“Are they gonna’ make us all leave?”
That was the question one of my 8th grade students asked today.
He sits in the front row – quiet, reserved, eyes usually pointed sullenly at his desk.
He doesn’t ask questions. Not publicly.
If he has something to say, he’ll ask me before or after class.
But there he was with his hand in the air and his eyes firmly fixed on mine.
“Tyree, are you afraid someone’s going to make you leave your country?”
He nodded and I saw several other black faces nodding throughout the room.
“Are you afraid someone’s going to send you… where… to Africa?”
“Yeah,” Tyree said for the group.
I teach Language Arts at an under-resourced school in Western Pennsylvania. I’m white and most of my students are black. