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Heidi Crumrine: ‘People really are better than you expect them to be’

  • President Donald Trump presents Mandy Manning, a teacher in Spokane, Wash., with the National Teacher of the Year award during the National Teacher of the Year reception in the East Room of the White House in Washington on May 2. AP

  • Second lady Karen Pence introduces N.H. Teacher of the Year Heidi Crumrine to Marlon Bundo, the Pences' pet bunny. Courtesy

Monitor columnist
Published: 5/24/2018 12:15:06 AM

A few weeks ago, I had an unusual week that reaffirmed for me everything I believe about education: People are better than you expect them to be and we need more standing ovations in the world. Let me explain.

I had the unique opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., with the 55 other State Teachers of the Year. To list the many diverse activities we were privy to is almost too overwhelming. I engaged in professional learning led by Smithsonian educators; met with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and other staffers at the Department of Education; met with education staffers in Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Congresswoman Annie Kuster’s offices; was interviewed by the Washington Post while at the Watergate Hotel for a luncheon; and was hosted by second lady Karen Pence at the vice president’s residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory.

While there, I got to meet Marlon Bundo, the Pences’ pet bunny. When I mentioned to Mrs. Pence that I loved his story, she went upstairs and got him for me. I was borderline embarrassingly giddy with excitement. Mrs. Pence was welcoming, gracious and down-to-earth. She was better than I expected her to be, and there is much to be gleaned from that experience.

The purpose of the week was a visit to the White House on May 2, where the 2018 National Teacher of the Year, Mandy Manning from Washington State, was honored in the East Room by the President Trump, Secretary DeVos and Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta. This has happened every year since Harry Truman started the tradition in 1952. Mandy teaches refugee students in her school district’s newcomer center, where she is their first teacher after arriving in the United States. They come from all over the world, and most have witnessed and experienced unspeakable trauma.

You can imagine some of the differences of opinion among this crowd, but it was a respectful experience and the attention was on the person who mattered: Mandy. During her acceptance speech, which the White House Press Corps was banned from attending and recording, she spoke of embracing others’ differences and “reaching across difference . . . because we are all human beings.” She received a well-deserved standing ovation. At the end of the five minutes that the president was with us, Mandy handed him letters written by 45 of her refugee students, sharing with him their stories and wishes for their futures. He reportedly handed them to a staffer and asked to have them placed directly on his desk so he could read them.

What transpired the next day revealed everything that is currently wrong with our country. IJR Red (Independent Journal Review) released a doctored video of the White House event. The video made it appear that Mandy refused to shake the president’s hand (not true), that she refused to clap for him (not true), and that she was disrespectful toward him for wearing various pins that reflected her values: National Education Association, the National Endowment for the Arts, a rainbow apple, and the Women’s March, to name a few. The video soon went viral and thus ensued hateful, angry and downright horrible articles, blog posts and comments.

They attacked her physical appearance.

They made assumptions about both her gender and her sexuality based on her hair cut.

They attacked her students and threatened to call ICE.

They attacked her character, calling her ungrateful, selfish, and an embarrassment to society.

They attacked her decision to bring letters from her students.

They attacked her family, and her young children received death threats.

Let me repeat that: Her young children received death threats because of a completely false and fabricated news story. Her perceived disrespect suddenly made death threats of young children acceptable?

It was horrifying to watch how fast average consumers of media were buying into and believing this story. As each of my fellow state teachers of the year posted about this on various social media accounts, we each had inquiries from people we knew asking us if this story was true, or if we were really there to verify them (we were). The vitriolic responses to these completely fabricated stories was mind-boggling.

Perhaps the greatest lesson that will come out of this for me is that our mission as educators has never been more clear. We need to consciously and actively teach young people the importance of being critical thinkers about the information that is coming their way, and then to question and appropriately speak up when they see injustice. These are not liberal or conservative ideals. They are the ideals that form the foundation of what it means to be a human being. Which was Mandy’s exact point when she spoke in the East Room.

My faith in humanity was restored a bit on the day that I flew home. My family and I were walking to our gate and noticed everyone in the terminal clapping. Confused at first, I quickly realized that a series of honor flights had just arrived. As each veteran walked toward baggage claim, he received a standing ovation. Many had to stop, wipe their eyes, regain composure and continue walking. These were very old men, many in wheelchairs and with oxygen tanks, and they were arriving in D.C. to a hero’s welcome. Kindness and love were radiating throughout the airport.

I don’t think I could have predicted a more wildly contrasting week that included a visit with Marlon Bundo, a viral fake news story and a military honor flight, but I returned with my convictions re-energized. My belief that despite all the division in the world, people really are better than you expect them to be. And that it’s up to me, and teachers in classrooms across the country, to remind our students of that, and empower them to use their voices to speak truth to power. And that it’s okay to stand up and applaud people when they do just that.

(Heidi Crumrine, the 2018 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, teaches English at Concord High School.)

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