It’s ironic that the word “woke,” which is literally the past tense of wake — as in, “Hey, wake up!” — has attained a negative connotation in certain closed circles. Me, I love a good night’s sleep, but I also really enjoy being awake, eyes wide open and fully cognizant instead of blissfully ignorant in a state of sublime semi-consciousness.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the slang term “woke” as “aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” Well, alrighty then! Because who’s opposed to justice? And not just justice, but justice for all. Goes right along with the word liberty in the grand finale of a certain pledge my students are pressed to recite.
But somehow woke has been pejoratively appropriated — some might say hijacked — for nefarious purposes. Messy politics notwithstanding, as an English teacher I’m going to stick with the dictionary definition and state, with pride, that I consider myself to be 100%, unequivocally woke.
Controversial issues make for natural classroom discussion topics and I often wind up playing devil’s advocate while walking a tenuous tightrope in a stiff crosswind. Is our president good or bad for the country? Should recreational pot be legalized? Is it a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion? What about LGBTQ discrimination? Can the death penalty ever be justified?
I’m the last person to be a pole to anyone’s moral compass. And while I possess my share of biases, I’m also the first to admit that my opinions should be taken with grains of salt and shots of tequila since, well, they’re just my opinions. The hard questions — and all questions when it comes down to it — don’t have absolute answers. Sure, they’re fun to debate, but in the end it’s all a bunch of babble in tales told by idiots.
Over the years my Cambridge and AP students have read most of the novels cited on all-time banned book lists, including The Great Gatsby, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and 1984; this term, we’re immersed in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Atonement. I reserve the right to assign novels that align with my curriculum regardless of issues of race, color, national origin, religion or sexual orientation. Any parent, for their part, is welcome to object to their teenager being exposed to real-world perspectives (the internet notwithstanding), in which case I’ll offer up meeker alternatives.
When students inquire about my political and/or religious leanings, I tell them I’m a registered independent. Why should I tie myself to a particular political party when there are positions I agree and disagree with on both sides? Same with religion — I prefer to leave my options open. Because believing in something doesn’t make it true no matter how loudly one blusters. If it’s true to you, fine. But attempting to impose dubious personal convictions on others is as autocratic as it is immoral.
Just for kicks, I sometimes randomly place this question on a quiz: Why is it important to always keep an open mind?
The answer, of course, is that we reside in a decidedly gray world, and those who attempt to narrowly frame it as either black or white are thoughtlessly traveling a myopic road that can only lead to frustration and discontent.
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All of which leads to the ridiculous hubbub about critical race theory being taught in schools and teachers “grooming” students. I recently conducted a conclusive, completely unscientific survey about CRT and 76% of my colleagues thought it to be an acronym for the subway system of some northeastern city. As far as grooming, 95% think good personal hygiene is important and strongly encourage it; when placed in the context of unscrupulous teachers magically turning kids gay, 83% laughed out loud while the remaining 17% groaned and rolled their eyes.
Are most teachers woke? I fervently hope so — and you should as well — because if not they’re doing a disservice to their students and society. And while I’m sure there are those who will label me as just another Godless left-wing weed-smoking brainwasher, the reality is my instructional focus is on honing informed critical thinking skills. When I’m not out getting high on a church lawn with the rest of my devious socialist peers, that is.
Gov. Ron DeSantis recently proclaimed Florida as the state where “‘Woke’ goes to die.” Having just checked my pulse, I’m obliged to disagree.
Chris Fulton teaches Cambridge Literature/General Paper classes at Tarpon Springs High School. He has been in the classroom for more than 25 years.