By Nicole Hennessy
The topic today is the federal travel ban. Or is it a Muslim ban?
After all, it’s late on a Friday afternoon and most Avon High School students have headed home for the weekend.
Sarah Jessup, president of the school’s Junior State of America (JSA) group, which meets every week, dives into the topic. About 15 of her peers listen patiently before adding their own comments on the matter – if they have them or are willing to share.
Some, looking to avoid an awkward exchange, just shake their heads and look down at their desks when a student is saying something they disagree with. Some jump right in, attempting to piece together impressions, rhetoric and portions of recent news stories.
Ethan Scarberry, who is outspoken, says he likes to argue.
Seated in the row behind him is Hannah Hapanowicz – clearly with her own opinions, but less likely to engage. She describes her home as open and says her family regularly engages in political debates around the dinner table, something she is enthusiastic about.
Some of her peers, she says, don’t have open communication at home. She remembers being a guest at these dinner tables.
“It’s just silence,” she says.
On the topic of the ban, students continue to share the basic arguments for and against it: it goes against American values; it’s discriminatory; it’s a hysterical, stereotypical view on Muslims; there’s a humanitarian crisis in Syria; it makes some people feel safer or that the countries chosen had been considered for restrictions by previous administrations.
“What is one thing President (Barack) Obama never did and got a lot of criticism for?” JSA advisor Colin Henderson asked the group, trying to put the ban into the context of recent foreign policy in general.
“He never said radical Islamic terrorist,” several students shouted out.
Repeating their answer back to them slowly, Henderson asked another question.
“By never identifying it that way, which a lot of people had problems with, what is one thing the Obama administration never had a problem with when putting extreme vetting on those countries? What were they never accused of?”
“Of being racist,” a student replied.
There is no topic the group shies away from, but most of the talking points come from current events. Unlike Avon Lake High School’s Diversity Awareness Club, the discussions don’t get too personal, although the students’ personal experiences and perceptions certainly guide them.
The travel ban conversation naturally evolves into a discussion on the assimilation of immigrants and refugees.
What is the best way to integrate? How do you deal with cultural differences? Are families and individuals being settled too densely, or not densely enough? Should we expect others to share our values? What do we not really know about or assume about their own?
The questions are endless – talking points leaning heavily toward opinion, a good time for Henderson to jump in.
“You can’t just deliver assimilation in a box,” says Henderson. “It takes time; just like democracy.”
Not so much an active club member, Henderson serves as more of a referee of sorts, clarifying anything that’s not correct and providing context when necessary.
Jessup, behind her podium at the front of the room, steers the conversation.
The students in JSA are clearly the “smart kids,” Henderson says, all of whom are happily headed to college with extracurriculars and academic achievements under their belts.
Henderson adds this can actually be to their detriment when it comes to debating and understanding complex political issues that even some adults struggle to grasp.
But this is precisely why he loves teaching politics – to “expand awareness.”
“I see the injustice in the world,” says Henderson.
“We gotta learn how to be people.”
Topic after topic, the students brush the surface and expose the points that make these topics debatable at all: Must feminism mean literal equality? Should all feminists advocate for women being included in the draft? If they don’t, are they hypocrites? Is modern feminism trivial? Does the internet help amplify trivial aspects of feminist issues, making it seem like most people give equal weight to trivial and complex issues?
This last point sparks a debate on utilizing the internet to understand politics responsibly, something Henderson says he tries to teach students.
“Once you get enough momentum behind some of these nonissues, they become issues, and we’re left nowhere in the end,” he says, describing the dangers of using news as entertainment.
“It’s a greater social problem, but you really see it play out right here in this classroom – and my other classes – where you have these kids that have these notions that are really based on something they saw on Twitter, something they saw on Facebook, something they saw on Tumblr … even Snapchat … so it’s frustrating because they latch onto these ideologies.”
Henderson regularly sends out balanced news stories to his students. He also lectures on accurate sources and credibility.
Jessup declined to comment further on her own political views, preferring the focus to remain on young people educating themselves.
“If we can inspire young people to start paying attention to what is going on and, most importantly, begin talking about it, we’d feel greatly accomplished,” says Jessup.
The students pack up and leave for the weekend just before 5 p.m., some laugh and discuss weekend plans.
Henderson says he sees JSA and being well-informed as invaluable.
And he never underestimates the importance of his role in guiding students.
“You have a lot to learn,” he says of these “smart kids.”
“You have a lot that you don’t know, and you need to know what you don’t know.”
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