Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Teaching in Trump's America

And let's face it-- we had to face the prospect of a Trumpified America whether he won tonight or not. Now it's just that much more real, more powerful.

And I still have to go to school and teach in it (especially now that my retirement fund is worth about $1.50).

I teach 11th grade English, which means it's my job to teach about American literature and the culture that it reflects. This has always been a challenge, because our history and our culture has never been black or white or even grey-- it's more like a mottled black and white mess, a cascading Jenga mess of yin and yang, a beautiful warm rich loaf of bread with a dead rat baked into one end. Here are our forefathers-- on the one hand, they did these awesome things, and on the other hand, they did these other terrible things.

But this has always been the story for me-- as a nation, we have set out ideals and principles that we can't live up to, at least not yet, but we still try to move in that direction, and over time, we get closer and closer. The arc of the universe, and all that.

I don't know how to talk about this with my students. Hell, I don't know how to talk about the country with my students. I'm not puzzling over a pedagogical choice. It's that my image of us as a nation, my concept of who we are, which has been teetering on the edge for about two years of this endless shitstorm, has finally overbalanced and fallen onto the floor, pieces slamming in every direction.

I want to be able to tell my black students, my brown students, my gay students, my female students that I'm sorry, that this giant F you delivered directly at them is not what this country is, except that, of course, we just elected this guy, and apparently this is what this country is. I've watched the gleeful raised fist, the angry yell, the happy anticipation of telling Those Damned  [fill in the blank with your favorite Other] that they can go straight to hell and we are just going to stick it to them now, you betcha. As I contemplate tomorrow's work day, I have to wonder things like how my coworker who is spending the night at a "Build That Fucking Wall!" party will interact with our co-worker whose husband, the father of her child, whose wedding we all attended, is Hispanic.

This election has stripped us all of so much. While I am generally perceived as liberal or progressive, the fact is that I come from a conservative background and there are many conservative principles that matter to me-- yet I saw the GOP leaders abandon virtually every principle they ever pretended to have. I have been churched most of my life-- heck, spent many years as a church choir director-- and I have been astonished to see Christians jettison beliefs that they have supposedly-- but apparently falsely-- held for ages, just so they can-- I don't know. Win? And the Democrats, my own adopted party (you can't vote in primaries as an independent here) have continued to prove that they get stupider and stupider every time, dropping their principles and constituents so that they, too, can get their hands on big piles of money. I hope that this will finally be enough of a shock to wake them the hell up.

How can it be that there are so few people of principle in American public life? What the hell is wrong with us as a nation?

At long last, does anybody have any shame at all?

Apparently not. Every base undisciplined racist impulse that ever sat beneath the surface of this country is now free and loose, with state governments like the asshats in North Carolina bragging about how they kept black people from voting to all the small-time bigots and fools who now feel free to indulge their worst selves. My nephew's girlfriend, my niece and nephew, and a whole bunch of other people who aren't white can expect to be harassed even more often.

Jesus? Screw him-- better to slap down Those People and put them in their place. Love is for people like me, not Those People, and kindness is only for people that I approve of. That's what He said, right? What better way to re-establish America as a Christian nation than to elect the least Christian man to ever run for office (including that old Jewish guy).

Democracy? Don't need it-- just a Fearless Leader on whose words we can just hang today (and forget tomorrow). Let's face it-- some people just don't deserve to have a say. People with not-quite-white skin. People with vaginas.

Facts? Expertise? Understanding? That's for Those People. Just go with whatever feels good right now.

Yeah, yeah-- I know. I get it. The Democrats utterly failed to present an alternative to Herr Trump. The USA is rife with grievances that are routinely and completely ignored by the Powers That Be. And the USA is also rife with people who don't do their homework and settle for whatever ragesoaked molotov cocktail is tossed into the parlor. Both parties and the thugs who hang on the political scrim, hoping for a slice of fame and fortune-- they've been trying for years to play the game of steering the herd by stampeding it with a steady diet of fear and panic, and they've done a great job. Well, a great job with the panic and fear. Not so great with the steering.

I also get that plenty of reasonably thoughtful and generally decent people held their nose and voted for Der Fuhrer. To you folks, all I can say is that I hope you speak up. I hope you get out your megaphone and holler, "I voted for you because you are the lesser of two evils, but you'd better start being a lot less evil, and soon." I was prepared to be a complete pain in the ass to my candidate if she was elected; I hope you are prepared to do the same. I can live with "lesser of two evil" votes, but you don't get to say, "Well, I made my decision strictly on policy, and I didn't pay any attention to that other stuff" any more than you get to walk past a mugging and say, "Well, that's not my problem."

Trump will be a disappointment to his followers and an embarrassment to the country. Fine. We've been there before. But he's also dangerous and a source of encouragement to dangerous people. This will be the ugliest bully pulpit ever. My America was never perfect when it came to being inclusive, loving, welcoming, supportive, and built on community, but at least it held onto those as ideals. I do not know how to wrap my head around an America that is so open about hatred, aggressive about exclusion, violently and deliberately unkind.

Maybe that's first step. Maybe we get all of our ugliest impulses out in public and are thereby forced to confront them, deal with them. Maybe. I fear there will be a lot of violence, a lot of destruction, a lot of death before we get there.

In the meantime, how I do I do my job in this version of America, where might makes right and abuse is a virtue, where folks have really, truly lost sight of what Jesus had to say, who are not even trying to understand then intent of the framers and founders.

