doom and gloom

Schoolkids have ‘questions and a lot of fear’ about Trump being president

via Tara García Mathewson

BOSTON—Ajanay Hughes, 15, voted for Hillary Clinton in her school’s mock presidential election Tuesday. The Democratic candidate was also the favorite among most of her peers. Ajanay, a 10th grader at Roxbury Prep High School on Boston’s predominantly black southwest side, said some didn’t show up for class when they heard the outcome of the real election.

Many students who attend Roxbury Prep are immigrants and Benjamin Obianigwe, 16, said some of the ones who didn’t come to school were preparing to move back to their native countries already.

This “doom and gloom” mentality was pervasive among students in communities that have borne the brunt of President-elect Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric. Teachers at Roxbury Prep tried to reassure students that Trump won’t be able to do everything he threatened during the election, especially his promises of mass deportations at different points in the campaign, but some of the students weren’t so sure.

“I guess I’m kind of nervous,” Ajanay said, adding that she was mad at adults who used their right to vote to elect Trump or vote for third-party candidates who had no chance of winning. Undecided voters baffled her, given all that was at stake for her and her friends.

“I don’t understand how people could be in between,” Ajanay said.

She doesn’t see how anything good could come out of this election. Benjamin is already looking ahead to the next one. “In two years, we could change Congress,” he said. By then, Benjamin will actually have a say over who comes to power, instead of relying on the adults around him to make the right decisions.

Sarah Swanson-Hysell, a teacher at Lighthouse Community Charter School in California’s Oakland Unified School District, sympathizes with students like Benjamin. She spent her morning helping her students think through the separation of powers in the U.S. government, and making clear that President Barack Obama will remain in his position until January.

“I think it must be so terrifying to be a kid,” Swanson-Hysell said. “To feel like you have no power and these ‘other’ adult strangers are making decisions that could rip away family members. Kids know what racism is and are struggling to understand why and how people in this country could make a leader out of an open racist.”

At Roxbury Prep High School in Boston, Benjamin and other students mentioned their anger toward Trump and his supporters, including one of their teachers, who they know voted for the Republican candidate.

For many people, including kids who watched the brutal campaign as avidly as everyone else, this election became a referendum on how inclusive and supportive the country should be of people of color, immigrants and refugees, religious minorities, women, and people with disabilities. For Benjamin, a young black man, a vote for Trump felt like a vote against him.

“Kids know what racism is and are struggling to understand why and how people in this country could make a leader out of an open racist.”

- Sarah Swanson-Hysell, teacher

That’s one reason administrators across the country sent off early-morning emails to their staffs, asking teachers to make sure students feel safe in school, but to stay away from overt political commentary.

South of Minneapolis, Jeanne Whisler spent the morning teaching 7th and 8th grade Spanish language arts in Richfield Middle School’s dual language program on Wednesday. She didn’t change her lesson plans based on the outcome of the election, but half of her students are Latinx, some of them immigrants and many of them children of immigrants. They wanted to talk about the next president.

By the time Whisler got to work, her district superintendent and her school principal had both sent emails encouraging staff to keep their political beliefs to themselves, while supporting students who are upset about the prospect of a Trump presidency.

In Whisler’s classroom, there are students who feel like their lives have been placed in limbo because of Trump’s victory.

“I think for a lot of our immigrant kids, kids who already live in the shadows or whose parents are undocumented, I think for them it will add another layer of fear that will be below the surface,” Whisler said.

Students at Richfield Middle School voted overwhelmingly for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in their own mock presidential election Tuesday; 86% of them voted for the Democrat, who squeaked out a win in Minnesota, but ultimately lost in the Electoral College.

As Whisler’s eighth graders filed into the classroom on Wednesday, they wanted to know what she thought of the result. In keeping with school policy, she demurred from offering a direct opinion, but her students pushed. They knew what Trump might mean for their families, and they wanted to know where she stood.

“What I shared with them is that what our classroom stands for and what I’ve worked so hard to create is an environment where everyone is accepted,” Whisler said, “where it doesn’t matter what your religion is, what your race is, what your sexual orientation is, what language you speak, what your political beliefs are. My goal is that we create this community.”

The thing to do now, she added, is fight so that other people can also see that.

As Whisler gave her short speech, her students nodded in agreement. And while Whisler eventually directed them back to the lesson she had planned, students remained distracted throughout the period. Down the hall, recent immigrants were talking about how they might get sent back to the countries they left, their worry reflected in similar classrooms across America.

A third-grade student's essay about the election from Elisabeth Glikbarg's class. Glikbarg said her students, who are mostly Hispanic, have been concerned about deportation under a Trump presidency.via Elisabeth Glikbarg

A third-grade student's essay about the election from Elisabeth Glikbarg's class. Glikbarg said her students, who are mostly Hispanic, have been concerned about deportation under a Trump presidency.

In California, Elisabeth Glikbarg teaches a classroom of primarily Latinx students from immigrant families outside of San Francisco. The third-grade teacher spent her 30-minute drive to work this morning trying to figure out how to talk to her class about the election results. The past few months, she has been teaching her students about the branches of government and how people are elected as part of their standard curriculum. She says students have been extremely concerned about what a Trump presidency would mean for them, especially because of his vows at various points in the campaign to “round up” undocumented immigrants.

