Tuesday night, as the tallies tipped toward Donald Trump for president, one of my colleagues tweeted, “About to scrap my lesson plans for tomorrow. Resource ideas for how to discuss a GOP win with minority students?” All night, my mind raced to find an appropriate response.
Wednesday morning, as dreary teenagers filed into my choir classroom, I was still scrambling to repeal and replace my previously planned lesson. Would my ambitious, brilliant, predominantly black and Hispanic students find catharsis in singing? Or would they first require a safe space to discuss their reactions to the election? I decided on the latter.
What I heard was profound and implacable fear.
Hispanic students wept as they described a real and paralyzing fear of deportation. An 18-year-old girl who had moved to the United States from Mexico 17 years ago said, “I am scared of being sent to Mexico, a country that feels completely foreign to me.” Her voice quivered, “my dad has worked six days a week between two jobs for my entire life to give me better opportunities. I think of myself as an American. We have been trying for years to gain citizenship, but it’s so slow.”
A distraught 9th-grader: “My dad is a citizen, but my mom is from Guatemala. My dad doesn’t make enough money for us to afford to visit her if she is deported.”
A black 12th-grader reconsidered her college decisions: “I had been looking at HBCUs [Historic Black Colleges and Universities] in the South, but I don’t know if I could live in a state where there is so much hatred for people who look like me.” There was a sense of shared concern in the room. Other students pondered whether scholarships and Pell Grants would continue to be available.
One of my students ― a precocious 13-year-old ― felt that her dark skin and hijab have increasingly made her a target for hatred. The pain in her face tore at me as she recollected a recent encounter with a stranger who yelled, “Go back where you came from!”
As a teacher in a high-achieving, low-income, predominantly minority school in Chicago, I am devastated to witness America’s hard-fought ideals of pluralism and tolerance become so tarnished.
That being said, I think we must move forward with a commitment to repair our nation’s moral fabric. Teachers must redouble our efforts to inculcate empathy and compassion. Schools must give young people of color the skills, knowledge, and credentials that unlock political and economic power. Government and business must invest in blighted communities, wherever they exist. We must all challenge the structures that underlie the ever-expanding economic inequality.
My students’ intelligent, articulate discourse on Wednesday embodied resilience and hope. They debated the merits of casting a 3rd-party vote; they argued about the limits of presidential power and the nature of checks and balances when all three branches lean red. One 12th-grade girl told her tearful peers, “I love you and am here for you.” Later in the day, a characteristically ebullient 11th-grade student in my beginning men’s chorus exclaimed, “We need to get all the choir students together and go out and sing together. We need to make people really feel something, to sing something really powerful.”
He’s right. More than ever, we need young people from different walks of life to sing together. We need to break through the veneer of identity politics and find our shared humanity. This must be the determined focus of teachers everywhere. And it is the standard to which we must hold our new political leaders.
Casey Fuess is a choral music teacher at Lindblom Math & Science Academy and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum.
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