I teach creative writing an hour south of here, at Sweet Briar College, a small women’s school in the sticks, basically. My little bungalow in Charlottesville is a block from a park, and from the park is an unobstructed view of Monticello mountain. I live—truly—in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson. On the electoral maps splashed across television screens on Election Night, Charlottesville and its surrounding county were that random blue speck you saw in the middle of Virginia. Sweet Briar, however, is south of that blue island, well into the red ocean in which many of us feel we are now drowning, casting about for driftwood to bind together into working lifeboats. I drive back and forth between island and ocean daily.
Wednesday morning, the prospect of work was difficult. I was frightened of how the radioactive dust left behind by the election would settle in my classroom; I recognized the churning in my gut as the sign of temperatures rising beneath my simmering capacities for anger and grudges. I do not think any of my students are unkind, unintelligent, unthoughtful, or careless. I have clocked sufficient hours examining their faces from across the room, listening to their thoughts, and reading their writing to know otherwise. But still: the rawness, the outrage, the anxiety, and the heartbreak were real. So I had a choice: Did I walk into class and say, “I know we’re all tired and feeling sensitive today, now let’s turn to page 46 and pick up where we left off” or did I walk in and say, “There’s an elephant in the room that we’ve got to discuss”?
It so happens that the first group I teach in the morning is a freshman composition class structured around, of all things, examining our historical understanding of that American creed we know so we can recall it from any of its pieces, as if a phantom limb: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” Moreover, the demographics of this particular class are a fascinating reflection of a changing Sweet Briar. Out of fifteen students, there are a number of straight white women who are, predictably, the pool from which the Trump voters emerged. There are also two Latinas (one of whom has undocumented parents), two African Americans, and a few queer women. They are from everywhere from Washington, DC, to inner city Baltimore, rural Texas, and backwoods Virginia.
Given the premise of the class, and its makeup, it did not seem remotely sane to leave the elephant unaddressed. Which means I did the only thing I could do: I was honest. I walked in, puffy-eyed and disheveled, and told my students how I felt. They were quiet. I asked if they wanted to talk about it. They were silent. A few looked awkwardly at one another. One sighed and put her head down on the table, as if for a self-imposed time-out. Not quite knowing what I was doing, just wanting to fill the air with something other than what was unspoken between us, I turned to them and told them that I knew none of them subscribed to the bigotry Trump preached and fanned. I then turned to my Trump-supporting students specifically and said that that was why I felt like it was a safe space for me to ask the burning question around which I simply could not wrap my mind: “Why do you give Trump a pass on the racism, the misogyny, the xenophobia, and the environment? Please explain this to me,” I said. “I am genuinely curious. I do not understand. Why do you forgive this man’s rejection of the fundamental values on which we agree?”
Over the course of the next seventy-five minutes, I asked and re-asked the same question in as many different rhetorical iterations as I could invent: Why is the military more important than kindness? Why do you push aside his language as “just talk”? Does he really “say what you think”? If nothing incriminating has been found in her emails, how exactly is Clinton a criminal when Trump is the one with lawsuits up the wazoo and about to go on trial for raping a thirteen-year-old girl?
I could not get a straight answer. Instead, I got protestations that just because they voted for Trump did not mean they believed in everything he stood for and everything he said. They told me that they had gay best friends, that their votes did not mean they believed in mass deportations or the denigration of women and minorities. Nor did they appear to register any tragic irony in the excuse that “those fringe lunatics don’t speak for me.” I was told about family members deployed overseas and told that Trump made them feel that these loved ones were safer. They told me they absolutely placed human decency high on their list of existential priorities and explained how when Election Day had come they’d only reluctantly chosen some vague sense of safety over human decency as their deciding factor. When I pushed on why in God’s name some amorphous version of military might supersede the concrete basics of human decency, they said, to a one and in so many words, “I don’t know.”
