On the first day of classes, I give my students a notecard and a set of questions. It’s their chance to tell me privately if there is anything they’d like me to know. Mostly, they say things like “I don’t really like reading but I’m going to try my best!” Sometimes they have a chronic illness that they want me to know about, or a condition like ADHD. Very rarely, they tell me that they suffer from depression or anxiety.

 

I implemented this practice so that students could confide in me, if needed. I do this now because I’d made mistakes in the past at other schools that I regret deeply. Misgendering a trans student. Learning that a student had a mental illness, or a recent trauma, that I spent half a semester or more in the dark about.

 

But at my current school, here in America’s heartland, no one divulges much. Most of them don’t even know what I mean when I ask what their preferred pronoun is. In the past I’ve said, “If you don’t know what that means, then it doesn’t apply to you.”

 

I won’t answer that way again.

 

On Wednesday morning, I made my way to campus to meet some students for conferences. I’d been up since 3:30 a.m. when I woke up to feed my infant son, checked my phone and saw that Donald Trump had been elected president. Long after my son had been nursed back to sleep, I stayed awake reading—articles, tweets, facebook updates from friends, family, and former students.

 

As I drove to work, my body felt something almost identical to what it felt just after September 11—the same obsessive, spiraling anxiety, the same blindness when I tried to look into the future. I thought back to the autumn of 2001, remembered watching the news and waiting for the next disaster. And it wasn’t that this anxiety was unfounded: October of 2001 was filled with news of anthrax. In November, there was another plane crash in New York, this one due to mechanical error, which killed 260 people. In those cases, in the early hours of each new crisis, we didn’t know what to expect. Was it happening all over again?

 

This sense of déjà vu was compounded by the fact that I teach at my alma mater, where I had just started my senior year in September of 2001. Fifteen years ago, during that awful autumn, I worked on my senior thesis and made money by taking shifts at the college switchboard. We kept the tv on all the time in the admissions lobby, tuned to cable news.

 

When I arrived on campus Wednesday, the library café was quiet. No televisions were on. A blender whirred from the smoothie station where a couple students were waiting for their drinks.

 

One by one, in ten-minute intervals, my students came to their conferences. I looked each one on the face as they sat across from me. I asked them, “How are you?”

 

They all said they were good. They all seemed to mean it. Not one of them said a word about the election.

 

Some of them asked how I was. Tired, I said. It was a long night with the election. A few of them nodded nervously. A few of them just waited silently for me to begin discussing their papers—the ones where I had asked them to contrast two figures from the texts we’d read. They could choose from The Republic, The Iliad, The Bible. A big focus of my teaching was on connecting these texts to contemporary issues. Though not all teachers agree with the necessity of this approach, it’s important for me that my students understand that these texts reflect the stories we tell now—how should we live? What does it mean to be just?

 

When we talk about these things in class, I have difficulty getting my students to discuss. When Achilles rides over corpses with his chariot, spattering it with blood, it required all my ingenuity to get them to talk about it. When the crowd chants for Jesus to be crucified instead of Barrabas, the murderer, my students didn’t have much to say then either.

 

It’s possible I’m a poor facilitator of class discussion. And it’s possible, too, that when my students sat across from me during their conferences, some of them were as grief-stricken or panicked as I was. Perhaps some of them were elated. I can’t say I am certain their silence, their Midwestern sense of propriety and politeness, indicated that they were part of the over 40% of the population who didn’t vote in Tuesday’s election.

 

But I come back to thinking about the notecards I hand out at the beginning of each semester. There is no point in congratulating myself for giving students a safe space to talk to me and then failing to educate a majority who don’t know what I mean when I ask about preferred pronouns. The phrase “teachable moment” always struck me as goofy and over-earnest. Not any more. If my students stay silent in the face of important conversations or don’t show up to an election with such monumental consequences—perhaps I’m complicit in that, too. I can’t force my students to vote (though in four years: extra credit, mark my words), but if I truly care, as an educator, about getting them to think critically and articulate their opinions, I need to start teaching them about the biggest, most important platform of all—our own democracy.

Featured image courtesy of Victor Bjorklund on Flickr. 

About The Author

Profile photo of Colleen Abel

Colleen Abel is a writer and teacher from Chicago. She is the author of two collections of poetry, and has published essays, reviews, poems, and stories in Colorado Review, Pleiades, New Orleans Review, Southern Review, and many other venues. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is the Head of Academic Outreach at Hippo Reads.