Posted on January 1st, 2017
Twice this week I have cleaned large amounts of milk off the floor of my classroom. Once, white milk after a student accidentally dropped it; the second time chocolate milk, after a student had thrown it to the floor in anger. This is not typically in the brochures or posters that advertise teaching programs, but it is, after all, part of my job. Over the last several years I have learned to see tasks like this as less degrading and more meaningful. There is the academic side of my job, but on some level I also care for children and this involves both physical and emotional labor. As I cleaned the milk I imagine I felt something like an office worker feels when they click send on their final e-mail of the day- a satisfaction at having concretely finished something. Cleaning up milk on my hands and knees felt useful and necessary. The other side of teaching, the actual teaching, can be much more elusive and ambiguous. How does one know for sure a student has “learned” that day? Standardized tests and data try to measure this, but the truth is that the process of truly learning something is often mysterious, like learning to talk, it just slowly happens to us over time; much harder to quantify than spilled milk. The milk was there and then it wasn’t. Task completed.
I knew Donald Trump had won by two in the morning on the night of the election. Nobody seemed to be “officially” announcing anything, but I knew in my bones we had been wrong. We had spent the past year saying to everyone we knew that he couldn’t possibly win. When my students came to me in fear, often expressed in the strange ways of children as jokes or half muttered comments, I would reassure them that nobody like him could ever truly be President. I, like so many others, miscalculated. Wrapped in a left-wing sounding board I had forgotten about everyone else, I had no idea how deep the divide truly was.
That weekend I walked past Trump tower with some friends. Helicopters flew overhead, protestors screamed from across the street, and hundreds of armed policemen stood in front of the giant golden phallus. I had always thought it was an ugly building, (once I went in the lobby to use the bathroom) but now it was no longer just some rich man’s home–the President-elect was beginning to run the country from within those walls. The sheer force of the police presence outside paled in comparison to the protestors who were there when I walked past. All I saw was power, displayed aggressively outward. New York had felt alien to me many times before, but perhaps never as alien as it did in that moment.
We called each other and cried. There were days of stunned faces everywhere I looked. When I turned on the television though I saw the celebrations, the smiling faces that believed change was going to come. In some ways the same faces I remembered seeing everywhere the day after Barack Obama won in 2008, except something was different in everyone’s eyes- an anger I did not recognize and had not seen before. I am angry too. I am angry that there are children who will go to bed tonight hungry, not just in this country, but all over the world. I am angry that hundreds of people will die senselessly while I am writing this. I am angry about so many injustices I could spend pages writing about them. These people seem angry about different things, they see injustice too, but not in the same places I see it. What do these people think of me and my partner, an immigrant from Mexico? What do they see when we walk down the street holding hands? All at once it occurred to me that I no longer knew who they even were. Millions of people, sixty million people, had voted him into office. There wasn’t an us and a them, there was simply the fact of his election.
I could spend the next several paragraphs in a rallying cry, telling everyone it is going to be alright, but we know that it isn’t. People have suffered in this country for a long time. Even those of us who voted for the first time in the millions in 2008, bringing Obama to the White-House on a wave of young people’s support, know better than that now. People suffered under his presidency and I have no doubt it will only worsen with Trump.
What I would like to talk about is walking along the water, on the far West of Manhattan, alone with my headphones on and my hands in my pocket a week after the election. I was listening to Zadie Smith being interviewed on Fresh Air and she said the following: “I guess I’m always thinking of duties, rights and gifts. To me, that’s how social worlds and our intimate lives are structured: What is your duty? What accrues to you? What is your right? And what are your gifts?” It was the first moment I felt calm. The wind was blowing hard against me, it was dark and cold that night, but I meditated on those words and I think we all should. What are your gifts? What can you do? What will you do?
For some I love I know that will mean continuing to make art. For others I know it will mean surviving, living as their authentic selves no matter what is thrown at them. Still others I know will fight, visibly, in the streets because they feel like they can and should. I have not decided what particular form my resistance will take, but I refuse to be dishonest about any of this with anybody I know. It is time that white people in particular have difficult conversations with people in their lives, people we know voted for bigotry or at the very least did not care enough about bigotry to not vote for it. We must also continue to find beauty where there is beauty to be found. I hope that people sing, dance, write, make love, travel, hold their friends close to their bodies, have long conversations, and more than anything try to connect. It is easy to burrow at a time like this, and I am certainly one who loves the occasional burrow, but now is the time for us to do everything we can to both survive and thrive. For the least protected among us we need to think of everything we possibly can do to shield them when the time comes. I know for my students it means being honest with them; if there is fear, I must find ways to comfort them. None of this will be as easy as cleaning up the spilled milk, in fact there will be times when we are brought to the precipice of what we believe we can handle, but even then we must push through. Ideas cannot be killed and we will continue to create no matter what is thrown at us, in fact we will create more.
I want to end this reflection with a line from my favorite childhood book. I believe, I have to believe, there are more people fighting the darkness than falling into it.
“And we’re not alone, you know, children,” came Mrs. Whatsit, the comforter. “All through the universe, it’s being fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it’s a grand and exciting battle. I know it’s hard for you to understand about size, how there’s very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that, and maybe it won’t seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet, and it’s a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it’s done so well.”
A Wrinkle in Time- Madeline L’Engle