In the early morning of Wednesday, November 9th, 2016 Donald Trump was elected to the office of the President of the United State of America.
And while slightly less than half of the US electorate awoke to a triumphant victory, many more rolled out of bed in despair. Parents who put their daughters to bed with hope for a day where they could celebrate a president of their own gender came into the morning with unmistakable feelings of grief and confusion.
For the teachers, parents, guardians, and role models of American youth there was one resounding question: What do we tell our kids?
How can we possibly explain to them the complexities of sexism, of racism, of xenophobia, of a changing media landscape, of the collapse of substantive civic discourse, of the widespread denial of science and documented facts, of working-class vitriol, of the sharp cultural divide that tears America in two?
In speaking with numerous teachers around the New York City area (and with confirmation from educators around the nation) one brute fact stands out: not only did countless children, teens, and adult students cry throughout the following days of the election, their teachers cried along with them; they were left broken by the overwhelming feeling that they had failed in their duties. They shared in our shame and guilt that the older generations have mortgaged the future of their children.
For people of color there were widespread feelings of being attacked and abandoned. The first morning after the results came in a student said: “Miss, America hates us all. We love our families, friends, and teachers too. Why do they hate us?”
Immigrants, refugees, and children of immigrants felt abject fear. Student after student came to their teachers, many in tears, asking: “when are we going to be told to leave the country?” “will all of us be told to leave?” “How soon?” “Will America now bomb my country?” “Will they kick me out because I’m Muslim?”
Students went immediately to see their counselor when they realized the class was talking about the election. Others were left speechless by a feeling of powerlessness that overwhelmed them. One student came in to class and said: “I have no words. Nothing to say.” He sat his head on his desk and cried. Another student (who can barely read) wrote a page about his undocumented relatives. His last sentence: “Will my dad have to go back to DR (the Dominican Republic) without me?”
A typical class clown walked up to his teacher with tears in his eyes and shook his head in disbelief. He sobbed in his teachers shoulder, saying that he doesn’t want to go back to Mexico, because “it’s not [his] home.”
Students reported stories of how some teachers, emboldened by a Trump victory, mocked them. One told a Hispanic student that, “he better get good at climbing walls.” A gay teacher resigned after finding, “Go back where you came from, fag” on his whiteboard.
A black student wrote: “I have never been terrified to leave my home until today.”
Reading about Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, and the Little Rock Nine, a boy asked, “How is what we’re learning about any different than what happened last night? They still don’t care about us.” Another student responded, “This time my family and I will have to leave. We don’t have papers.”
One student, when asked to draw a diagram to represent how he feels, drew the letters “U S A” on the board. Then he turned to the class, “How can we be the land of the free and the home of the brave when immigrants aren’t going to get to come here?” As he crossed out the U he said: “Right now, we’re just the States of America. There’s nothing united about us.”
The keenest sting felt by many American educators was not caused by students who wept for their families but by the students who approached their teachers with gentle concern; the students saw through the composure that masked their mentors’ true feelings and simply asked: “Are you okay?”
There is both utter heartbreak and glimmering hope in knowing that the next generation is one capable of a far deeper empathy than the ones before it. Our task is now to manifest this capacity for thoughtfulness found in every child– all but evaporated from public discourse. What we do next will define our nation for much of the coming century. Our children are listening. They are watching closely.
What will we do the soothe their grief? What will we say to ignite within them their better angels? What imagined future do we outline for their aspirations?
Even if the American promise of equality fails to be realized in our own time there will always remains the stubborn, lingering hope that the dreams of teachers may be the destinies of their students.