America’s teachers showed up to school on Wednesday morning just like they do every school day. They did their best to help their students make sense of the events of the previous evening.
In many classrooms teachers had to ease the worry of children who feared the backlash against tolerance, acceptance and understanding, and for misogyny, bigotry, and xenophobia. They used the election, as teachers have used elections for decades, as a teaching moment…to explain how our nation’s version of democracy works…to focus on the obligations of citizenship…and to highlight the diversity that strengthens, and divides, the nation.
Like many others, history teacher Jim Cullen approached his Wednesday classes thinking about his response.
…necessity requires me to put aside my own unease and confusion as I try to help adolescents process an event that is necessarily unprecedented for them…
My role is to help them feel better as a matter of trying to alleviate despair, anxiety or indignation, but also to feel better in the sense of thinking more clearly, to bring their hearts and their heads into greater alignment…
Bringing hearts and heads into alignment is an often unconscious goal for many teachers. Below is an exchange between a retired teacher friend of mine and a former student (now adult) about the election. In her response, the teacher uses yet another former student’s letter about the election. Both students express in their own way, how they have, as they have grown, aligned their hearts and heads. Both students have learned what every teacher hopes to instill in their students: Life is a series of learning experiences.
[Note: I have edited all three letters for brevity and clarity, and to remove identifying information.]
…I have thought a lot about you this election season. Believe it or not, the unit we did on the election between Dukakis and Bush nearly 30 years ago taught me much and I wanted to thank you so very, very much. If not for you, I may have continued basing political views on just abortion. I’ll never forget the day that you turned to me and said, “He’s not FOR abortion. No one is FOR abortion!” I finally thought to myself, “she’s right! Baby murderers wouldn’t be wandering around the countryside. What the heck is this really about?” My parents had gone through such a bad spot when my sister had died 2 years before, abortion and euthanasia was all they ever discussed as far as politics during that time in my life. Thanks to you, my eyes were opened. Trade deals, global warming, social security, etc. – I had no idea those things even existed. I have made it my goal in life to learn as much as possible about issues and never accept the easy and emotional answers.
My family eventually healed and after we moved north…I started meeting friends from all over the world and expanding my views…
Today was painful for me, like many Americans. One of my best friends is Syrian and her family is stuck back there. She is terrified that even though she is an ICU doctor at a major university, she is going to be deported. Today I comforted a mother who was terrified that if Obamacare is repealed, her 4-year old son with leukemia will never qualify for insurance again. One of my students asked for permission to leave early so that she could go marry her girlfriend because she is afraid she will lose that right. I’m lucky – I’m an upper, middle class white woman with a doctorate. [The results of this election] will not have much impact to my life. But thanks to the seed that you planted nearly 30 years ago, I can see how devastating this was for others…thanks for teaching me a big part of what has made me who I am!
…Thank you so much for writing.
I tried to keep my own political views to myself when I was teaching, especially the election units. It seemed important to present things and let you students do your own thinking. But it pleases me no end to see that you took what we did and became a person with not just a strong mind but also with a big and good and loving heart.
I am trying not to panic or to prophesy. I have lived through many disappointing elections and this feeling, while deeper this time, is familiar. People talk trash during a campaign and while it sets a tone, their promises aren’t easy to keep. I do believe in the power of our Constitution and its checks and balances. I do believe that there are plenty of good people in Congress who will not just sit there and let everything fall apart. He (can’t say his name yet) passed the first test with his victory speech. That wasn’t at all like the ugly campaign talk. It was rather…Presidential.
My heart goes out to the people you talk about in your last paragraph…the Syrian doctor, parents of sick kids and also kids with disabilities, gay people. I am hoping and praying that these fears stay only that – fears but nothing more.
[Another former student] wrote something yesterday that helped me. Here is what she said…
I have mulled over my thoughts and feelings all day, and while I feel political posts are kind of just white noise at this point, I feel I must say my piece (perhaps if only for a little bit of peace for myself.) No group is ever made stronger by division and there are lessons to be learned in every situation. Yes, I voted for Hillary, this is no big surprise, but I am coming to terms with the Presidential race outcome and starting to open my heart and mind to what can be learned. I think that what we can learn is that we have a long way to go as a country. I think if HRC had won, it would have eased our “liberal minds” to think that change is upon us, but now, the tolerance of intolerance that America feels has light shed fully upon it.
When I think about those who voted for Trump, I have been digging deep to understand how so many people that I know and love, work alongside, and get along with, could look the other way at such a blatant display of negativity towards women, both in action and words, minorities, poor people, the LGBT community, immigrants, and on and on… and it is hard not to take it personally. You have to get to the core of WHY a compassionate, caring person could look the other way and choose someone like Trump as a representative for them, for their country. And the core issue that I have heard time and again is something I can whole-heartedly agree with – change in the political arena…desperate times call for desperate measures. Those that chose to vote for Trump are just so disenchanted with the way politics are run in this country, they were willing to overlook the other issues with him as a candidate.
And I get it, in a big way, I get it…I understand the desire for some change, some big change. And I am going to try to keep an open mind, as HRC and President Obama have encouraged. I am looking for silver linings and I am going to revel in the opportunity to talk about changing what we are tolerant of, to think about what ugliness has surfaced and to have respectful discussions with people about this topic. I am not naive enough to think that there weren’t some people who did in fact vote for Trump BECAUSE of his racism and misogyny. And it’s time we deal with this elephant in the room, bring it to the surface, because that is the only way we will ever weed it out for good.
…So, while the outcome was not what I wanted, perhaps it was actually what we needed as a country to grow and learn. Don’t threaten to move away from the country if the outcome isn’t what you wanted…threaten to stay and make a change. For now, I will try to continue to spread love, and compassion, and a thirst to understand my fellow man without judgment. I think we are all a lot closer the middle ground than we think we are and it is time we stop letting the media divide us with fear and finger pointing, and portray all politics as “us vs. them”. It is time that we engage in more civil discourse to try to compromise and learn. I love people for their differences as well as their similarities. Life would be boring if we all held the same beliefs, so I want to embrace differences while working towards kindness. Always working towards more kindness…
With former students like you two, didn’t I have the best job in the world? You are such a dear. We can do this. Thank you.