It is November 9, 2016, or, as someone said earlier today, 11/9 instead of 9/11. It is first hour. I have been trying to write a personal essay about teaching all week. I have deleted it. I am starting over today because we are all starting over today.
I hate to oversimplify the 2016 election results, so I’ll try to stay away from sharing my own analyses of what just happened. But as I mulled over how to start my classes this morning—and I mean this as hyperbole-free as what I’m about to say can be—I just kept coming back to how I taught on September 12, 2001.
I kept on, just like you kept on, like we all kept on. We continued, one foot in front of the other, and we supported each other. But on 9/12, we were afraid of an attack from without. Today, it feels like we have been attacked from within. How do I keep on? I teach at the high school level. I teach close reading and critical thinking, two skills that too many in the electorate just did not use. Or, worse yet, if they did think deeply, they still cast a vote for a more racist, misogynist, isolationist America.
How do I teach my students today? Step one is the same as I did on 9/12. I invite them to write and talk about their emotions. Today, some are feeling joy; several of them are confused; and many are feeling worry or even abject fear. I invite them to explain what they are feeling, and to provide specific examples, as always, to show what they mean.
That’s today, but how do I go forward tomorrow? I don’t know. After asking my students to put their emotions into words, how do I return to teaching argumentation instead of mere persuasion? How do I help them engage in the empathy of literature? How do I maintain the open, comfortable atmosphere my classrooms usually have? How will we know if we’re getting better tomorrow?
It will be hard to tell. What matters most doesn’t show by normal academic measurements. My students have gotten solid grades, by and large. Most have received excellent test scores and gone on to college. But those grades and scores cannot capture morals, and critical thinking rarely (ever?) fits into a multiple choice question, leaving our most vital skill unreflected in scores. Grades cannot capture a citizen’s ability to reason for the good of the nation, but elections can. The electorate just took a standardized test on racism and sexism, and half of our nation aced it. Interpret that sentence how you will.
One of my students has sought me out several times this fall because she keeps getting bullied for supporting Clinton. She has been mocked repeatedly by another student for believing in equal rights, essentially for believing in the opening words to our Declaration of Independence. This morning, she told me, “I am afraid to be a woman with a different opinion, the opinion of love and acceptance, in my school and my country.” What do I do with that, America? What do we do with that, America?
And she isn’t the only one. Other students have come forward, asking for advice on what to do when they feel persecuted for believing in basic decency. You like to blame schools for social ills, America. You do it often. This one, I assure you, is not on us. You like to tell schools what to do, America, so go ahead. Tell me how to help my students today. Tomorrow. A generation from now. I’m open to suggestions because right now, I don’t understand you, but it is my job to help you, America.
I will believe in the Declaration of Independence forever, even if that ends up making me a member of some Resistance, a freedom fighter for logic and love. I do believe that equality is self-evident, that we all have unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I know that literacy is a key to a future that embodies that great American ideal, and I will continue teaching and living based on the the Declaration’s vision of equality. I’ll continue on, hoping that my cynicism is a shield and not me being perceptive. I’ll continue on because I love my country’s ideals, because I love my own children and want a better future for them, and because I love my students, who also need a better future even if their current privileged lens doesn’t let them see that.
I will continue because of love.
But damned if we didn’t just flunk a test, America.