At the end of the class, I turned and addressed my Trump-supporting students directly again. “It is your job now to make sure your voices are heard,” I told them. “If you don’t want Trump to speak for you, don’t let him. It is imperative that you stand up against his language of bigotry. Talk to your friends and family about this. Reach out and tell your friends of color and your LGBTQ friends that you have their backs. And also, please God, talk to doubters about the realities of climate change or else we’ll all drown in twenty years.” I hope they take this responsibility seriously and to heart. They said they did and I think they will. When we walked out the door, I sensed that we all felt little better, a little more heard, a little more at ease with one another.
The media has gotten the scrutiny it deserved, but another failure has gone less examined: education, most glaringly the lessons of history and literature. This means that, arguably, some of the desks at which the proverbial bucks stop are those we call our own. I do not mean to say we haven’t been doing our jobs or that there is any shortage of devoted, underappreciated, and underpaid educators in this country.
I wanted to tell you this story because many such conversations will be unfolding within the walls of our classrooms as we go forward and I want to make my plea that we not be—as I was—timid or frightened of this happening, that we not be cautious and distrusting of ourselves and our students. It is altogether fitting and proper that we do this (these, after all, are our better angels) and that we provide places for our students to talk to one another, that we model in our classrooms what we want beyond these walls that are intended to create community, not divide it. This is not the stuff of the ivory tower; this is the work of the world.
This is also not a controversial proposition, but it is one that is all too often placed second to priorities—as with my students’ selections of military might over human dignity—of test preparation and dates to memorize and topic sentences to hone and plot structures to explain. It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating that these priorities need more flexibility. We need to set aside some dates to memorize and focus more on making our classrooms incubators for the conversations the country needs to be having now more than ever. We need to double down. Now is when we examine what and how we have been teaching and to renew our commitments to the duty we have to teach and discuss texts that provide accurate scientific information about the planet, and that illuminate racism, sexism, and xenophobia, while modeling their opposites. By his own admission, Trump does not read books. This tells us a great deal. Our classrooms should become ground zeros for the fight for kindness that now faces us. Below, I will start a list of books and texts that could be useful teaching tools in the weeks, months, and (please, God, no) years ahead. Add to it your own suggestions. Language is his weapon to destroy as much as it is our tool to fix.
During that conversation in my class, a student spoke up and, in a conciliatory tone, said, “No one’s right and no one’s wrong. We’re all friends here.” I’ve been thinking about this. The general rule of thumb for us teachers is that it is our job not to say what is right or what is wrong, but to teach our students to think critically so that they can come to decisions for themselves. No doubt this is our job the vast majority of the time. The past week, however, has made me believe that there are also times when it is our job to teach what is right and what is wrong if somehow—inexplicably—this is not immediately apparent to our students. Clear rights and wrongs should be called out and identified, first and foremost among them the civil rights of the people living in this country. While I was glad to have had an open, productive conversation with my students, I broached it too late. I will regret this for the rest of my life. Had I been brave enough to start this conversation in September, I wonder whether some of my Trump-supporting students might have chosen otherwise at the ballot box on Tuesday. If you have been like me, don’t defer the conversation any longer. If we do, more bucks will be bound for our desks that we cannot afford to watch pile up.
I mentioned when I first began this letter, I teach creative writing. As part of my load, each term I teach an introductory course, the third unit of which is on poetry. Since many students are often taking the class to fulfill a requirement and thus groan about how much they hate poetry and how bad they are at it when the unit begins, what I most hope they take away from it is an appreciation of the ineffable balm poetry provides us when our hearts are most full of joy or love or grief. Which is why lines of poetry have been floating through my head a lot over the course of the past week—“In a dark time, the eye begins to see…”, “Try to praise the mutilated world…”, “Where does it hurt? Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.”
