Educators and parents had one job yesterday: Reassure kids and help them feel safe in the wake of the most ugly, damaging and high-stakes election in American history. For the foreseeable future, in fact, they’ll need to double down on creating a school climate that’s free of fear and feels safe.
But safety isn’t enough, and it’s not the only thing our children—and our country—need right now. Kids will sniff out false reassurance, and they will learn that the adults who are doling it out can’t be trusted. They desperately need their teachers and parents to tell them the truth: Everything is not OK. We have work to do, and we can do it.
Here are a few of those truths kids need to hear.
Emotions are strong. If you’re feeling hurt, disappointed, fearful or sad about this election, don’t hide it. Hillary Clinton acknowledged the hurt of losing in her concession speech. Don’t put on a happy face; the kids will see right through it. But be hopeful for the future. If you or some of your students are feeling jubilant, don’t gloat. Remind kids that the president must serve all Americans, not just those who voted for him.
The country is divided—and not just on politics. This election has thrown the spotlight on how we see each other: urban vs. rural; coasts vs. the heartland; “common folks” vs. elites; “real Americans” vs. immigrants and Muslims; people who believe they were better off the way things “used to be” vs. those who know they do not want to go back to a time when LGBT people hid in closets, racial discrimination was the law and women’s place was in the home. No matter where your students stand, they need knowledge. Those students who feel dispossessed—and that includes many white folks in the Rust Belt—need to see their realities affirmed and need to know that others struggle too. Your immigrant or Muslim students wonder if the country hates them? Be honest: Yes, a lot of people do hate and fear them, for no other reason than their ethnicity or religion. We have a long history of fearing the “other.” Your African-American kids feel their race counts against them? It does; their opportunities in life are different because they were born black in the United States. You don’t judge them by the color of their skin, but when the world doled out advantages, they got shorted.
No one really knows what this election means. Pundits and scholars will spend months analyzing why half the country voted for a man with no experience in government, who ran on a platform of fear and nostalgia and who is widely seen as a demagogue. We’ll hear about misogyny, xenophobia, a revolt against the political establishment, the effects of globalization and rapid social change, the culture of celebrity, economic stress, and white anxiety in the face of a browning nation. Resist the urge to explain it to your students; you can’t. Not yet. That’s going to be a job for historians. Tell them you don’t have all the answers, but here are some explanations being offered. Be willing to discuss and explore the possibilities, even if they are ugly or uncomfortable. No one wants to tell a roomful of little girls that maybe the country wasn’t ready for a woman president, but chances are they’ve already figured out that they are treated differently than the boys.
Voting matters, but it doesn’t happen on its own. It takes work to make sure that everyone who is eligible to vote is registered, has knowledge about the process and gets out to vote. Some of us were lucky to have a long list of advantages that make voting matter-of-fact. My parents voted, for instance, so I learned about it early and developed the habit. That’s not true for people whose parents were excluded because of felon disenfranchisement, voter-suppression laws or their status as non-citizens. I have a job that allows me to take as long as I need to vote. That’s not true for hourly workers. I have a car and it’s easy to get to the polling station. Not everyone can say that. Today, we don’t know exactly how voter turnout in 2016 stacked up historically, but it’s clear that lots of people didn’t participate. Talk about that and about the obstacles they face, including apathy, with your students.
Voting matters, but it’s not the only thing that does. Citizens and non-citizens alike have a role in shaping the future of this nation, and they do it in many ways. They serve in the military and on juries. They volunteer in their communities, attend school board meetings and work with others to get things done. In the face of injustice, they organize to bring about change. In the past, for example, women organized and fought for 72 years to get the right to vote. African Americans put their lives in danger to end legal segregation and secure their right to vote. Chicano and Filipino farm workers organized to get paid a living wage and be treated with respect. Today, members of the Standing Rock Sioux nation and their allies are fighting an oil pipeline in North Dakota that threatens their water and land. Black, white and brown Americans are joining together to confront racism under the banner of the Movement for Black Lives. Citizenship is something you do every day, by raising your voice for what you believe in, and sometimes—as those who signed the Declaration of Independence vowed—putting your “life and sacred honor” on the line.
The majority isn’t always right. Majorities famously have little regard for minority rights. The framers of our Constitution feared nothing as much as mob rule and put checks and balances into place to prevent an ill-informed majority or a special interest (they called them factions) from having too much power. In the past, voters have chosen to uphold Jim Crow, to limit marriage for LGBT people and to support one religion over another. Two core American values, the idea of majority rule and the idea of individual rights, often come into conflict. Protecting minority rights is core to who we are as a people.
The majority doesn’t always decide, anyway. At this point, it appears that the winner of the Electoral College didn’t win the popular vote, let alone a majority of the eligible voters—preliminary numbers suggest that 44 percent of those eligible to vote didn’t. The more difficult subject, though, is the Electoral College, a legacy from the Constitutional Convention that was created, along with the infamous three-fifths clause, to privilege slaveholding states. Even though we no longer have slavery, the setup continues to give a decided advantage to less populated rural states. How? The formula for the number of electoral votes a state gets is simple: It’s the number of representatives the state has in the House plus the two Senators each state has. The result is that North Dakota gets one electoral vote for every 224,000 people while California gets about one for every 677,000 people. In the end, both the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College give an advantage—and a louder voice—to lower-population states.
Kids really are our future. No lie. It can sound like a cliché, something adults say that has little real meaning. But it is true. John Dewey argued that humane education of our children, one that ensured equal access and opportunity, was the only way to preserve and advance society. The children in the nation’s public schools are the leading edge of the demographic future: They are poorer, as a group, than the average American. Increasingly more are black and brown. We generally don’t do a great job educating children in poverty and children of color. Can we afford to keep that up?