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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Bridgegate, Brawls, and a Black Eye

This semester I’m teaching a course called American Political Ideals at a community college, so my crowd is both diverse and challenging. There’s a good mix of ages, ethnicities, and socio-economic groups. Some of my students are fighting to continue their education and they value every minute of class time. Others are there only because they don’t know what else to do; for them it’s a safe and thrifty extension of high school.

There are days when I truly love teaching them. Other days I look out at their faces and I’m met with a sea of apathy. Then I become desperate for new ideas to spice things up and pique their interest. So I could barely contain my joy when, three weeks ago, the whole Bridgegate scandal erupted. And when the Christie administration accused MSNBC of reporting each new development with glee, I couldn't deny that I was right there with them (with MSNBC that is, not with the Christie administration).

“Do you think he’ll have a chance at the presidency now?” One of my students asked me this. It was the Monday after the mayor of Hoboken had accused Christie of withholding Hurricane Sandy funds. This particular student, named Alex, was a young girl right out of high school. She sat in the back but even from a distance she stood out, with her purple hair, lip ring, and strong opinions.
“I think it totally depends on what happens next. If nobody contradicts Christie’s story, that he wasn’t in the loop about the lanes closing until after it was all over, then I suppose it’s possible. The public can have a short memory and when it comes to stuff like this. Two years from now, when it’s time to pick a candidate, the Republicans might overlook his tarnished reputation if he’s still their best option.”

A lot of my students were still more interested in their phones than in our conversation, but most of them were sitting forward in their seats, interested in the discourse. 

Alex’s forehead tightened and her nose wrinkled as if she had taken a whiff of something putrid. “How could he be their best option? What he did was illegal!”

“But there’s no real proof,” I said.

“Yeah, but come on. Everybody knows he’s guilty of criminal activity.”

Zach, another one of my students, took his feet off the chair in front of him, turned towards Alex, and spoke in a low, growly sort of voice. “I don’t know that he’s guilty. I do know that Obama and the IRS targeted conservative groups. I also know that people died in Benghazi because of gross incompetence, and the Obama administration lied to cover it up. Why don’t you care about any of that criminal activity?”

“That’s bullshit!” Alex cried. “The IRS targeted liberal groups too, and I’d like to see Republicans be as worried about the gross incompetence that killed people during 9/11 as they are about Benghazi.”

I cleared my throat to grab their attention, but it only sort of worked. Alex and Zach stayed focused on each other like boxers in the ring, and the rest of the class was already choosing sides. “Well,” I inserted, “you both have brought up some relevant points. I don’t think idealism really plays a part in American politics as much as partisanship does. We tend to judge someone as innocent or guilty depending on whether or not we agree with them, most of the time.”

Alex’s head spun towards me. “What do you think? Do you think he’s guilty?”

“This isn’t about what I think,” I said, and I had to stop myself from clenching my fingers into a knot. “I present the facts so you can form your own opinions.”

Zach rolled his eyes and scoffed. “Yeah, right. You’re so clearly a liberal elite, socialist-Obama supporter. I bet you pray every night that Christie gets impeached just so Hillary has no one to run against in 2016.”

I swallowed back a laugh. What Zach said wasn't far off – I’m not a socialist, but the rest of his allegations would be hard to argue against. But Alex was so quick to rush to my defense that I didn’t have to worry about it.

“Don’t talk to her that way!” she cried. “She’s our teacher. Show some respect!”

I waved my hands. “It’s fine, really. But Zach, I do have a problem with one thing you said, simply because – “

He cut me off to yell at Alex. “Don’t talk to me about respect. It’s people like you who are bringing our country down.”

Alex’s face grew red. “What do you mean, people like me?”

Felipe, another one of my more vocal students, interjected. “He means anyone who isn’t white, male, straight, and narrow-minded.”

Zach puffed out his chest. “Hey, nobody asked you to come here, so shut your mouth.”

I slapped my hands down on the podium. “Okay, Zach, that’s enough. At the beginning of the semester we all agreed not to make our political discussions personal.”

“Yeah, fine, great. Blame the white guy. Alex and that illegal immigrant have been making it personal too, but you’re only yelling at me. It’s so typical.”

“I’m not an illegal immigrant!” Felipe shouted, and he got out of his chair and stood over Zach. “I have just as much right to be here as you do.”

“Calm down,” I said, and I moved towards both Zach and Felipe. Zach rose to meet Felipe on his level while several of my other students turned on their cameras on their phones, to film what was quickly devolving into a brawl.

Alex jumped up too. “It’s you who’s bringing this country down, with all your racist attitudes.”

Zach’s whole body compressed and I could see his lean muscles twitch beneath his plain white t-shirt and blue jeans. “What have I said that’s racist? Name ONE RACIST THING that I’ve said.” His goateed chin quivered in rage.  “You can’t think of one, can you?”

I stepped into their contentious little circle and then everything happened so fast. Felipe and Alex started yelling, calling out Zach on all of his thinly veiled racist comments from over the course of the semester. Zach, obviously feeling cornered, tried to push himself out of the confrontation and I was waving my arms around in attempt to keep things from coming to blows. That was when I wound up with somebody’s elbow forcefully jammed into my eye.

“Hey,” I yelled, covering my wounded, watery eye in pain.

“Oh my God, are you okay?” Alex cried.

“Everybody out, now! Class dismissed, except for you, you and you!” I pointed to Zach, Alex, and Felipe. So everybody shuffled out, except for the three of them, and Alex, Felipe, and Zach were all ordered to meet with school administrators to discuss a disciplinary hearing. Meanwhile I was told to go home, because my eye was turning the same shade of purple as Alex’s hair.

When I got home it was the middle of the day, and Monty came out from his office, took one look at me and said, “What the hell happened to you?”

“It’s not a big deal,” I said, turning my face away as he leaned in close to examine it. “People got heated today in class and somebody’s elbow accidentally rammed into my eye. But I don’t know whose elbow it was, everybody is denying it, and until there’s proof, they’re all more or less off the hook.”

“What?” Monty shook his head at me and my lack of coherence. “I don’t understand.”

So I told him the whole story while he pressed a bag of frozen peas to my face.

“So you know who’s involved, and they’re all guilty to some degree, but you don’t know exactly who did what?”

“Exactly,” I answered. “And Felipe and Alex are both good kids. And even Zach, while I don’t agree with him or even particularly like him - I don’t think he’d have hurt me on purpose.”

Monty stroked the uninjured part of my cheek. “I’m not okay with this, Luce. You can’t have a violent student in your class, putting you at risk. You don’t get paid nearly enough for that.”

“None of them are violent. People just get heated when they’re talking about politics. I can handle it,” I said. “And at least it’s not boring.”

And class has been fine for the last couple of weeks, but the weather turned so cold and classes were cancelled and other times very few people showed up. Plus, all the Christie headlines receded, even on MSNBC, so I reverted to talking about the history of the major political parties and the formation of their ideologies.

But now that David Wildstein sent the letter that states that Christie knew about the lane closures as they were happening, Christie is in the hot seat again, and I guess that means I am too.

On Monday I’m sure Alex will want to discuss it. And I’ll say that until Wildstein can come forth with proof that Christie knew, it won’t matter. Just like I’m sure that at least one of my students has cell phone footage that proves whose elbow it was the rammed into my eye. I was stupid to dismiss class so quickly after it happened; if I had interviewed the other students right away I might have gotten some valuable information. But we don’t always make the most rational decisions in the heat of the moment. And the truth can be like a tree falling in the forest; if nobody hears it, it doesn't make a sound.