Fall has come and gone, and Winter beckons. Here in the Willamette Valley, that means the grass is yellow and parched, the Himalayan blackberries have fallen from the thorny vines, the trailers piled with sweet corn that towered at every roadside with signs touting three or four for the dollar have risen and emptied and gone, and the last apples are now being plucked. The pumpkins have been chosen from the fields and carved and lit, and all the costumes have been worn and the candy eaten, and now the turkeys have been baked and carved, the last leftovers consumed. All we must do is pretend not to live in a world where white militant terrorists run free and peaceful native protesters are tear-gassed and locked away, and embrace the new America, where Trumpian white nationalism reigns supreme, and every person of color can be made unwelcome, every immigrant sent home, every woman seized by the—well, what the President-elect said. Welcome, winter of our discontent.
Children turn circles on the rain-darkened streets on scooters and bikes and skateboards, ignore the voices calling them home to chase balls kicked into the earlier and earlier dusk, squeezing the last light from the last sunny days of Fall. And now that the new backpacks have been shouldered and broken in, each rainy morning the buses fill and empty, and the halls clamor with the possibility of raised, innocent voices—where is promise to be found in America, in this season of political disillusion, if not in our schools?
Education is our institution of last resort, the final refuge of opportunity and equality. And if this is too much responsibility for a child or teacher or administrator to bear, nobody quits in the temples of our public schools, when every teacher’s kindness, patience, and creativity stretch far as they can reach, and every child might still be prepared beyond expectation, and go on unhindered by obstacles of home life and language and poverty and ability.
The reality sets in soon enough, of course, in the hard numbers that demonstrate that the amount of money a child’s family is born into is likely to outstrip even the most exceptional low-income striver’s best efforts. By the age of nine, a child from a low-income household is likely to be three full grade levels behind their upper-income peers. So much, Lady Liberty, for your offer to ‘the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breath free’– today, President-elect Trump has promised to build a wall to ensure we can adequately deny others the American dream. And even before our resurgent racisms and violences aggregated in this new neo-fascist racialism, the American education system was deeply unmeritocratic: Poor children who have beat those odds and obstacles in early preparation and literacy support and enrichment in eighth grade, and excel on tests, are still less likely to graduate college (26%) than a wealthy child with the advantages of tutoring, enrichment, and private schools, who nonetheless tests poorly (31%). Even before this election, one was better off being rich and slow, but cushioned by the assurances and safety of generational wealth (hello, Mr. Trump!), than one was being born poor and whip-smart and aspiring.
I saw this first-hand in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta, where a decade ago I taught fourth grade with Teach For America—the smartest girl in my class, who possessed an IQ nearing 200, never graduated high school, and today is incarcerated. And I see this same situation every day in the college classroom, where I have the privilege of teaching low-income, first-generation college students of diverse background at the University of Oregon: so much can conspire to hold back a child without resources or support. Recently, a funny, spirited, talented, kind young black man I’d taught met an early end just before he was to graduate—and far too often, that is the American story we don’t speak of. Dreams deferred, or dashed; imminent success transformed into immediate tragedy.
And yet, I still believe in the power of the classroom. When I reflect on the children I taught in the Delta, one of whom is bound to Memphis for college on a full ride this fall, I don’t despair. I feel a flutter in my stomach each morning, as I button up my shirt and shoulder my bag and prepare to return to the classroom, because I still believe that education matters. I rounded out my curriculum to teach Ta Nehisi-Coates “Between the World and Me,” to freshmen at the UO who have lived something close to his experience, and included DAPL and the SPLC’s report following the election, noting the rising tide of hate crimes since Trump’s election, and how Oregon is the most racist state in the nation post-election on the measurable (selection bias for reporting might skew these numbers a little). We discuss the recent blackface incident here at the University of Oregon—first, just before the election, a black law professor decided to go all-out for Halloween; just after Trump’s election, two white high school kids came to campus to flaunt their face-painted colors. I ask my students to tell the truth, on the page, in their reaction to Coates, in small groups if they felt safe. They talk of violences, in families and neighborhoods and schools; they share their family’s stories and hopes and fears and dreams; they talk of navigating the world in their own skins, and share experiences of racism, pre and post election, truckfuls of white boys shouting ‘ni**er!’, heil-five drive-bys on campus election night, the sense of unwelcome and unbelonging that many have known their whole lives, now the policy of the federal government. My Lakota student talks a little of DAPL and our country’s history and her own heritage. I ask my students what Coates would say, about our Malheur nativists and their armed white entitlement, about Mr. Trump’s statements about Mexicans and Muslims and blacks, about their own experiences in the world, and where they believe our country is headed. Sometimes I talk, but mostly I listen. And I do believe that some of my students will read a passage, and hear in the words or in their own voice or that of their classmates something that will resonate, aggregate, take on clarity and volume. I believe that they may begin to think for themselves in a way that will help them rise. Not easily or simply, and not despite the odds, but nonetheless …
I still believe in the courage of this country’s students and educators, to chase the beautiful, fleeting dream. When Langston Hughes said “America was never America to me,” he spoke of the dream he would not abandon, still imminent even in the persistent absence of equality. The forces Trump has marshaled and emboldened are American, and were already here, evident in the lives and circumstances of many. Sexism would no more be unmade by a Clinton presidency than racism ended with the election of Mr. Obama. That America is Trumpian—racist, misogynist, nationalist, bully and brutal and base, is clear now. So now we know America’s affirmed ugliness. So now we may have to fight harder than ever before to protect those most vulnerable, in our own communities, and further afield. And so it is that I hew to the promise of the classroom, and refuse to give up hope—all is threatened, but not yet lost.
Photo: Getty Images