A field trip to Washington, D.C., for the presidential inauguration is certainly a real-life civics lesson in the American tradition of the peaceful and elaborate transfer of power from the current leader of the free world to the next.
Students at Alcott Elementary School are excited about what awaits them, writing, as instructed, their hopes on their desktops: Taking part in history! The passing of power! The White House! A ball for kids!
“I am most looking forward to see Donald Trump get inaugurated,” wrote Noah Adams, ”because I think it will be cool to see history in the making. I also can’t wait to see the Washington Monument.”
Rene Mejias got as far as, “I’m looking forward to seeing the new president at his inauguration” when social studies teacher Jenny Vincent stepped in.
“Which president?” she prompted, guiding 8th graders to spell out what most excites them about Wednesday’s trip for the inauguration. “Right now the president is Obama. Trump is president-elect and he won’t be president until noon on Friday.”
But what already has become clear to the lucky 7th and 8th graders — and to Vincent who led such a trip four years ago — is how this particular inauguration also must teach a lesson in civility.
Already at 13 and 14, the students noticed how polarized voters were, and how rough this campaign was — the name-calling, punches thrown at rallies, language uttered by the ultimate winner who took the electoral college while trailing in the popular vote by nearly three million ballots.
“In 2012, a lot of the opinions were very respectful,” said Brantley Lisac, who was a fourth grader then, “but in this election, a lot of disrespectful things were said that offended almost everyone in America and a lot of people were shocked Donald Trump got this far.”
Already, despite knowing each other for years, the students are divided between those who cheered Trump’s win and those who absolutely did not, between the ones who cannot believe they’ll see the 45th president himself in person on Friday and the ones who prefer to focus on the pageantry of the ceremony.
“I know people going in our grade, we have different opinions,” Sunshine Solin said. “So I’m scared little fights will break out between us while we’re at the inauguration.”
“How do we stop it from getting to that point?” Vincent asked. Hands shot up.
”It’s really bipolar politics,” Noah started. (“Bipartisan,” Vincent nudged.) “Bipartisan,” he continued, “so you could just not really bring it up.”
Izzy Santiago suggested, “If we’re all just mature and respect each other’s opinions, and not say anything then it’s fine.”
“Whenever you debate, you just get more invested in your own opinion than in someone else’s,” Carly Freeman suggested, “So either respectfully agree or respectfully disagree.”
Vincent finagled roughly 40 tickets from the school’s congressman, U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, who came through for Alcott as he did in 2012, when Chicago’s own Barack Obama began his second term.
Quigley turned up for a special assembly to talk about witnessing a “cornerstone of the democratic process.” He didn’t disguise his own disappointment in the victory of the Republican businessman whose first-ever elected office will be the country’s highest. But he advised the students why they should listen closely to the new president’s speech.
“This is on you,” Quigley told them. “The president-elect says climate change is a hoax. What will he say in the inaugural, will he soften on that point? The real bad news is going to come after the time when I’m gone. It’s going to unfold in your lifetime.”
With demand for tickets low since election day, Quigley reserved the kids choice spots in front of the Lincoln Memorial’s iconic reflecting pool, from which they should actually be able to see the ceremony, along with hundreds of thousands of fellow Americans.
Those same crowds also concern the kids, who are prepared for protesters and demonstrations, and hoping any vitriol won’t be headed their way.
“A lot of adults, they’re like very cautious about using foul language around kids our ages,” Alex Davis said. “So I think if if you remind them, ‘We’re still like 8th graders here, we’re not their age. So just tone it down.’ I think that might help.”
Their teacher is optimistic, assuring them that she wouldn’t otherwise take them.
“I don’t want to you feed into that panic and that fear, because this is such an important thing and because it is truly the transfer of power and it is one of those gifts that we have being American and being democratic,” Vincent told the kids. “And we’ll take care of it. Your jobs are to be there, to experience it and to see this as a catalyst to be the change-makers that you all are.”