On 9 November, my first thought upon waking was, ‘I can’t.’ I couldn’t bear to listen to the stuttering attempts of newscasters making digestible our new terrifying reality. I couldn’t bear to hear our president elect’s voice piping through the tinny speaker of my radio alarm clock. I couldn’t get out of bed. But most of all, I couldn’t face my students. Nonetheless, in a few short hours, I was supposed to be at the front of a college classroom in New Jersey.
The day before, I taught a literature class to twenty-five students, few of them English majors. I had planned a discussion of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. As usual, we opened class with a couple of student presentations on the text.
In my class of twenty-five, there are five obvious students of color, three of them young black women. One of them gave the first presentation. A quieter student, she passed around her handout and stood at the front of the classroom. In a trembling voice, she faced the room full of her white classmates and began to explain race as a social construction. She stumbled and searched for her words. She clenched the piece of paper in her hand, with its bulleted notes. The topic of her presentation was the ‘ethical content’ of the assigned text, and in this halting manner, but with her head held high, she discussed the ‘ethics’ of slavery. Just after she described the way slave women had their newborn infants taken from them and sold to other plantations, she paused and stared out at the silent class. She blinked. Just imagine, she said. And then continued.
I don’t think the other students saw the tears in my eyes as she spoke, but they heard me clap for a long time after she finished. I wanted to carry her out of that classroom on my shoulders. But I knew there was no place to carry her. As I clapped, I offered a silent, fervent prayer that this election’s result would be a step toward a world in which she was safe.
I live in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, where my voting location had been 95 per cent full of African American voters, and the mood on Tuesday morning was warm, even convivial – it was safe to assume we were all there to vote for the same person, and shared a relative confidence in the outcome.
I work, however, in a red county in New Jersey, at a private university where Trump was elected by a small margin in our undergraduate student body’s straw poll. Our students are more than 60 per cent white, with a high number of first generation college students. Despite it being an hour’s drive away, many of them have never been to Manhattan. Most of them have never left the country, and some not even the county – for lack of motivation rather than resources. I often struggle to relate to them academically – I was an intellectually ambitious, highly politicized college student who idealized radical feminist thinkers and wrote a senior thesis twice the recommended page length.
I suspect that my students are a pretty ordinary sample of their generation. They are also, on the whole, kind, good-natured, and teachable. Some are incredibly talented. In my four years of teaching them I have calibrated my curriculum to try to reach them, and a lot of the time it does. This requires a kind of creativity I didn’t have to employ prior to working there, and is rewarding in ways that I didn’t experience teaching other, more cosmopolitan student bodies.
I teach them about feminism without ever uttering the word feminism, because I know how instantly it will alienate my students. I teach intersectionality without ever defining it. I fill my syllabi with women and writers of color, and don’t announce it. My students don’t seem to notice. But they read the books. And when I see that flicker of awakening in their faces as they discuss James Baldwin or Jesmyn Ward or Junot Diaz or Joy Harjo and connect their own sympathies with people different from them, sometimes for the first time, I am grateful that I teach here, and not at a school where all of the undergraduates are already fluent in words like hegemony, diaspora, paradigm and intersectionality.
But teaching them requires energy and patience. It requires optimism, a belief that sparking the curiosity or consciousness of a few people every semester is worth it. Most of the time I am blessed with that optimism. But not on the morning of 9 November.
Like many of us, I went to sleep after the results had turned, but before the winner was officially announced. I desperately wanted to wake up to a different result. I have not felt that kind of pain and fear for my country, for my beloveds, since 9/11. This hurt in a different place – created a chaos inside of me that wasn’t mirrored this time in the streets of my city. It changed the way I felt among my fellow citizens, about whom I felt I’d made naive assumptions, even in my relative cynicism.
Since childhood, my grief has had a refrain: I want to go home.
I grew up in a loving home. My mother was, and still is, a Buddhist psychotherapist and staunch feminist. My father is a Puerto Rican sea captain. They are both Democrats and are both from working class towns in New Jersey much like the one where I teach. I spent my early life carrying signs in peaceful marches and reading while my mother attended meetings of our local National Organization for Women chapter. I also spent a lot of my childhood waiting for my father to return from sea.
