On Thursday, a student in my third grade class put her hand up and shared that her mother, “who doesn’t drink alcohol,” was “so upset about President Trump winning the election that she had three beers in one night.” The day before, this girl had told the class that her Mom had been up all night shouting at the TV and crying. My student is, understandably, worried about her mother. And she’s worried because the tone of her domestic world, and the tone in the world in general, feels different than it did on Monday. Many of the children in my class seem to be tapping into the deep well of fear and grief within which their parents are churning. Tuesday’s dramatic turn of events has, without a doubt, already begun to impact upon our children.
As part of a non-fiction reading lesson this week, I gave the children a news article from Scholastic about how President Elect Trump was headed to visit President Obama in the White House. The children had highlighters and had to locate and highlight the information that they found most interesting, before responding to the text in their Reader’s Notebook. As I walked around the classroom I noticed that several children were using the highlighters as tools to deface Trump’s photograph. Three children in the class used their markers to write ‘Hate’ above the word Trump in the headline. One child darkened Trump’s face. Yet another wrote ‘Hillary for President’ above the headline; his friend drew an arrow in order to reverse the number of electoral college votes that each candidate had accumulated. Yet another crossed out Trump’s name and replaced it with, simply ‘Hillary.’
Seeing all this graffiti surprised me. The only kind of graffiti I’d previously seen from from my class of self professed rule followers had been drawings of Pokemon characters or Minion stick figures cartoons. What I noticed this week made me feel instinctively that we need to offer our children time and space for them to process the outcome of this election, gently, in whichever ways they need to. Many of them have questions about the voting process, about Trump’s unkind behavior, about his policies, about what happens when Trump becomes the most powerful man in the world.
Our children are smart and already wise in that instinctive, inclusive way that children are. These third graders are our future voters and future leaders, and they have an open-minded and democratic approach to the world. There was nowhere else I wanted to be after the election results came out than with my class — the moral compass that these eight and nine year olds possess is something I find comforting in this age of vulgar headlines and campaign slurs. I glean hope from these little people, as we all should.
The activists in my class are already starting a petition to get rid of the electoral college. The introverts are doodling hate notes to Donald Trump in Crayola markers, brightly across plain pages of paper, during Free Choice Time. The extroverts are having animated conversations at the lunch table about feminism and the glass ceiling. In our Lower School library I noticed an African American girl in my class looking pensively at photos of Michelle and Barack Obama, which had been tacked up by the librarian’s desk. I asked her what she was thinking and she remarked somewhat stoically — ‘I really liked them. I’m sad about Trump being the new president.’
The girls came in on Thursday morning talking about Hillary’s concession speech. They say that Hillary tells them they can achieve anything but that they are confused because she didn’t win; they thought she would. They ask me how a man who says such mean things about women can become a President. I think to myself that these girls are right, and that a President Trump is wrong in so many ways, but I know that this is simply my opinion, and I have to answer more thoughtfully than that. Some of the parents of the children I teach have voted for Trump and some of the children in my class do, then, believe that Trump is a good choice, and that opinion must of course be honored.
It is surely my professional responsibility to guide the children in my care in the direction of grace, kindness and hope, in a non biased way, to encourage polite and respectful discourse about topics that matter, even when I don’t have all the answers, or even any answers at all. Nobody knows what will happen, but I know we can offer comfort and reassurance as we describe the systems that are working to protect us and help us, as we speak of the democracy we live in, as we speak of the good, kind people out there in the world.
Those of us who are grieving need to keep setting the good example, through our words and actions. It’s okay — important, even, to be vulnerable and honest with our children, too. This is a crazy time to be living in this world and as much as we can help our children, they can help us too — they’re writing spontaneous letters of condolence to Hillary Clinton in one moment, and in the next, skipping around the playground arm in arm, laughing — there’s a lesson in that for all of us.