I knew I needed a game plan for connecting with my students on the day after the most divisive election in modern history. But because I was paying so much attention to the polls, I had prepared only for a Hillary Clinton victory.
I had planned to start each class by asking my students to reach beyond partisan differences and think about what a Clinton victory would mean to the countless women who have faced gender discrimination, and to a country that took so long to give women equal rights. Focus on the history being made, I told myself, and find a way to make it about all of us.
But then, as we all well know, Hillary Clinton did not win. And so my school day began with a jittery, nervous vibe in the hallways. And by third period, I was looking into the eyes of students who were bawling in the back of the classroom, fear stretched across their faces. These girls viewed a Trump victory as a violation of sorts, and they were terrified. This scene would repeat itself at different times throughout the day, and of course not just in my classroom.
So what to do? In private conversations, I spoke honestly. “I’m afraid too,” I told them. “But we’re going to be afraid together. I’m here for you.” I shared my political stance with these students because they needed to know that they were not alone. But at the same time, I did not tell them “It’s all going to be OK,” because I did not feel confident in that myself. Yet, I could – and did – tell them that we have one another, no matter what goes on in this world.
Later in the day, I began teaching more of the students who had told me they supported Donald Trump. I had helped some of them write persuasive essays about why they supported Trump. One student had written about the news media’s failure to recognize the importance of the issues Trump stood for, and we talked on Wednesday about how accurate his viewpoint had turned out to be.
I also cautioned these students not to treat the Trump victory as though their favorite team had just won the World Series or Super Bowl. I had seen other students doing that earlier in the day, and it reminded me of the way I had behaved when my preferred candidates won during my middle and high school years. But we all could see how deeply many students were impacted by this election; it was no time to gloat. I also encouraged the students who had supported Trump to turn their talk to the issues at hand. After all, when your candidate wins, that’s when the real work starts. What will he do, and what do you expect from him? They nodded at my advice, and got back to their schoolwork.
By the end of the day, I was truly exhausted, and was looking forward to heading out to the gym. But in my last period class, I had another student crying uncontrollably, and as we stood in the hallway I gave her a hug, and listened to her fears. After school, another student sat down to talk with me about a school matter, but then broke down. She said to me, “I’m gay, and I’m afraid of what he might do.” I listened, told her we’d walk through this together, and gave her a hug as well.
There are challenging days in the classroom, but this one was near the top. I tried, throughout it all, to heed my first instinct as a teacher – to be present for all my students, no matter who they are, what they believe in, or who they would vote for were they 18. I saw it all on this day, and it spoke volumes about the fragile state of our nation right now.