The biggest struggle I encountered as a volunteer tutor to adults studying for their GED tests was figuring out ways to make the lessons relevant to their lives.
I came away from many lessons feeling as though I’d done as well as I could, but one night in particular I caught lightning in a bottle. The topic that evening was using and interpreting implication and inference in language. I’m not sure what my original lesson plan was, but it became apparent that my charges were struggling as I stumbled through it. Fortunately, another idea appeared, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of my original plan.
We began talking about the first three words of the Constitution, “We the people,” and how the implied and inferred meanings of those words changed over time as it relates to citizenship and voting.
When the document was drafted “the people” implied Protestant, property-owning, heterosexual, white males. As is the way of such things, the people made things worse before it got better.
Here are some of the obstacles to voting that had to be cleared in the past 241 years:
• Limiting citizenship to “free white” immigrants (1790).
• Removing property ownership requirements (1856).
• Denying voting rights based on race (1870).
• Allowing women to vote (1920).
• Granting voting rights to all Native Americans (1947).
• Forbidding the use of discriminatory tactics such as voting taxes, literacy tests and intimidation (1965). Note: It took the murder of three voting rights activists – two white and one black – to spur President Lyndon Johnson to action.
The authors of the Constitution wrote “people” and assumed the rest of us would understand what they meant. They probably meant “people just like us” but that isn’t what was written – intended or not. Unfortunately, in times of fear or uncertainty, we keep trying to jam modifiers into a text that allows for none. That is what I told my students that night.
The current president would like us to believe that the way to move forward is to go backward, whether it be at the ballot box, at colleges and universities, in the armed forces or simply in the streets. There are obviously a number of people who agree with him, but doing so negates the blood, sweat and tears of so many who fought to get us to this point. Attempting to counteract their work is no different than denying the heroism of an American Muslim or transgender soldier.
In recent months, some residents of Keizer have taken up the banner of inclusivity and desire the city to make some formal statement regarding its stance against problems like racism, discrimination, bullying, violence and exclusion. The idea has come under attack from those who are concerned about immigration policy and others who believe that behavior cannot be legislated.
But I have another group of students as well – teenagers at McNary High School with an interest in creative writing. For six years, a steady trickle of them have walked through the door bringing with them all the turmoil that high school entails. There’s been no shortage of them who struggle with issues of identity in all its forms.
A few years ago, a sign went up along River Road predicting otherworldly judgment on a Supreme Court that decided same-sex marriage was a right of the people. The implied message was that if you aspired to such a thing, you too, were damned. I went to the club meeting that week hoping none of my students had seen it and knowing for certain some of them would have. Despite all my individual efforts to create an inclusive space, the message right outside the door was that some of them were not welcome. None of them brought it up, but what I needed in that moment was something I could not give them: an assurance that not everyone supported the message written and implied by the words on a reader board.
An inclusivity resolution would be just words, but words matter. Words signal thought. And belief is honed through thought. If Keizer had something like an inclusivity resolution when that sign went up, I would have had a plan when I went to the Write Club meeting that week.
I would have told them, “Yes, there are those who think differently out there, but look here at these words. Your city has your back.” No inference necessary.
Eric A. Howald is the managing editor of Keizertimes.