I want to go home, I whispered alone in my bedroom at eight years old, missing him. I want to go home, I whispered, alone in my bedroom at twelve years old, after fighting with a class of fellow sixth graders about my right to love another woman. I want to go home, I whispered, alone in my bedroom at fourteen, after a senior boy grabbed my breast in the high school hallway, meeting my eyes defiantly as he stared down at me. I want to go home, I whispered alone in my bedroom at twenty years old, after shooting speedballs, terrified of the day that my family would find out by way of my own dead body. I want to go home, I whispered alone in my bedroom at thirty-six years old, on the morning that Donald Trump became our president-elect.
The home that I longed for at eight years old, at twelve and fifteen and twenty and thirty-six, was not a literal place. It was a feeling. It was a faith that I, and the people I loved, would be safe. That whatever pain we suffered would pass without killing us, or the parts of us we needed to survive, to thrive, to create love and art and social change.
No matter what our age, this kind of despair manifests in the same way: as a wish that someone will rescue us. A parent, God, a place inside ourselves where we can find refuge and reassurance that everything will be okay.
I considered canceling my classes. How could I face my students? Ten years ago, when I began teaching, I trained myself to hide my politics. For the first five years of teaching, I even hid my tattoos. Not out of shame, but out of protection. And because I wanted to do my job effectively. I wanted to teach students who had different beliefs than me to love literature, to believe in the inherent value and power of art. To understand how much of our history is archived there. I wanted to turn them into bibliophiles, champions of human rights, believers in their power as compassionate citizens. And most of the time I knew my best chance of succeeding meant hiding how desperately I wanted to succeed.
But Professor Febos did not feel like someone I could be that day. I could only be this devastated woman who wanted to go home. This queer woman sunk in terror for her country. For her loved ones. For all black and brown and immigrant and queer and trans and disabled and female people. For all the boy children, white children, and girls in her country who would learn how to be men, or white, or women – how to be Americans under Donald Trump’s administration.
And then, like so many times before, I remembered the person who had always rescued me. The person within me who had built her entire life around the ways she could best keep herself and her loved ones and her country safe. The person who had become a teacher and a writer for precisely those reasons. Because in a country whose government we do not trust, who do we need more than writers and teachers? And what is more powerful than an inspired youth? I turned off the radio. The newscasters would not make it okay. My parents would not make it okay. My students were probably our best hope. And I could reach them faster than anyone.
Two hours later, as Hillary Clinton gave her concession speech, I walked into my classroom and told my students to take out their notebooks. I had no idea what I was going to say to them. My heart pounded as I stared at their expectant faces. Out of the fifteen students in my Introduction to Creative Writing seminar, twelve are young white women, and the other two are young men of color. I have no idea their politics, though I would wager at least a couple of them voted for Trump. I had no desire to alienate any of them. As they dug into their backpacks and produced their pens, I stared at them. I scoured my insides for some trust that underneath whatever differences, we all harbored an earnest desire for the safety and freedom of other humans. To my relief, I found it, a warm ember in my gut that glowed when I touched it.
I told my students to describe a person opposite them in the most obvious ways: race, religion, sexual orientation, country of origin. When their pens slowed, I asked them to describe the country they wish for that person. After a few more minutes, I asked them to think of a child they loved – their own, a niece or nephew, an infant version of themselves. I asked them to describe the country they wished that child to come of age in.
I watched them as they wrote – their smooth foreheads crimped with concentration, their hands moving across notebook pages. When they looked up, I asked them to reconcile those visions into a single vision of a country where both of those realities could exist, and both people would be free to inhabit them. They stared at me for a few beats, and then began writing. Some of them paused, pens hovering over paper as they stared into space and worked out some detail in their minds. They wrote for a long time. When the scratching of pens quieted, I took a deep breath. Something had shifted in the room. We all felt it. As if there was an ember in each of them, stoked by their pens, that had glowed warm and bright enough for us all to see.
I want, I said, searching for my next move. I want you to make a list. They laughed, first quietly, then louder, because this was how I started so many of their in-class exercises, and because they needed so badly to laugh. I want you to make a list of all the things you can do to build this home for us. This time, many of them nodded. They understood what I was asking them to do.
Photograph © Eli Christman