Is the American Dream dead?

I didn’t want to go to school this morning, the day after the 2016 Election. I woke up 5:00 am, as usual, and before I’d even finished my first cup of coffee my colleagues were texting and posting on social media. “What will we say to the children?” they asked. I felt sick to my stomach to hear the announcer on NPR say “President-elect Donald Trump.” This is the man who has bullied his way to the top with crass racist, misogynistic, xenophobic rhetoric that I have taught my students to avoid. They recognize him for what he is. They are fearful of deportation and discrimination. Now he has the power to turn his evil words into action. How could I reassure them when I felt so angry myself?

My fellow ESOL teachers had a pow-wow in the office. One had printed out “Know Your Rights” information that we made available last year when the immigration raids started in Prince George’s County. One was going to show an electoral map and explain the process visually. Another was crying openly. We agreed that we’d listen if students wanted to talk and would say that we didn’t have any answers. We knew that there might be some behavioral issues, especially with the newcomers. We would try to reassure them that school was a safe place. I decided to talk about the strength of our democracy, the power of the system of Checks and Balances. But inside I don’t know if it’s true any more. I’m churning and angry and scared. Because I think the American Dream has been crushed overnight.

During the morning announcements, students were more talkative than usual. When the student newscaster said, “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance,” I heard a chorus of boos. They refused to stand up. I was shocked! That’s what we did during the waning Vietnam War days when I was in high school. “No, Miss! We don’t support Trump!” I’d been teaching them the etiquette of hand-over-heart, silence and showing respect when the Pledge comes on. “He doesn’t respect us!” This is what Trump has engendered. Disrespect for the greatness that our flag represents.

As the day moved on, students wanted to talk openly about it less and less. Many had stayed up all night watching the returns come in. My bleary eyes matched those around me. I felt brain dead. Teachers expressed the numbness they felt when we ran into each other at the copy machine, in the hallways, eating lunch. I was trying not to see this as a repudiation of all that I hold dear: equal rights, human rights, civility. I couldn’t help connecting the text we’re reading in 3rd period, Oedipus Rex, to the elections. But the tragic flaw brought Hillary down, not Trump. “The hero’s downfall is partially his or her own fault, the result of free choice, not of accident or villainy or some overriding, malignant fate. In fact, the tragedy is usually triggered by some error of judgment or some character flaw that contributes to the hero’s lack of perfection… This error of judgment or character flaw is known as hamartia and is usually translated as ‘tragic flaw.’ Often the character’s hamartia involves hubris (which is defined as a sort of arrogant pride or over-confidence).” I think the entire Democratic Party was suffering from hamartia.

By the end of the day, students were trying to joke. “Ms. Sullivan – next year you won’t have a job any more!” That exact thought had crossed my mind long ago, but I dismissed it. The vast majority of my students are from Central America, and some are undoubtedly here without papers. Trump couldn’t possible evict 11 million undocumented immigrants, right? One of the reasons I went in to this profession is to share the joy of teaching immigrants about uniquely American opportunities. Like how in America, you can arrive with little money, no family connections, and get a good education. You can work hard and go to college or graduate and buy a car and a house. My grandfather immigrated from Ireland and worked as a steamfitter in the Boston suburbs. His children went to college and became professors and business people. In America you can avoid gang violence by living in the right neighborhood, and by making good decisions about your leisure time. My father regularly visited the library and won the state Spelling Bee and a trip to Washington, DC. You can imagine how proud his Irish-nanny mother felt to accompany him by train. In America you can be from anywhere in the world and  go to any church you want. You can wear a head scarf and go to the mosque if you want. You can hold a rally and speak your mind or refuse to salute the flag if you want. Because that’s your right. “La migra!” they joked in 6th period. You can choose to take advantage of all that is here. Isn’t free choice and opportunity what the American Dream is all about?

But now, with a Trump presidency looming menacingly over us, my students are already limited in their choices because now Trump has unleashed an anti-immigrant, xenophobic plague that is already infecting us with fear. How will they be able to advocate for themselves in the face of bullies? I have to show them how to listen respectfully to others, how to disagree with an idea without demeaning the speaker. I have to teach them about the values that we hold dear as Americans. They fled their countries to hear the lessons that I have not yet taught. I think now, more than ever, my job is one of the most important ones in the country.

What we should say to the children is much better said in this Huff Post article that my colleague forwarded.

One of the characteristics Americans are known for is optimism. Tomorrow we’ll begin a Socratic Seminar for Oedipus Rex. I will urge my students to comment on the following: “The fall is not pure loss. There is some increase in awareness, some gain in self-knowledge, some discovery…Though it arouses solemn emotion, tragedy does not leave its audience in a state of depression. Aristotle argues that one function of tragedy is to arouse the ‘unhealthy’ emotions of pity and fear and through a catharsis to cleanse us of those emotions.”

I think America needs a Socratic Seminar to process these election results. We need to relearn how to talk to each other and listen respectfully. I won’t stand for bullying or put-downs in the classroom but I will stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, and I will stand up for the rights of my students.