November 9, 2016 was a very difficult day for me as it was for many Americans. As a New Yorker who is accustomed to the hustle and bustle of a sometimes grueling daily commute, I noticed that something was different about it that day. It was smoother than usual with less traffic but once I was in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, the air was unusually quiet. It was as if I had just walked into a large collective funeral and people were in mourning on every corner. Some were openly sobbing while others were simply drifting through their day with the morose undertones of what had happened the night before. The feeling of dread and impending doom that many felt when Donald J. Trump was elected President was sprawled across the faces of many who work and live in Midtown Manhattan, mine included. My own shock and dread over the results of the election was not about me or my pride. I am Democrat who lives in Staten Island which is the reddest borough in New York City. I have voted and campaigned for my share of losing candidates. I was concerned about how I would explain the results of this election to my students.
As a rule, I have never given my students any indication of what my political leanings are as to not unduly influence their thinking on the issues that they should come to their own conclusions on. However, it became clear once I arrived to work that morning that this discussion was unavoidable. Therefore, I had to ask myself: How could I maintain a sense of objectivity in the face of such a tumultuous and consequential election outcome? As a teacher in New York City, I have the privilege of working with the brightest and most diverse students in our country. They come from all races, socio-economic backgrounds, cultures, orientations, and genders. That fact would make explaining the election of Donald J. Trump all the more difficult.
My students had legitimate fears about how this election would impact their lives and futures. Would undocumented students now face an uncertain future in a country they don’t know because of Donald Trump’s vow to “build a wall” and create a mass deportation force? Would LGBT students now grow up in a country where a right-wing Supreme Court has rolled back the rights and progress our community has achieved under the Obama administration? Would students of color now grow up in a country where they’d face continued discrimination at the hands of law enforcement and the criminal justice system? All of these questions and more were levied at me all day by a concerned and frightened student body.
Students of color were concerned that the outcome of this election served as a rejection by their fellow countrymen of who they are and where they come from as Donald Trump has inflamed racial tensions during the campaign in a way that was unprecedented in what is supposed to be a diverse and enlightened society. The confusion and anxiety on their faces worried me as I attempted to assuage their fears. I worked to connect the recent turn of events to matters we had been discussing in class prior to the election. Students were able to make the connection between the economic anxiety many Trump voters and their support of him to other similar moments in history such as the rise of Napoleon in France and other times in history where a strong man type leader promised to alleviate the difficulties faced by the populous of the people who elevate them to power. My students began to understand more clearly the factors that led to the rise of Trump but still felt as though certain people, particularly people of color and LGBT Americans, would be held as scapegoats under a Trump administration for the economic and social anxieties of white working class America.
Throughout the day, I maintained the veneer of objectivity that I have always projected to my students regarding political issues. However, the answer came to me as I was teaching my United States history class about the constitution and the genius of our founding fathers in setting up a system of three branches of government so that no one leader becomes too powerful. It was through explaining to students that we should look for ways within the system to check the powers of our leaders that they realized their own power. As I was explaining the outcome of the election by the numbers projected on my Smartboard projector, students asked what they could do to show opposition to what they saw as extreme policies of the incoming Trump Administration.
Students were reminded that they many of them would be of voting age in two years for the 2018 midterm elections and that they could make their voices heard at the ballot box by electing members of congress, senators, and state officials who could serve as a check on President Trump’s power. The light which had temporarily gone out in their eyes suddenly began to flicker and a glimmer of hope in a difficult situation began to emerge. My students began to realize that they should continue to view diversity as a strength of our country and not an impediment. They also began to realize their role in countering the racism and prejudice that has and will accompany President Trump’s agenda into the White House.
My kids also learned to trust in the American institutions which have sustained our democracy for over 240 years. The most important message that I could send to my students on such a hard day was that the struggle continues no matter what happens or who is president. While their fears are still there and lingering, they are balanced with the knowledge of their power and renewed determination to keep fighting. The words of Kate Mckinnon as Hillary Clinton on this past weekend’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ encapsulated the message I tried to convey to my students perfectly; ”I’m not giving up and neither should you.”