In a weird way, I suppose the last fifteen years have been a sort of warmup, a sort of dress rehearsal of that new show, "How To Keep Teaching When A Top-Down Prescriptive Bureaucracy Is Trying To Force You To Commit Malpractice." We're teachers, and many of us already know how to defy authority. Maybe we were getting ready for this.

And of course for some folks, literally nothing has changed at all. There is no new ugliness-- just the same old ugliness without a pretty mask or snappy suit. Just ugly and vicious like always, but now naked of any pretense. We can probably learn some lessons from those folks.

To my Trump-voting friends and associates, I'm not mad-- well, yeah, actually, I am pretty pissed at you right this moment, but it will probably pass. But please-- when it turns out he's lied to you about, well, everything, do not expect me to sympathize. Over the next four years I will have ample opportunity to say I told you so, and it's unlikely that I'll hold my tongue. But at the moment, my anger does not run as deep as my heartbreak (which, as I said, has been grinding away for the last two years) and loss and confusion, because I just don't know what country I live in any more. I don't know what this country stands for. I don't know what we value as a nation or a culture.

I don't know how to teach my students about us. I don't know how to prepare them to go out into this new, uglier America.

The next days are going to be awful, ugly, just plain bad. Keep your heads down, brothers and sisters. Watch out for each other, and cast an eye toward the future. I don't know who we are any more, but we have to be better than this.


  1. I could have written this column. You've expressed my thoughts exactly and your background seems to be a lot like mine.

    Right now, I'm so glad I get to go to work and teach physics tomorrow instead of practically anything else. Gravity, force and mass will all still make as much sense now as before. I don't know how humanities teachers can go on.

  2. I was thinking the same thing about teaching first grade. Life will go on in the classroom, so I'm good until 3:00. After that, I don't know.

  3. Misery loves company. Props from the Left Coast, where weed is now legal. haven't had any since sophomore year of college, but this might be the perfect time to get "nostalgic." If teachers were vilified under Obama, I can't imagine what will happen under He Whose name Shall Not Be Mentioned. Stay strong, comrades.

  4. I'm right there with you. Courage is a concept that derives its meaning from times like these. Children must see their adults standing up for them, and for the right thing. That's what we gotta do now.

  5. As always, you have stated so much of how I feel & think about this, and have done it so much more eloquently than any of my sputtering would ever be. Thank you so much.

  6. I especially appreciate your critique of the Church. Thank you.

  7. It is an absolute relief to be retired and not responsible for helping 150 or so young people figure out what the hell our future looks like and how to stay safe through the next days and the next four years.

    One of our local principals sent home this letter to families today:

    Christine Langhoff

  8. So grateful you are a teacher. ❤️

  9. Thank you for this, Peter. You put into words my feelings.

  10. I wish you all well. As the media and pollsters got this all wrong, maybe each of us are as wrong with our own future-telling.


  11. I'm just afraid this is the calm before the storm. We might be in for much more heartbreak in the near future.

    I'm still waiting for my stomach to settle down but when I start thinking about Trump's possible Cabinet Appointees, the idea of Newt as Secretary of State causes me to hyperventilate

  12. At the risk of calling down the righteous wrath of people left of Trump (where exactly he stands on the political spectrum might be less obvious than it seems, by the way), wouldn't it make sense to wait until he actually does something that deserves opposition and criticism as POTUS before "telling students" what to think about his presidency? Or are we like the GOP and media douchebags who already had started attacking Bill Clinton and Barack Obama before Inauguration Day?

    I don't like Trump. I sure as hell didn't vote for him. But I didn't vote for Hillary Clinton or any of the official 3rd party candidates. I did vote. I can't help but feel that we might just have dodged a nuclear bullet, even if that wasn't what concerned/motivated the majority of those who voted for him. We might just not spend the next 4-8 years baiting and threatening Russia. That could be a good thing. I have little hope that he'll get us out of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, but he might not be eager to send Americans to die in the Ukraine. Or the China Sea. I give him the benefit of the doubt. And I certainly am not mourning before there's a reason to do so. My students have heard nothing from me on this election, before or after Nov. 8th. If Trump starts doing things that offend my sense of social justice (or even if he doesn't), I expect to have things in my math lessons that challenge students' assumptions about their country and the way the world works. But not to proselytize for or against a particular candidate, office-holder, or party. That's propaganda. Which has no place in a classroom other than as an object of analysis and debunking.

  13. Michael Goldenberg, I understand your not wanting people to attack before Inauguration Day. But the primary basis of Peter's anger and heartbreak is based on what has already happened -- what has already been said and done by the president-elect. I, like Peter, no longer no what country I live in or what it stands for. The intolerance and downright hatred demonstrated during the election cycle shame me to my core.

  14. Peter, you're certainly not alone in your concerns as a teacher. I interviewed 3 thoughtful educators yesterday about how teachers can reassure children. You'll find the episode here:

  15. Updating the link on that episode, Peter. There was a technology glitch (shocking, I know). Here's the new one:

  16. The Stafford poem that has served to center discussion in my classroom as we confront a post 9 November world:

    A Ritual to Read to Each Other

    If you don't know the kind of person I am
    and I don't know the kind of person you are
    a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
    and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

    For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
    a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
    sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
    storming out to play through the broken dyke.

    And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
    but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
    I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
    to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

    And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
    a remote important region in all who talk:
    though we could fool each other, we should consider—
    lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

    For it is important that awake people be awake,
    or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
    the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
    should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

    —William Stafford