On the topic of teaching and students, in particular, one poem—one of my favorites of all time, and one of the biggest bangs of the twentieth-century American canon—has been on my mind: “The Writer” by Richard Wilbur. In it, a father, Wilbur, listens to his daughter struggle to write a story on the typewriter “in her room at the prow of the house.” He compares her process to that of a starling that was once caught in that very room, and how the bird fell to the floor, “humped and bloody,” waiting “for the wits to try it again.” Try again it eventually does and in doing so locates the open window and sails through, “clearing the sill of the world.” The inspirational here is incidental. What gets me is the following, final stanza, which is this:
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.
The love that permeates those lines is profound. It is the very love that, I believe, we must channel now because we must wish our students—our country—what we wished before, but harder. It is a matter of life or death that we cannot forget.
My mother is the one who introduced me to this poem when I was in high school. I remember her telling me that the daughter in the poem was her friend, Ellen, with whom she had gone to college. Ellen Wilbur and my mother were a couple years ahead of Hillary Clinton at Wellesley. My mom has lost touch with Ellen over the years, so I can’t ask her what she remembers, but my mother says everyone on campus knew who Hillary Rodham was because she was, even then, clearly extraordinary, the brightest light in a school with no shortage of high-wattage bulbs.
Wellesley is also an all-women’s college. The four years my mother and her friends spent there were politically galvanizing for them. I imagine the same is true for Hillary Clinton. I have no doubt their politics were shaped by teachers they had there and young women they met there, and I imagine I can trace to these women much of why my mother, from as far back as I can remember, has said to me exactly what Clinton told all “the little girls out there” in her concession speech: that I was valuable and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to achieve my dreams. The Wellesley women who so shaped my mother have in turn shaped me. I am so grateful. Through them I have known first-hand the remarkable yields of women’s education.
Women’s colleges are supposed to be empowering, this is the very argument made to assure their continued existence, but in my Sweet Briar class I was face to face with students at a women’s college who had just voted for a man who had blocked the election of the first female president in the most vulgar and insulting rhetorical terms imaginable. I attribute this, in part, to the fact that, while this is changing, Sweet Briar has been seen as something of a finishing school for wealthy southern women, and the currents of conservatism continue to be strong. It is not fashioned in the socially liberal mold of those in the Northeast. Moreover, what is now a school was once a plantation. A friend who has researched the history of African Americans at Sweet Briar extensively has traced the family trees of those who were once enslaved on this land into the present, and has found that upwards of a third of the hourly staff who work the grounds of the school today are descended from enslaved people who once worked the plantation. The history of our country is very literally at work, in stark terms, on this campus, every moment of every day if one is paying any attention at all.
I have not been paying enough attention. The “I don’t knows” my students gave me as explanations for why Trump got a pass have been haunting me. What do they mean? They mean many, many things. At least one of which has to do with how we metabolize misogyny in this country. One of my Trump-voting students admitted as much. She is not eighteen, however. She is in her late twenties and had no easy childhood before she joined the military and was deployed to Afghanistan. She admitted that she subscribed to the culture of hyper-masculinity in which she had grown up, and how her time in the military served to further entrench it. She didn’t use the term, but she was describing Stockholm syndrome. I asked her if she was okay with this. She said she guessed so. I asked her if she was okay with being okay with this.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Over the course of the very months when shaping young minds in the right direction was most critical, I have heard my students’ “I don’t knows” too late. From here on out, I’ll listen more vigilantly. This is National Education Week. I know we have all had different experiences in our classrooms since last Tuesday—some good, some bad, some mixed. Regardless, we all have our work cut out for us. We all have “I don’t knows” that cannot go unheard or unaddressed.
What it would have been to watch, with my mother, Hillary Clinton sworn in as our nation’s president. To watch a woman—a qualified, strong, brilliant, flawed-like-us-all woman—inaugurated to the highest office in the land and shatter that “highest and hardest glass ceiling” with my mother is one of my life’s great dreams. But my mother is seventy-two. I’ve been trying, the past few days, to face the fact that this dream might not happen. It’s been difficult. Chance is capricious and opportunity has a long, long way to go. But these are politics too personal for me to even touch right now. These are politics that threaten to paralyze me. Maybe in a few months. Maybe next time I will tell you about these.