ARTICLE

A Teacher Overhears: “Yeah, I would have made a good Nazi.”

This educator reflects on the scariest student conversation she has overheard in her teaching career.


I needed a snow day on a recent Friday.

It didn’t happen. Nope. Not even a delay.

My two daughters had a snow day. I, on the other hand, had deep, deep anger.

I should have taken a day, but making lesson plans for my classes this year is more stress than being in an angry frenzy.

I was bitter.

My students and some of my colleagues entered the building in a funk. My seniors and I just gave each other “the look.” Our eyes silently communicated our dismay.

We weren’t the only school in the snowiest U.S. city to be open and on time; it just felt that way.

My anger dissipated as I began to teach. It was replaced by purpose. My lesson was on “-isms”: capitalism, socialism, communism and fascism. It was a great lesson. But it also involved the scariest student conversation I have overheard in my entire teaching career.

For 22 school years, I have taught about these “-isms.” This year, however, two students reacted to fascism positively. Luckily, it was only two students, but I wonder how many other students are seeing the merits of extreme nationalism, instead of recoiling in disgust at its historical consequences.

Students tend to be like hamsters trying to escape their cages at the end of class, so most of the students were rushing to return their tablets and packing up their huge backpacks when I heard it: Two male students were discussing their thoughts concerning my lesson, and the exchange went something like this:

Student A: “I agree with extreme nationalism. If we don’t put our country first, we will never prosper.”

Student B: “Yeah, I would have made a good Nazi.”

Maybe these two adolescents were trying to be provocative or funny. Maybe they simply felt a naive connection to fascism. Maybe. Or, quite possibly, I am teaching in a new time. Maybe I will look back and see this year as a turning point. I do not have a crystal ball, but I am disturbed. When I taught eighth-grade social studies, I used to show a corny movie, The Wave, based on a California teacher’s classroom experiment in the 1960s to show his students how people came to support the Nazi regime. Maybe I should show that movie again. Or would I be told that I was being political? My administration has warned us educators to not share our political views. I agree that I have a very influential position as a high school social studies teacher, but I also have a responsibility.

Luckily, the lake-effect machine gave me a snow day on Monday.

Monday’s snow day gave me time to write this reflection.

In the words of another student, “Snow days are savage.” So is teaching in 2017.

Brown is a high school social studies teacher who is exploring teaching in the age of Trump.