his classes he might share his political opinion with his students but he still wants them to be able to develop their own political identities. “This school [has an] activist bent. It is encouraged that teachers engage in partisan speech,” he says. “if it somehow undermines the learning experience then that is where it becomes deeply problematic.”
Bulone and Katzman’s experiences at LREI are very different than that of the typical LREI student. Both seem to have reached the point where they don’t want to fight anymore or have to constantly respond to what they disagree with. Instead they seem to be taking more of a silent response by trying to disengage from arguments or any angry political discussions.
“I don’t want to have conversations about my personal beliefs with anyone because if I share them it opens a whole can of worms I don’t want opened,” Katzman says. Bulone also seems fed up with the arguing but does seem to have a desire to want to share her experience. “It’s been hard for me to come out and say what I wanted to say unless there was someone else with me being like, ‘Say what you want to say.’”
At a school that preaches acceptance and inclusivity, how do we make sure we are including everyone, not just the people who are in the majority? LREI talks about accepting a diversity of people, but what about diversity of opinion? “It’s not a difficult thing,” Romaguera says. “It’s just opening your mind up, not being silent about it, and don’t just give people a nasty attitude or be rude.”
Subair agrees discussion is good but warns that during these conversations people be aware of when politics become personal. “Politics and policies that are being passed believe it or not actually affect people’s lives,” Subair says. “For example, if you came to me saying you feel safe because not so many Muslims are coming in because of the ban then you’re insinuating that my presence as a Muslim is a threat. That’s where politics becomes less about policy and more about identity.”
After having many of those difficult political conversations Bulone and Katzman seemed to have some insight into how people with these types of conflicting opinions can converse and learn from each other rather than accuse or attack. Bulone wants to engage in political discussion as late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia did. “You attack the idea not the person. Scalia was best friends with Ruth Bader Ginsberg, which is not something you think because they are so different. I’ve always learned to not attack someone because of their views and that’s a value that I have always had and I wish that people had that value more present when they interact with others.”
Katzman wants to treat the political conversations like real conversations, not arguments. “The most productive conversations I have had is with people who don’t frame it as though they and I are on entirely different moral levels,” he says. “When someone says ‘this is your opinion and this is my opinion, I want to understand what you think and I want you to understand what I think,’ and those two people talk about it, that accomplishes so much more than yelling at me or anything else.”