Teaching Trump in 1972

Posted on January 4, 2018


Yesterday, a weather event arrived on the East Coast, so severe that it was called a bomb cyclone.   People were glued to their TVs. Significant snow arrived in places that rarely saw snow. New York, in a highly irregular move, announced school closings. Ferocious wind arrived. CNN blared that the temperatures were lower than Mars. All attention was focused on events most had never seen before.  It should have been a day that diverted people’s attention from the ongoing mania  emanating from Washington.

But it wasn’t. Trump seemed to rise to the occasion, creating a day of astonishing Tweets and executive decisions. Once again, Trump trumped.  In the worst possible way. And once again, Life in the Boomer Lane thought back to her teaching days.

LBL is a former special ed teacher. She worked primarily with intermediate and high school age students, most of whom came from less-than-desireable circumstances. Most of them were basically good kids who had tested low on intelligence tests, and so were deemed special ed. And she was pretty crazy about them. A few were different. They were slick. They could sell you the shoes you were wearing. Failing that, they could steal your shoes and sell them back to you.

LBL was always conflicted about whether these kids were truly special ed material. Borderline, yes, but not technicallyShe used to think that given better economic circumstances and more stable home lives, that small group could have gone on to college.  She has now amended her thought to be that they would have had a real shot at holding the highest office in the country.

Like our President, they were limited in intellectual ability, but had an abundance of street smarts. They learned to control their immediate environment through a predictable escalation of sweet talk, humor, cajoling, arguing, anger, and ultimate explosion. They lived in reaction to whatever they thought disrespected them.  And mostly, they saw the world as disrespecting them.

LBL controlled the class, in part, through a system of classroom money, in which students got paid when they paid attention, completed assignments, behaved properly. At the end of the week, she would bring in cookies and small toys and sell them to the students. One day, people’s money started disappearing.  LBL suspected a particular student but could never prove it. Because of him, she had to start putting students’ names on all the money, to prevent theft.

She also tried to instill in them the idea of saving. She told them that if they could accumulate $500, they could have the day off from school and she would order them a pizza for lunch. Not one student could last past the weekly cookie sale day. Except that one. He accumulated $500 and got his day off with pizza. He, especially, could have gone places in life.

These students were brilliant at identifying people’s weak spots and using that to manipulate. They had a basic distrust of authority. If they saw no immediate benefit to themselves from rules, they simply didn’t obey the rules. Several had no intellectual curiosity, because it didn’t further their goal of immediate gratification.

On the other hand, they could be charming. They could be funny and great fun to be around.  Had they been privileged enough to have been taught golf, they would have made fun partners on the course. They could schmooze with the best of them. They could be very persuasive. They could be affectionate. They just couldn’t always be trusted.  They were all mini-Trumps, with none of the excessive advantages Trump had to catapult himself into a faux version of success.

The longer this administration goes on, the more LBL thinks about her students. She finds herself negatively shaking her head at the array of experts who believe Trump to be mentally incapacitated or emotionally unsound or have a view of himself ruling the world.  She doesn’t buy that. What she does buy is that Trump, like her students, is operating with very limited intellectual prowess and an even more limited attention span, unless his attention is focused on himself.  In spite of the money and the gold everything, at some very basic level he knows he is outclassed, so his recourse is to revert to hyperbole, self-aggrandizement, and lashing out at anyone who threatens him.  He, like LBL’s students, has learned to control his world.  And, make no mistake, here, his world is small. There is no vision here, just reaction to forces he will never understand and has no desire to grasp.

LBL doesn’t know what has become of her particular students. She likes to think that they ultimately matured, got jobs, married, had children and lives.  She likes to think they ultimately got the love they deserved but had always been denied. She fears otherwise. She imagines criminal activity, jail, fatherhood, substance abuse, worse.

She also imagines our President, given different circumstances and she imagines the same: a man who would know how to hustle but not how to inspire.   A man who might Tweet but would have no followers. A man who would chase conspiracy theories and fringe websites and fringe ideas. A man who would be governed by fear. A man who would give no one the respect they deserved, simply because he had not yet learned to respect himself.  He would be the same man he is today, but with none of the power or influence.  Instead of being a danger to the world, he would be limited to being a danger to those around him.