It would have been so easy to give in.
He begged me to let him stay home. His blue eyes welled with tears as he told me he couldn’t go; he was afraid to go.
I cajoled. I begged. I reasoned. I got angry. I empathized. I bribed. Literally, I did whatever it took to get him out the door and, by that time having missed the bus, into my car.
We would ride in the car together. We would walk in together. We would visit the counselor and confirm that the school had some type of plan to make sure he was safe.
Marc is a sixth grade boy living in south Texas who supported Hilary Clinton. (Sure, go ahead and cringe. . .or cheer. . .or wonder why and how. . .) But the combination of those three things is pretty powerful. A perfect adolescent storm.
Marc is the kid who sat with me through the entirety of all three debates. He is the kid who would come home from school and immediately turn on CNN to see campaign coverage. He listened to NPR during the car rides to appointments and flag football practice. He would ask me questions and we would discuss issues. He was (is) outraged at the bullying and name calling and taunting that Trump exhibited because Marc also has been bullied and taunted and called names. He knows what it feels like to be singled out. He also couldn’t understand how anyone could support that behavior even though he knows that people (peers) do. Marc was so concerned by the rhetoric of the Trump campaign that he would asking me with true concern, “What are we going to do if he wins? What is our plan?” I tried to assure him that things would be okay.
An extrovert and a talkative kid, Marc was vocal (too much?) at school about his support for Clinton. He engaged in conversations and stated his case. He listened to what others said who were in favor of Donald Trump. I knew he listened because he would come home from school and ask me questions about what they said. Marc, being a 6th grade boy, also bragged and boasted about his candidate and bet peers that his candidate would win. Like many of us, he didn’t think it was remotely possible that the election would go the way it did.
Marc had good reason not to want to go to school the day after the election. He was afraid of the taunting and name calling and bullying that might ensue. While the election wasn’t a sporting event, the “winning” preteen fans could be ruthless. And, from his texts that he sent me throughout the day, these adolescent boys were just that. Two boys–both who have played at our house on many occasions–asked Marc if he needed help packing since he said that the family would probably leave the country if Trump were elected.
Was I mean to make him go? Maybe. Truly I wasn’t thinking clearly that morning, having sobbed in the shower over the election outcome and the burden of trying to explain the unimaginable to the children. But, he needed to go. He needed to face both the taunts and to learn to accept loss with grace and strength. He needed to show up for the other, quiet and less vocal students who were also feeling the sting (and dare I say fear) of the election.
As I drove him to school I told him a story of when I was an eighth grade teacher. Every year we’d read Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl. These earnest suburban kids couldn’t understand how one man (Hitler) could have taken over an entire country (and then plowed through Europe) and killed over 11 million people. Even today it still sounds like fiction.
At the beginning of this unit I would start with a simulation to help them understand how this could in fact happen. My eighth graders would come to my classroom but I wouldn’t let them in the room. I’d line them up and say in an ugly, angry voice that things are going to be different from now on. Better. That we’ve had some people in our class who have weighed us down; who have stopped us from being the best class we could be. I’d have a yard stick in my hand.
When I’d finally let them into the class, I’d then choose a few students and start picking on them. I’d say to the entire class that THESE students were the REASON our class was struggling. I’d ask other students to agree with me. For full affect I’d slap the yardstick on desks (in one case breaking the yard stick!). Then I’d start taking something from the kids I had singled out. First it might be their desk. They didn’t deserve a desk I’d yell. I’d have them sit on the floor. Then I demanded that they stand in front of the classroom. I ordered them to take off their shoes. All the time I was slapping that yardstick on a desk or against the chalkboard. It was frightening.
EVERY SINGLE TIME. . .and I did this simulation for seven years. . .ONE STUDENT would stand up and confront me and say that I was wrong and that she/he was going to get help. Here’s the kicker: it was never the most popular students or the students with the best grades or even the trouble makers in the class. I was almost always a student who was usually quiet. . .and maybe not the most conscientious of schoolwork and grades. That child would bust out of the classroom and find an administrator.
This is the part of the story that I started crying as I was telling Marc. He looked over at me and asked, “Why are you crying?” I told Marc that I wanted him to be that one kid. I wanted him to be able to stand up against a bully and call him or her out. I wanted him to stand up for other kids and their points of view and their ways of life.
When the student ran from my room, I immediately ended the simulation. The class talked about (with much relief) the simulation and how I had taken over, ostracized, humiliated and segregated the few students. How I started incrementally and then continued to build in strength and demands. As a teacher, I explained to the kids what I was demonstrating: that Hitler was able to do what he did because he created fear, intimidated others, blamed the a minority population (the Jews), and promised that he alone could make Germany great again after the embarrassment of losing WWI and the mistakes of the Treaty of Versailles. We could begin studying WWII and the Holocaust and understand better the fear that surrounded Anne Frank and her family.
I’m not by any means saying that I equate Trump with Hitler. What I am saying is that by returning to school, Marc would have the chance to learn how to be a minority holding a belief that he truly believed was truth in the face of taunts and jeers. He would exercise that muscle of standing up for what he believed was good and true even if it was not the popular (or winning) view.
I still think of those kids who busted out of my classroom during the simulation, scared but certain that something needed to be done and that they–even if alone– should do it. I still remember how it was the students I’d least expect to have that strength and courage. I’m hoping that I can emulate their example. I’m praying that my children will learn to as well.