Larry Efird: Playing President

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 17, 2016

In second grade, one of my friends and I made up a secret game we played, which we simply called “Presidents.” On a coded cue, we would begin pretending we were the president and the first lady. I don’t know how we came up with that idea, but it was fun, mainly because it was a secret. When we flashed our clandestine hand signal across the room to one another, we would immediately sit up at our wooden desks very straight and act in a way which we considered to be properly dignified — in our 7-year-old minds, anyway.

Why the President’s Game? I’m not sure, but as second graders, we revered the very idea of the president of the United States. It held an almost mythological status.

One of our favorite school day pastimes was also collecting presidential bottle caps which came on our milk bottles at recess. We traded them as well, much like baseball cards. Our goal was to collect all 35, whether we really knew who the men were imprinted on the tops of those circular cardboard tabs or not, and which we also had to rinse off so they wouldn’t smell like sour milk after a day or two.

Now that I’m an adult, I’ve become a realist about things, and sometimes, a cynic, I’m afraid. I understand that being the president is no game, and that even presidents can embarrass themselves as well as our country.

However, I want my students to respect those who lead our nation, even if they don’t agree with them. No president can be perfect. Each of them has made mistakes, some more than others, of course. Even George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had their flaws. Although being honest about the character of former presidents is necessary, I do not appreciate those who are constantly trying to “dig up the dirt” on former national heroes so they can make movies or sell more books with tabloid sensationalism.

I’ve watched with interest how my own students have responded and reacted to the current presidential campaign. The good thing is that they know who the candidates are; the bad thing is that they know who the candidates are. But, it’s made for some interesting classroom discussions.

Recently, one of my 10th grade Hispanic students, who is classified as ESL (English Second Language), wrote a sentence using the word “misanthrope” on his vocabulary quiz. Innocently, and without malice, he claimed one of the candidates was a misanthrope because “he hated Mexicans.”

First, how many 10th graders (or adults) know what the word misanthrope means, and second, how many of them could use it in the correct context? Especially, one who is still learning English? Though impressed by his emerging command of the English language, I was also saddened that he feels hated because of his race. He, unfortunately, speaks for many new Americans who are doing what they can to become responsible U.S. citizens, but at the same time are being made to feel unwelcome by the poor conduct and selfish attitudes of some individuals who would aspire to become the nation’s president.

As teachers, we not only teach content area material, but we also try to teach the virtues of citizenship and respect as well. I only have three basic rules posted in my classroom. That way, no one can think there are too many to keep or too many to remember. They are the following: Respect Yourself, Respect Others, and Respect Authority. I know those are not impossible because I would not ask my students to keep rules that I cannot or would not choose to keep myself. For the most part, my classroom community follows these rules, and when we don’t, I ask the offenders if they have followed our protocols of respect and citizenship. They always know when they have or have not. It’s not that complicated. Getting them to admit their offense is often another story, however.

If I were in second grade today, and my friend and I were playing Presidents, I’m not sure how we would emulate proper behavior if we were only looking at those involved in the current presidential race. But I’m pretty sure the word dignified would not apply.

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School.