The difference between Tuesday at school and Wednesday at school was incredible and heartbreaking.
On Tuesday, I had kids in my classroom. They were worried about their crushes, the quiz on Friday, what their clothes look like.
On Wednesday, no one joked. No one smiled. No one laughed. Some cried. Many expressed their fears. Some expressed frustration that “people were stupid enough to think this wouldn’t happen. Of course it was going to happen.”
I teach 10th grade, so my students are 15 or 16 years old. I get that this is an appropriate age for them to start really reflecting on the world. I get that at some point they need to really internalize that there are bigger issues in the world than their smartphones and friends. But it was tough to see it happen this way.
I am a white, cis-gendered, able bodied, straight woman who is gainfully employed. I get to walk around this country and feel safe. I have reasonable belief that if I were in trouble, people would come save me. Many of my students don’t feel that way. Before you read what they said, please keep this in mind: Unless you live in their skin, unless you have experienced what they have experienced, day in and day out, you DO NOT get to tell them how to feel. Their feelings are valid. Their feelings are real. They are entitled to their feelings and none of us get to pass judgment on them. I am infuriated by people insisting we should all just calm down. You can call for unity. You can call people to productive action. I believe in those things, too. But it is neither okay nor healthy to tell people their feelings are invalid. It is not okay to say they shouldn’t have them or that they need to get over them and move on right now.
Here are some of the things my students told me on Wednesday. (Note, all are paraphrased from notes I took after each class.)
-I can’t believe we elected a racist, homophobic, misogynist.
-How could people vote for him? He hates me.
-I have no place in this country. This country is my home and all I have ever known.
-I’m worried about my family. My family says it has to split up.
-We have a president who sexually assaults women, so… that’s great.
-Don’t you know this country? He’s a white man. He can do anything he wants and hire a lawyer while black people go to jail.
-I don’t know where I will be safe.
-I’m afraid for my safety.
-I’m worried about what will happen to me.
-I can’t believe that sexual assault is now okay.
-I don’t feel safe.
-I don’t feel safe.
-I don’t feel safe.
I’m really struggling to strike a balance between listening to their fears and giving them hope. I have to validate the feelings my students have, because their feelings are valid. I have told them that I, and many others, love them. I have assured them that half the country did not vote for Trump. I have declared my room a safe place and offered to talk with any of them whenever they need or want to. I want to tell them it will be okay, that they are safe, that they can be kids, but as I have read report after report on twitter of minorities being aggressively confronted by now emboldened Trump supporters, I can’t look them in the eye and promise it will be okay.
I have listened to several people say that this is just the pendulum of politics. It swings blue, then it swings red, and then back again. I get that. But what I think those people do not understand is that Trump’s election has given permission to some people to let loose their bigotry. They are empowered to voice their hate. Certainly, not every Trump supporter has done this. I refuse to believe half this country is terrible. It is maybe even only a small percentage that would ever consider taking action with such hate. But my students don’t need to feel threatened by half of America to feel unsafe. They just need to know that there is someone out there who wishes them harm. Someone out there who has confronted or harmed someone like them. If that one person finds them, their safety is gone. And the reality is, it’s not just one person. My students have access to social media and read the stories of aggressive confrontations. White people telling minorities to leave. Telling them they aren’t safe. Glorying in the freedom this election has provided to voice their vile racism. My students do not know which face on the street might turn on them. If half of America voted for Trump, it could be anyone. Think about how unsafe you would (perhaps do) feel in their shoes.
This is not just another election. Open season has been declared for racism and hatred. I and so many others are fighting back as hard as we can with love, understanding, and compassion. While I have read terrible stories, I have also read stories that give me hope.
Trump said in his acceptance speech, “Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division; have to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people.” If he means that, he needs to stand up and publicly, immediately, and definitively disavow his supporters that are spewing hate. He needs to name it and say we will never heal division if those acts are allowed. He has not done that. I am wearily unsurprised, although I will continue asking for it.
I can’t end on such a disheartening note, so I will share this, because it is from students who are pushing back to welcome and love each other.
I look forward to seeing more of this kind of grace and love pouring out of this country. We need it.