What Do I Say To My Students?

School classroom with school desks and blackboard in Japanese high school
School classroom with school desks and blackboard in Japanese high school

I am a high school history teacher.

I teach students who come from across the globe. Many have come fleeing their own countries to find hope and safety and freedom in ours. They come from Burma and Brazil, Iraq and El Salvador, Vietnam and Zambia. Over 30 countries in all.

But today - I don't know what to say to them.

What do I say? What can I say?

What do I say to my Muslim students from the Middle East? The young women in my class who wear head scarves and love taking selfies and swapping pop music, the young men who are in Junior ROTC and hope to serve America in the army? How do I convince them that not all of America wants them banished from our shores, that not all Americans think these 13-, 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds are terrorists. They have told me of their fears. I cannot now tell them that their fears are completely without justification.

What do I say to my students from Latin America? My students who have fled gangs and violence, or who have simply come because they see a chance for education and opportunity in America. How can I convince them that many people in America do not see them as rapists and murderers? How can I quell their fears that our country is about to round them up and throw them across our southern border?

What do I say to my students whose skin is black or brown? Who already know what it is like to be followed in stores and on the streets? Who have already learned that the color of their skin makes them a target? What do I say to them when words like "law and order" feel to them like cocked guns? How do I teach about Jim Crow laws and the Klu Klux Klan as if they were only history? What do I tell them about the Confederate flag that only yesterday I saw proudly displayed on a car in New Hampshire?

What do I say to my LGBTQ students? Or to my students who have relatives who have only recently secured the right to marry those they love and now fear that right will be stripped from them? How to I respond to my students who today ask me in worried whispers: is conversion therapy going to be promulgated by the highest office in the land.

What do I teach them about my own faith, Judaism? Soon we will study World War II, and the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. I cannot say this is all a thing of the distant past when Neo-Nazi groups are speaking out vocally across our nation.

What do I say to the sixty-plus of my students who, like me, are women? How do I tell them that many in their adopted country condone sexual assault and sexual violence and the denigration of women? Can I tell them that they will truly have the same opportunities as men? That they will be treated equally?

This morning my students - students from across the globe, who were drawn here by hope - were quick to ask me, with voices quiet and fearful: Will we be told to go back to our country? When will we be made to leave? Will all of us have to leave? Their questions cascaded upon one another.

What do I tell them?

I tell them that I will continue to be their champion, their supporter, their mentor, their defender, their teacher.

But I'm not confident that I can protect them.

At our school these students stand each morning to pledge their allegiance to the flag of the United States of America - the country they hope one day to become a citizen of.

Will this country stand up for them?