In fall 2000, I’m a junior in high school, still a year and a half away from voting age. My mom plays KFWB — with its terse, hurried headlines and “traffic on the ones” — in the kitchen while she makes lunch. My dad sometimes tunes in to AM talk radio on the way to dropping me off at school, but it’s more often hit songs of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. We don’t have cable TV.
In the days of dial-up internet and no cell phones, it’s easy to tune out the news. Of course, there are issues that I feel passionate about, but it’s a philosophical sort of passion, borne of a desire to think critically and to debate with my friends. I know enough about current events to keep up with the late night talk show monologues, and that’s generally enough for me.
It feels as if the presidential election is something that is happening very far away; another genre of celebrity gossip that piques my interest but doesn’t touch my life.
I distinctly remember bringing a tiny AM/FM radio to school, listening wide-eyed to updates as Bush v. Gore is decided. It’s the first time the mask shifts for me, and I see how fragile and tenuous our democracy is. It comes down to the personal judgement of a few people, a few errant marks on a few ballots, and generations of powerful people negotiating in back rooms so that they keep their power. I’m sitting in the front row of the choir room when the Supreme Court makes its ruling.
In the months between the protracted end to that election and my 18th birthday, I find out that national politics aren’t actually so far away. I’m standing in that same choir room on Sept. 11, 2001, hearing the awful news from a friend who will eventually enlist in the military. By the end of my senior year, many more of my classmates will make the same decision — one of them, Israel Garcia, will not make it home.
I grew up comfortable and middle class in a diverse, welcoming city in a solidly liberal state. I had the privilege of an insulating bubble that allowed me to believe that politics were something for grownups to worry about and for teenagers to exchange witty barbs over. I felt frustration and curiosity when I tuned in — I never felt fear. And I always had the ability to tune out when I wanted to.
My students have a different experience. I teach at Jordan High School; our student body is 82% Latino and 93% come from low-income households.
During the 2016 election, my freshmen told me about being harassed as they walked to school, a full-grown man crowing about an impending Trump victory as he shouted insults at 15-year-olds. When xenophobic rhetoric about the border heats up, it’s my students’ families that the President is sneering about. When he winks at suburban women and tells them he’ll protect them, it’s my students’ neighborhoods he’s denigrating. He’s a bully with a flag pin and a Presidential podium, and my students can’t walk away.
It’s my students’ healthcare that hangs in the balance. It’s their cousin who won’t speak about her time in the immigration detention center. Their older siblings are DREAMers, and they don’t know whether those same doors will be open when it’s time for them to graduate. Threats to remove federal funding from schools? That means tutors, mental health professionals, and vital technology for our students. And it’s their parents who are still on the job during this pandemic, leaving my students helpless with worry.
During our daily check-in on Nov. 2, I asked my students for an emotional self-assessment. I told them to complete the sentence: “Thinking about the election makes me feel _____ because ______.” Their responses weren’t a surprise. They were nervous, scared, and anxious. They told me that they were having trouble sleeping. They feared potentially violent reactions, regardless of the results of the ballot counts. It’s not fair that my students live on the edge, impotently hoping as adults in Florida and Pennsylvania decide their families’ futures.
I want so much to tell them that everything will be okay, and that their worry is misplaced. But, as their teacher, that’s not my job. Instead, I tell them the truth — there may be dark days ahead, but we can rely on each other. I tell them that I’m proud to be part of their community. They can’t vote yet, but they’ve already made a difference for our future, simply through their strength and resilience. I tell them that, when I filled out my ballot two weeks prior to the election, I was doing it for them.