First Person: Teacher in the Smog — Keeping Faith With Students After the Election

Courtesy Baltimore Improv Group
Every day in my classroom, I say, “Peace, love and goodbye” to my students as they leave. It’s one of the things I’m most known for as a teacher. For my class and for me, it serves equally as a benediction and a statement of purpose.

The phrase has taken on greater weight in light of Donald Trump’s election.

When I came to school on Wednesday, I wasn’t sure what I’d say. As a teacher, I knew that I had to address the election. I work in an all-girls public charter school in Baltimore, and nearly all of my students are African American and eligible for free or reduced lunch.

This election weighed heavily on them even as the school year began. As early as August and September, many of the girls asked whether they would be sent back to Africa or if slavery would be reinstated should Donald Trump become president. I told them no and brushed it off, callously chalking up their fears to misinformation they’d picked up through social media.

I had heard that schools suffered spikes in racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia since Trump took the lead in the Republican primaries. I counted myself lucky that I worked in a positive school culture and with a relatively homogenous group of students. This spring, when we read The Diary of Anne Frank and talked about Hitler’s rise in Germany, many students made connections to Trump’s call for a national registry of Muslims. They’d shyly raise their hands and say, “Ms. Phenicie, isn’t this like Donald Trump?”

I was so proud. I did that awful, cocky teacher move where you brag to your friends about how great your kids are and how great your teaching is. I felt as though I had done it! I had made my content relevant and topical. Plus, we could get the best of both worlds: we could see all of these horrible phobias and -isms emerge, discuss and conquer them, and put them behind us in November.

But that was April and this is November. In the days since Donald Trump’s election, I have seen and felt little but sadness and fear from teachers and students at my school.

We teachers organized a prayer gathering Wednesday morning, a moment of reflection in the conference room. Our faces before the prayers were blank, uneasy, ghostly. None of us knew what the day would bring, how we would explain to our students that a world that was already unkind to them would soon become a lot less kind. How would we tell our students that their fears were not unfounded? How would we tell our students that we were scared, too?

Conventional wisdom dictates that teachers should always be confident paragons of strength in front of their class. I have never felt this way: I believe that teacher vulnerability, when revealed sparingly, yields huge benefits for building teacher-student bridges.

I taught in West Baltimore the day after the Baltimore Uprising in 2015; I was confused and anxious, much like my students. That day I did what I knew how to do. I baked muffins, told my students I loved them and had a dialogue about how the events that had just unfolded would shape us all for a long time to come. We had our talks. We hugged. We ate our muffins. The next day we got back to the business of eighth-grade English.

So when it was time to teach post-Trump, I did all that I knew how to do. I told my students that I loved them. I admitted that I was a disappointed Clinton supporter. I told them that I, too, was scared. The students shared stories about their fears, hopes and concerns for the future. Several students worried that their food stamps would be taken away. One student asked us to stop demonizing Trump, as her father told her Trump would “make them rich.” A few Latina students feared they would be deported. Many students feared that Trump’s presidency would increase the racism they already faced.

I told them that no matter what anyone outside of our classroom said, we at school desperately cared for them and would help them succeed. I told them to be kind to each other and to the world. I added “Be kind and good to each other” to my daily “Peace, love and goodbye” benediction.

Foolishly, I thought this was the end of it. But much like irregular verb conjugation or finding the main idea of a text, the challenges posed by the Trump presidency wouldn’t go away.

Today, several of my usually happy, joyous students told one another to “shut up” — despite our school policy declaring that phrase to be a “trash can word.” One girl called another “Harambe” when she did something uncool — a reference to the gorilla killed at the Cincinnati Zoo this spring. A girl who misspoke during a presentation was told by a classmate that she “talked like a Mexican.”

I was upset by these breaches in our classroom decorum and respect, and I said so, but it felt fruitless. Slowly, insidiously, cruelty and meanness had crept into our positivity zone.

It’s easy to brush off the connection between Trump’s victory and my students’ behavior as correlation rather than causation — after all, middle school kids are often mean or suddenly downcast.

There may be some truth in that, but it’s also true that there’s a new smog in our school.

Our kids are in a smog where it’s suddenly OK to be awful to each other, that that’s somehow the way to get ahead.

I can’t let it stand, and neither can my students. We’ll continue to fight against racism, misogyny and all of society’s other ills. We’ll challenge each other when hateful speech happens. We’ll call each other out on breaches of kindness. We’ll push each other to operate in love. We’ll try our best to embody “peace, love and goodbye.”

It’s our best shot right now.

Maggie Phenicie is a middle school English teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools. She is the sister of 74 reporter Carolyn Phenicie.

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