In the days following November’s presidential election, my students shared with me – in conversations and in writing – their fears about our current president. Many feared the abrupt severance of their families – extended and nuclear – through his proposed policy of mass deportation. Some raised concerns about the possibility of civil or foreign war. Nearly all expressed outrage and grief over the growing normalization of overt racism and bigotry that were already far too present in their lives. Their fears were not unfounded. Throughout the state, my students’ friends and cousins reported chants of “Build the wall, deport them all” echoing throughout hallways and cafeterias. In a nearby middle school, a Muslim student had her hijab pulled off and thrown to the ground. The prologue to Trump’s chapter in American history was being written, and it was penned in ugliness and hate.
As a person of color raised by immigrant parents, I listened to my students’ fears with shared anxiety; I, too, know the immense burden of loving – with my entire being – a nation that often declares I do not belong. But as a highly educated, middle class, straight, cisgender man, I listened from a place of privilege that allowed me the distance to hope that Trump would not follow through with his destructive agenda.
That margin for hope has closed, and my students are the ones left on the outside. Trump now looms in my classroom every day. I see him in the student who will miss school when cuts to Obamacare threaten their health, or the health of someone they love. I see him in the student who carries the heavy weight of intergenerational trauma as our government continues its policy of placing corporate interests over the human rights and sovereignty of indigenous peoples. I see him in the faces of those students who will hear the message – in silences louder than screams – that, in this city upon a hill, some lives still matter more than others.
Nowhere will Trump’s fingerprints be more present than in the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. If Trump’s only qualifications are that he is male, white, and wealthy, Ms. DeVos’ resume is similarly brief. Never in history has our public education system been commanded by an individual who has never worked in public education, yet has built a political career trying to dismantle it; who is vehement in her stance on school choice, yet cannot unequivocally denounce guns in school or commit to enforcing campus sexual assault laws and protecting taxpayers and students against waste, fraud, and abuse in the student loan industry; who claims she will fight for all students, yet was not aware of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the bedrock law guaranteeing protections for students with disabilities; who champions a platform of disrupting broken systems, yet is herself compromised at every turn by flagrant conflicts of interest.
If Ms. DeVos is confirmed (an outcome that, despite admirable and vigorous protest from leading Democrats, seems inevitable) it will cement into place an official national education policy of hypocrisy that begins with Trump himself. We will find ourselves teaching students to invest in their education, while our leaders are doing the exact opposite. We will teach them to treat each other with respect, while their president promotes an ideology of division and flaunts, with impunity, his own history of sexual assault. We will teach them the value of reading and writing, while our president’s own literary habits rarely exceed 140 characters. But we will also teach them to resist, and if the history of passionate young people in America is any guide, they will listen.