I apologize in advance for the political bias that will be evident in this post. I mean not to offend anyone or trespass on the soul searching that transpires in all of us when we cast our votes on Election Day. I have spent all of my life in schools either as a student, a teacher or a principal, and it is in that context that I share these thoughts.
Like many of my fellow Vermont educators, I have been struggling to find the right words to catalog my feelings since the recent election of Donald Trump. Denial, shock, sadness, grief, disbelief, anger and disillusionment have all been prevalent over the past week. Acceptance will come. I am just not there yet.
I remember being a sophomore in high school sitting in another meaningless study hall one morning and asking permission to go to the bathroom. I grabbed my pass from the proctor and headed down the long hallway, passing a classroom where a group of teachers were huddled around a radio listening intently to a far off voice. Retracing my steps a few minutes later, I noticed that one of my teachers had his head down on a desk. He seemed to be crying, not something a 15 year old witnesses every day in school. I walked past the door and stopped for a moment, surrendering to my curiosity. That far off voice on the radio seemed clearer now and what I heard next would be forever etched into my soul. The year was 1963. John F. Kennedy had just been shot.
Uncertain of the meaning of what I had just heard, I walked back to study hall and up to the desk of the proctor and whispered what I had just heard. An hour later school was closed and we were sent home early to the care, support and counsel of our parents. Later that day my tearful mother informed me that JFK had died.
A few days later we were back in school hurrying from math to science and to history classes as if nothing had happened. I have no memory of the tragedy ever being discussed, the one that days earlier had caused one of my teachers to weep openly. That’s just the way things were back then. Schools taught the prescribed curriculum.
And then came September 11, 2001. By this time I was a principal of a Vermont high school. What I difference 38 years had made! Attempts at normalcy soon gave way to gatherings in the library, the cafeteria and in countless classrooms, as teachers and students tried to make sense of what was unfolding on the TV screens which dotted the school. The universal shock and horror needed an outlet and we did our best to provide it.
I am not suggesting for a second that the election of Donald Trump compares to the assassination of a president or to the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history, but for many of our students the emotions may be similar…shock, sadness and grief. After all, a man who, in the eyes of many, openly espoused racist views, scorned women and offended nearly every group out there other than perhaps white males, has just been elected President of The United States. Our students have watched all this play out on TV and on social media. In the last few days there have been demonstrations in some of our nation’s schools where students are shouting “White Power.” Is Trump responsible for those racist rants? Of course not…such attitudes come from the home. Has Trump given license for such sentiments to be voiced publicly? You decide.
As educators we know what to do. We recognize the “teachable moments” and that the lesson plans for the day need not come from the school’s curriculum guide or a textbook, but from external events and the very emotions of our students. What better opportunity for lessons on civility and kindness, including the hope that our new president can heal our divided nation. Today it may be about an election…tomorrow it will be about something else. Good teaching always finds opportunities.
How differently might I look back on my high school years if my feelings about the assassination of JFK, the end of innocence for many my age, had been given a voice in our classrooms.