Today was a very hard day in the classroom. We knew it would be, no matter the result. We thought of our students when we heard the first debate, when we cast our votes, and when we learned of the results.
We wondered how our students would react. We wondered what to say, or whether we should say anything at all. We had but few moments to decide on our message as we drove to work. We took our posts by our doors as the first bell rang, anxiously awaiting the herd.
I decided to start class by listening, rather than speaking. I asked each student to write down how he or she was feeling about the election on an index card. I read every single one. Some I agreed with, and some I didn’t.
When I did speak, my voice cracked immediately and my students’ faces changed. I resolved to hold in the tears. They sat forward and listened. My message was this:
Regardless of which candidate you prefer, the results are in. Many of you are not old enough to vote yet. In four years, you all will be. In our country, we have scheduled political revolutions every four years. There are people who would prefer that we as young people (myself included) didn’t vote. Your vote matters. Your voice matters. I hope to see you at the polls soon.
My 100 students are just a speck in the 50 million students in the United States. I reached out to my colleagues near and far to hear their stories. The following are the responses I received only in the first hours of my request. They represent urban, suburban and rural schools in North Carolina and beyond.
The first thing I experienced was fear, fear from my minority students. I had to comfort a large portion of my hispanic students who have a legitimate fear of being deported, or their families being deported. It was a stale, hollow kind of comfort because I told them everything would be alright when truthfully I have no clue if it will be for them. The second thing I saw was hate and ignorance, which go hand in hand. It was the worst kind of hate and ignorance, blatant and self justified. I addressed as many of these comments as I could, which was exhausting. These comments ranged from anti-gay, racist, anti-immigrant, and praising the new theocratic America that they think Trump will usher in. There was no middle ground, and I can honestly say it was the hardest day of my career. It was a revealing and foreboding display of the human condition in American society and left me truly terrified.
I had some fairly meaningful private conversations with students today. A lot of them were tired and near tears, but I did not make it an issue in my lessons today. Also, no kids tried to raise it with me during class, but students wanted to talk before and after class, during lunch, and after school. I embraced that talk without inserting too much of my views. I just tried to listen.
I started by opening up the floor for discussion in class, by allowing everyone space to share, and by engaging every student I could in an individual conversation throughout the day. What emerged was shock, fear, and anger. Most consistently, the refrain was “How could adults have done this?” My text for class today was poetry, the only medium that felt appropriate for processing on such an emotionally heavy day. I ended up going with “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou. At the end of class, I had each student choose and read a line from the poem that most spoke to them today. (Read more)
I know we’re “supposed” to remain unbiased and not give our opinion, but the kids were so scared - I couldn’t say or do nothing. I reassured them as best as I could, without completely breaking the rules. All I wanted to do was comfort them; I’m furious that they are in this position and that my hands are tied. We’re expected to care about these children, be around them more than our own families, get to know them and their struggles so we can serve them better, and then get discouraged from actually caring about them, for fear of compromising our position of authority and ‘professionalism.’ In short, I told them their concerns and fears are completely valid.
When I walked into school today, I noticed an air of sadness from both faculty and students. I was not as upset by the results as some people, but I was concerned about those around me today and am concerned about where our country will go in the coming months. I generally start every class period with a quote, which we discuss as a class. Today’s quote was “a house divided against itself cannot stand” by Abraham Lincoln. After we talked about the historical context of the quote, I brought up the election, reminding the kids that I was not going to talk about my opinions or their opinions, but that there was something important they needed to know. I told every single kid today that no matter your opinion on the results, you will be impacted by the results. I told them that the coming weeks could be very challenging for a lot of people, and to remember that no matter what happens, we need to stay united with one another and not turn on one another like we did 150 years ago. I reminded them that at the end of the day, regardless of gender, race, lifestyle preference or political affiliation, we are all American, and we all have to work together to make our country successful. I don’t know how many kids really understand the magnitude, but I think the best thing that we could do today was to remind the kids that no matter what, we are going to get through this, just like other difficult times in history.
Today I was reminded of the wisdom of my colleagues and the power of our future voters. I saw extraordinary acts of grace, compassion and community. I listened to passionate conversations and witnessed concerned citizens. I saw students from incomparable backgrounds with vastly different ideals listen to and respect one another.
Tomorrow, we return to school. We return to work.
Follow Katherine Meeks on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KatherineMeeks