“When you get confused, get curious” — and other thoughts from the post-election classroom.

One of my students didn’t come to school on Wednesday, because she started having a panic attack while the election results came in the night before. She didn’t sleep at all. Her mother wrote to me at 8:30AM to tell me so. My student is Muslim, and she is legitimately scared about the ramifications of a Trump presidency. At the age of 12, she has already experienced cruelty and hatred. Her older sister was threatened with violence at her high school. When we discussed 9/11 earlier this semester, she broke down in tears. “The most important part of our religion is love, not hate. I want everyone to know that,” she said, between sobs.

This afternoon, I wrote to one of my graduate students about work that needed revisions, and he responded that he had just been released from the hospital from wounds sustained from police brutality.

I do not recognize my country.

The first opportunity I had to speak with my students after the election, I began with acknowledging the pivotal moment of our times. “Whatever your opinions about the results, we know that this is an important time in history. We also know that the nation is deeply divided.” I explained briefly the nature of the electoral college, and acknowledged that since we live in California, we live in a “blue state.” I told them that this means most people they know probably voted for Hillary Clinton, but that not everyone did. People who supported Clinton were probably shocked, and disappointed. People who supported Trump may have been feeling alienated by the angry comments and feelings that others had.

“So,” I said after this introduction, “I wanted to provide a space for people to express their feelings about the election, if you want to, and we will listen.”

Many hands shot up. After each student shared their feelings — happy, confused, shocked, angry, scared, divided — I would ask students if they could relate. There was not a single emotion that was expressed that was alone. As the conversation deepened, we created more and more connections between each other.

One of my male students had a difficult time connecting to his emotions. I could hear the heat beneath the conviction of his comment judging the people rioting, and saying that people just need to accept the newly nominated candidate. I said, “I want to push you. Those are opinions, not feelings. Beneath all that information, what do you feel?” And he said, “I guess I feel confused.”

I asked, “Does anyone else feel confused?” and where one second before, he had been alienating himself from other students who disagreed with the opinions he espoused, instantly, eight or nine students raised their hands — including the hand of the girl who had had a panic attack the night before.

After many students had shared, they asked me, “What do you feel, Ms. Kay?” And, a bit surprised, I said, “I think I feel everything in this room.” I felt so intrigued by this. I had been wrestling with my own complicated emotions about the results of the election, but I realized that it was completely true that I could relate to everything that my students expressed. I continued, “But there is one thing I feel that no one has said yet: I feel fiery. I can see that there is more work to be done, and I need to do more. Our nation needs more. And I wonder what direction that will take me.”

We talked about our feelings about the election for about forty minutes. As we wrapped up our discussion, a student who felt happy about Trump’s nomination said that she felt confused by why other people were so scared.

In response, I said to her, “When you get confused, get curious. The answers are in this room. But you have to ask people about their viewpoints to understand, not to try to change their minds.” I told them that I’d read books, and listened to podcasts, and had tried to understand the way everyone is feeling, and that this too was something that they could do. But before we look to books and podcasts, it might be good to talk to each other. We just have to get curious, and listen.

On my way home from school that day, I listened to this week’s On Being podcast, where Krista Tippett had returned us to a conversation she had with the late Vincent Harding, which she entitled, “Is America Possible?” She’d had this conversation with him two years ago, but his words spoke directly to the experience that I’d had that afternoon. Harding reminded us:

“When it comes to creating a multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious, democratic society, we are still a developing nation. We’ve only been really thinking about this for about half a century. But my own deep, deep conviction is that the knowledge, like all knowledge, is available to us if we seek it.
The older I get, the more I am convinced that that magnificent madman, Jesus, was really talking about something very truthful and powerful when he said if you allow yourself to really hunger and thirst after the right way, then if you will not back off from that hunger and that thirst, if you will just keep after it, then you will find the way. You will be filled. The way will find you. I think that that determination to find a truly democratic society and to create the truly beloved community, those are things that can be available to us if we’re willing to work with each other and work with the universe on developing them. They don’t come free and easy. They are tough, tough tasks for us to take on.”

The anxiety of my generation is that whatever task we take on, it is never enough. But this is where I am, where I find myself: a Humanities teacher in a 7th grade classroom, teaching about the election, and finding space to cultivate connections between diverse perspectives. It’s not a lot, but it’s something, and something more than nothing is a good place to begin.

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