“The day [deportation] came up the first time, kids were crying and telling me they didn’t want to leave.” Glikbarg said. “They were asking, ‘Is it true he’s going to build a wall?’ I said ‘I don’t know.’”

On Tuesday, when many thought Clinton was going to be the next president but anxiety was high, Glikbarg said she explained the difference between a king and a president to reassure her students that a president doesn’t have ultimate power. On Wednesday morning, she wanted to explain the democratic process again to try and assuage her students’ fears.

“I think I’m just going to tell them sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and this is why we have this system,” Glikbarg said. “And we have to trust that even if you don’t agree with what our president says, that there are other people in our government that are going to watch out for us.”

Denise Metz is principal of Belmont Charter School, an early-grades elementary school in a largely black neighborhood in Philadelphia. Metz said some of her students worried Wednesday about being sent back to Africa. Others think there is going to be a “purge,” a fear stoked by a recent movie of that name.

“The teachers came in feeling pretty shell-shocked today,” she said.

Helping to interpret the election results for their young charges added another layer of anxiety. “Kids were asking us questions like, ‘But I don’t understand; he’s so mean.’ And it was hard to respond without getting upset because that’s true. We spend so much time talking about taking care of each other as a school, and here is a person who in their mind doesn’t exemplify that value at all and he became president.”

She added that the teachers “are trying to think about how to do some kind of Kindness Project over the next few weeks to give them something to focus on.”

In Ithaca, New York, Audrey Southern, a humanities teacher at New Roots Charter School, said the politics of her 11th and 12th graders are diverse; so she decided to plunge on with exams rather than discuss the election. “I wasn’t quite sure that I was ready to maintain the role of neutrality expected of a moderator today,” she said.

Instead, Southern had students write reflections and told them they would keep discussing the election, and should reach out individually if they wanted to talk.

Among the reflections, a student wrote that she was “afraid” of a Trump presidency because she is a woman and one worried “the whole black and white thing is going to get way worse before it gets close to getting better.” But another wrote, “If there were some big catastrophe and revolution, it would ultimately be good for the country. This generation needs some struggle.”

In the Bronx, Canadian citizen and middle school English teacher Don Laird’s students had been using humor to cover up their own fears about deportation. Students were teasing Laird and each other about getting deported in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s vote. Most of the students at Laird’s school are Latinx, and many are first-generation Americans. “They have a lot of questions and a lot of fear,” he said.

Leading up to his afternoon classes on Wednesday, Laird was preparing his strategy for broaching the election results with students.

“I’m going to approach it from: ‘First of all, I’m here for you, the school is here for you, and the community is here for you,’” he said. “And one man does not run the country. There are checks and balances in place, and that’s what makes the government strong.”

This civics lesson was a common one in classrooms Wednesday, whether they were embedded in relevant subjects or squeezed into other parts of the school day.

“The whole black and white thing is going to get way worse before it gets close to getting better.”

- a student

Jeff Tranell made a sort of pre-emptive strike in his 6th-grade homeroom the day after Trump was elected president, beginning the discussion before the bell even rang.

“We talked about how we can all be civil to one another after this election,” said Tranell, who teaches at Park Forest Middle School in central Pennsylvania. “We talked about how we act after a sporting event, whether we win or lose—not gloating or bringing down someone else’s ideas.”

The mock election they had held the week before went about two-to-one for Hillary Clinton in a sixth grade where the majority of students are white and relatively affluent.

Most of the discussion in class centered on academic questions raised by the election: How could Clinton win the popular vote but lose the election? Why did CNN not consider a state a “swing state,” even though it “swung” for Trump?

Some of the questions were more difficult to answer: One girl asked Tranell why so many women voted for Trump after what he said about them.

And then there was the emphasis on civility.

“We’re trying to teach these kids to treat people with respect, regardless of what the candidates are doing,” said Tranell, 37, who has been a teacher for 16 years. “That’s not anything I’ve had to do in previous election cycles. The race got pretty nasty.”

Teachers around the country have been discussing the “Trump effect” since the beginning of the academic year, tying a spike in bullying and hate speech in their schools to the campaign. That contributed to the post-election apprehension, as people considered how the unexpected outcome would impact the coming years.

Educators of even the youngest children found themselves scrambling to find the right way to respond to the surprise election outcome. Ginna Rose, assistant head of Lower School, Brooklyn Heights Montessori School, said her “young students don’t really understand much except that the adults in their world are sad, angry, and stressed.”

“I feel all children need to see the adults be proactive and to make their voices heard,” she added. “It’s been a long hard day.”

Julie Diaz, an elementary art teacher at a high-poverty school in Wilmington, Delaware, said while many of her young students might not understand statements Trump has made that “could have been offensive” to them, she is still concerned about how a Trump presidency could impact them.

“If he’s going to continue to say offensive things, racist things, and sexist things as the leader of our country, that really sets a terrible example for the kids,” she said.

On Wednesday morning, Diaz prepared herself to discuss the election results with her students if they brought it up, and to reassure them that she’s on their side. Diaz also wanted to reinforce school-wide expectations, regardless of the example that the president-elect has set so far.

“All of us here expect respectful behavior from them, and we expect kindness and equal treatment of everybody,” she said.

Reporting contributed by Jackie Mader, Meredith Kolodner, Lillian Mongeau, and Jennifer Shaw

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about the 2016 election.