Teacher Nikki Wilks saw her high school students experience a gamut of emotions in her Memphis classroom on Wednesday as their behaviors reflected the polarizing divide in the nation itself.
One student who is a teen mom worried about raising her 3-year-old daughter in a nation led by President-elect Donald Trump. Fearing a climate of escalating anger over race and gender, she told Wilks that she just needed a hug.
Another student came into her classroom wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap, seemingly unphased by the anguish felt by many students in a school with a significant Latino population, a frequent target of Trump’s campaign speeches.
Wilks, a Hillary Clinton supporter, admitted to being “shellshocked” — in and out of tears all morning as she tried to teach her 12th-grade English classes at Kingsbury High School. Many of her students are 18 and had voted Tuesday in their very first election.
“The classes are much more somber than normal,” Wilks said. “It feels somewhat like everyone is walking around on eggshells (and) scared that if we actually vocalize it, we are making it more real, more permanent.”
Across the state, educators tried to offer a safe space for students to process the stunning Election Day results, in which Clinton won the national popular vote by a nose and Trump took the electoral vote — and the White House.
In schools in Nashville, which along with Memphis were in the only Tennessee counties easily won by Clinton, leaders waived off requests by reporters to visit classrooms. The goal was to minimize distractions and let teachers focus on their students, a spokesman said. Meanwhile, at one middle school, leaders of an after-school program let their immigrant students talk through the election and what it means. Many already had experienced the sting of campaign rhetoric, as well as bullying from other students for speaking Spanish.
On social media, educators acknowledged the challenges they faced and turned to their teaching mentors.
Others saw the election results as a call to action as they prepared to go back to work.
“Tomorrow I will go to work and I will teach my students,” said Rachel Altsman, an English teacher and librarian at the Collegiate School of Memphis, in an entry on Facebook. “We will read a book set in Afghanistan with Muslim characters and practice empathy. We will read poetry and learn to appreciate beauty. I will do everything I can to shield them from the hatred the world throws at them and to put a megaphone up to their mouths to amplify their voices. I will continue to fill our library with books that reflect and celebrate the diversity of our world. I will tell my students that they are beautiful and valuable and integral to the success of this country. I will tell them that God loves them exactly as they are and that there is room for them in the Kingdom.”
At Nashville’s Glencliff High School, Spanish teacher Caroline Miller opted to open up her classes with five minutes of discussion about the election. “I wanted to be a sounding board,” Miller said. “A lot (of students) were extremely upset. One girl in particular said she was on Facebook and there are a lot of memes of black people being deported back to Africa. … That’s a thing they’re talking about.”
The election was on the minds of students of all grade levels.
At Brewster Elementary School in Memphis, children who had been expecting a Clinton victory —and got one in a mock election last week — hoped but didn’t expect Trump will soften his rhetoric.
“Kids are listening and they’re getting hurt by him,” explained fourth-grader Jennifer Guerrero, mentioning the candidate’s frequent negative comments on Hispanic immigrants. “If they come here, it’s not because they want to come and destroy the place. It’s because they have a big reason to come. … Some people need better money to survive better and some people just don’t have homes.”
Her classmate, Jamiera Willis, said Americans should let the president-elect know what they think, even if they didn’t vote for Trump.
“Although he doesn’t get into the office until January, I think people should start writing letters so he can already be organized for when he gets in the office so that he knows what the citizens of America want,” she said.
At Stratford High School in Nashville, students continued the presidential debate in one criminal justice class. The teacher picked Lawrence Burns to be Trump, which suited the 17-year-old senior just fine. “I would have chosen Donald Trump because he tells the truth about what he’s going to do,” said Lawrence, who expects his candidate to “fight ISIS.”
But Shantorianna Forte, president of the study body at Stratford, had a different viewpoint based on watching all the presidential debates as part of her homework. “(Trump) was being rude. He would interrupt. He seemed very childish. In my economics class, we debated, and the students who liked Trump acted just like him. They would interrupt and were very childish,” said the 17-year-old senior.
Teachers grappled with how to frame the election in a constructive way, especially dealing with the issue of race in a campaign that was often racially charged. Matara Harris, who teaches fourth grade at a Memphis school where most students are black or Hispanic, said the goal is to teach students that “they can still make a difference in their own way.”
“That’s not dependent on who’s in office. It takes all of us together to help the person in office to realize what’s important and what needs to be the focus,” she said.
Chalkbeat reporters Caroline Bauman, Laura Faith Kebede and Grace Tatter contributed to this report.