Face to face. One on one. Human to human. I begin every class I teach by stopping at each desk and asking students individually, “How are you today?”
I usually get a thumbs up, or two thumbs up on really good days. Thumbs down appear in the midst of midterms. Sometimes I get shrugs, or horizontally wavering thumbs.
Today, in two classes of 36 students representing a variety of majors and grade levels, I hesitated when I walked in and saw:
Faces flushed with anger.
Shoulders shuddering with sobs.
Faces drawn pale white in anger.
One girl holding her head in her hands.
“How are you?” I asked, in a more gentle voice than usual. Thumbs were replaced by words:
“I feel like I need to apologize and hug people who look different from me.”
For the first time in 16 semesters, I almost didn’t go to school today. I wasn’t sure I could be professional, be worth whatever bits of $48,310 annual tuition students pay for one of my 50-minute classes about writing. Yet it seemed exceedingly important that I honor my commitment to be present.
I didn’t teach to the syllabus. Instead, I offered students the chance to leave without penalty, or to stay and process the election together. Four of 36 walked out the door. The rest sat in a circle and we listened to teach other.
One told of a grandmother with illegal status who woke up this morning afraid to leave the house.
One wondered how pundits could get the outcome so wrong.
Another said that she, as a Muslim, felt a new responsibility to be a model of love.
Many said that they felt numerically overpowered by older voters who didn’t know what they were doing.
“I hear you all,” I said. Then I read to them from this piece I wrote in a hurry before I left home:
I have no words for you today.
I have no words because to me today marks the beginning of a new time when words seemingly don’t matter.
How can I teach you that knowledge of rhetoric can create equal power, can create equal active agency, can level the playing field of your ability to be heard when, in the end, words cannot overcome the truth that at any time we may discover, in the darkest recesses of our hearts, our capacity to be a scared, angry, vindictive, hateful, selfish people.
This is not the time to be hateful and vindictive.
For me, today is a day for sadness.
I mourn the seemingly acceptable loss of civil discourse.
I mourn the gains of hate speech as tolerable public conversation by a presidential candidate who has now become our president-elect.
I mourn the rise of hatred and suspicion for those who are different from us, and I remember whoever we are, there are always “those who are different from us.”
I mourn the seeming stumble of progress toward hope for a fair, just and equal country.
I mourn the forgetfulness that none of us can have everything we want, and the reality that we must be willing to compromise so those who have less than we do have a chance to earn a living wage.
I mourn the memory of a time when we felt united in our sincere work to bring “liberty and justice for all.”
I mourn the victory of the bully. I mourn the silent.
Let yourself feel sad. Or glad. But let yourself feel. Then gather your energy.
Harvest the skills that uplift humanity: rigorous thinking, deep inquiry, articulate communication, respect for differences of opinion, of perspectives, of points of view, the deepest well of patience you’ve ever imagined.
This class is called Composing Self: How and why writers create a self for rhetorical purposes.
What is your purpose beyond your self?
Today is an open gate. Ask yourselves: What passes through? What will we shut out? How, in the end, will we decide to respond to uncertainty?
I paused to turn on music.
What kind of world do you want? Say anything. “World” by Five For Fighting filled the space. It was a cheesy choice, I know, but the best I could do in my mourning state.
I asked the students to answer that question. What kind of world do you want? I listened to the tip-tap of keyboards, then gave everyone a chance to speak their vision:
“Acceptance of all races.”
“Economic opportunity to work and make a living wage.”
“Acceptance of all religions and sexual identities.”
“What can you do today to call that forth?” I challenged them, warning that it might take them out of their comfort zone. “This kind of conversation takes me out of my comfort zone,” I admitted.
“I’m on much more solid ground talking about rhetorical discourse and ways for you to improve your writing rather than improve the world. But I think this is the conversation we needed to have today.”
Class ended and I gathered my things, sending them out with one final directive.
“Talk to each other, especially someone with different views. Listen to each other. Hear.”
“Thank you for doing this,” one student said on her way out.”Yes, thank you,” said another.
“We need each other,” I said as much to myself as to those who pay me to think aloud.
Usually students stream away from the classroom, silently checking their phones. Today they paused outside in the hallway. Some in groups of two, others clusters of three or more. They were talking to each other. Face to face.
I walked outside the building and stumbled onto an impromptu protest. Students holding signs, chanted and marched through campus, then streamed down the streets of Orange toward the small circle in the center of town.
“You do not represent US”
“Not my president.”
“No justice. No peace.”
“Love not hate.”
“We are defined by how we rise.”
I almost stayed home today and missed what’s happening next. And I have a feeling, no, I know, we will all figure out a way to come together and be stronger for it.