Early November usually looms with promise for me. At school, we end our first term with a lovely three-day weekend (for grading, admittedly) and the promise of a new term chock-full of exciting topics and the bonus of time to rest and plan ahead during the holiday breaks. This year, I was more excited than ever. I was confident that after all the stress of the election cycle, things were going to turn out well. I was certain that Hillary was going to win the election and become our first female president.
This past week flashed me back two years to another November. That year, it wasn’t an election that overshadowed everything. In St. Louis, the bigger question on everyone’s mind was how the grand jury would turn out. Would police officer Darren Wilson be charged in the death of Michael Brown the August before? In St. Louis, this was a Big Deal (and still is).
On a Monday night in late November, the grand jury decided there would be no charges.
As you probably know, the decision rocked the city and made clear the racial divisions that persist not only in St. Louis, but in the nation as a whole.
I went to school the next morning with absolutely no clue what to do next. I’m not sure any of us knew what to do, to be honest. I remember a faculty meeting that morning; I remember walking away with the impression that we should do our best and that there would be support for students. There was probably much more to it, but I remember trying not to cry and trying to figure out what I should do.
I had never encountered this scenario in my teaching career. I was totally lost, and I believe that on that day, I failed my students.
I’ll never forget how I failed to rise to the challenge to help my students understand what was going on around us. I still don’t know how you prepare teachers to handle such major events. I’m a history teacher, for crying out loud, and I should be on the front lines of helping my students make sense of current events, particularly when they have such resonance to my students’ lives. I felt totally lost and unsure of myself that day.
I crave knowledge and understanding and the space to process things – none of which I felt I had. I remember feeling repeatedly that if I could only be a year out and addressing the grand jury verdict with information on all sides, and perspective; to really feel that I understood facts and to be able to tell when people were getting rumors and false information and to help them get at the truth – if I could help them get at the truth and filter out the rest, then I felt I could do things the right way.
I wanted all of that so badly that my response was to do nothing.
When my students walked into class that day, I think I admitted I wasn’t sure what to do, so I’d thought of – I don’t know, a documentary of some kind? I don’t remember what I chose to try to fill in for my inabilities to teach that day.
I started the film. It went for one minute, maybe two, before I noticed a few kids who were clearly uncomfortable with business as usual, even as I began to recognize I was uncomfortable as well, and realizing how stupid I had been to say and do nothing.
I am a teacher. I am an educator. Even if I don’t know the answers, I have an obligation to provide a safe space and a listening ear. I have an obligation to be honest with them when I don’t know the answers. Sometimes, we don’t have the answers and we don’t know what to do, but anyone can offer those things.
Class got better that day, but not because I suddenly knew the answers and magically helped my students make sense of racism and oppression in their community. Class got better because of several incredible students who spoke up, who refused to sit by and say nothing, who were patient with their classmates and tried with all they had to explain why this decision was such a powerful one in their lives.
I failed; these students did not.
Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
To learn what to be
— “Children will Listen,” Into the Woods
I hope I failed less this time around. All I can tell you right now is that last week was one of the hardest weeks I’ve experienced as a teacher. November 2014 gave me some experience with teaching in difficult moments, but I still don’t feel any better equipped. Maybe it’s because I feel so at a loss myself.
I went to bed Tuesday night in tears, yelling historical correctives at some TV commentator who had their election history wrong about the continuation of a political party past two terms in the White House. I woke up at 3am Wednesday morning and couldn’t sleep. My Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of shock and sadness and anger from amazing people from all parts of this country.
I had no idea how I would face a day full of talking to high school students. I wanted to cry, and I did – many times that day. I cried in front of advisees and colleagues and while sitting in an assembly hall full of students.
Maybe you don’t understand that; maybe you do.
Here’s what I know: this week, my colleagues and I encountered students who are fearful of the years ahead, and uncertain what to do next. Objectively, they and we understand that many if not most people who voted for Trump did so for economic reasons or other reasons that do not include personally identifying with or supporting racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Students worry about what happens if the president-elect follows through on campaign promises, and what happens if some Americans take the president-elect’s inflammatory campaign speech as carte blanche to behave however they like. The fear is real, and deserves support and empathy.
Here’s what I know: in the aftermath of the election, we have seen story after story of racist, sexist, and xenophobic ideas being propagated by children and teens and adults. I know people who have encountered such unacceptable behavior in their own lives.
It is important for all Americans – every single one – to stand up against such hate and to stop being bystanders. This is the world we live in at this moment, even if many Americans view such actions as unintended consequences. If we ignore the fear our fellow citizens have and refuse to empathize and listen, or, even worse, if we ignore the hateful words, writing, and actions of others, then we have all failed as Americans.
“Sometimes a spell may last
Beyond what you can see
Sometimes a spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you.”
“Careful the tale you tell
That is the spell
Children will listen.”
Two years ago, I failed my kids. This year, I hope I got more things right. I hope this time around I helped offer the support and hope and encouragement they need to move forward, to help make the change they want to see to make this nation a better place. Maybe I did little more than try to reassure myself and try to move forward, too, but I tried.
Time will tell.