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Election 2016 Feels Like None Other in My Classroom

student face art.jpg"If both of your parents are immigrants, do they deport you too, or do you get put into a foster home?" one of my middle school students asked yesterday afternoon. "I've asked this to some other teachers, but I still don't know the answer," she added. It had been on her mind all day.

I've taught through four presidential elections. This one feels in no way normal. I've never known students to wake up the morning after an election with these kinds of questions. I don't remember having to ask myself questions like this, no matter how much I didn't like the outcome of certain past elections. 

"My mother was crying last night," another student shared. "She called my grandmother in Bangladesh, and they were talking for hours about whether we are going to move back there."  Several other students from different backgrounds nodded and described similar conversations that had happened in their homes. 

"When I was leaving for school this morning," another student said, "I watched the little boy my mother babysits come in the door, and I thought, 'He's so lucky. He has no idea what's going on.'" It's unsettling to hear that kind of talk from a seventh grader. 

I live and work in Jackson Heights, Queens, in New York, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the world (fact, not hyperbole). I love this place and my students.

This morning, I rode the elevator in my own building with a neighbor and her two children. She is Muslim, and she and her daughter wear hijab. My mind quickly flashed to a day last weekend when I went to the laundry room in our building, and discovered a squirrel, distressed, stuck behind the door. I was spooked and didn't know how to get it out. She and her family happened to pass by and witness my nervousness. Her husband offered to help and quickly got the squirrel out.

As we continued riding down the floors in the elevator this morning, though, my mind involuntarily imagined the insane scenario of this family being forced to leave the country by someone who doesn't know anything about them. 

My students, my neighbors—these are the people our president-elect has proposed to ban from our country?

Soon, my curriculum plans have me introducing students to the poem "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus sometime in December: 

"...Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand 

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame 

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name 

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand 

Glows world-wide welcome..." 

As a Jewish American and the descendent of immigrants who fled to this country for safety and recognition of their human rights, I don't take the images in this poem lightly. (Read the whole thing here). Will we all be welcome in the coming era? What will we be saying when we discuss the poem next month?

"I heard he won because of prejudice," said one of my students, who is African American. I did not have the words of comfort he needed, though I was glad to provide supportive space for him and others to share their concerns. I've found hope in this powerful statement by the ACLU, but also reason to hold onto fear, based on reports like this from around the country.

I know these conversations are not going to end anytime soon, and I think it will take some time to develop insights of my own to offer. For now, I'm humbled by what an important and complex job I have as a teacher, and I'm grateful for each day with my students.   

I'm reminded of these lines the poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote in her unique and relevant book, The Life of Poetry: 

"However confused the scene of our life appears, however torn we may be who now do face that scene, it can be faced, and we can go on to be whole."  

Image credit: Artwork by one of my 8th grade students

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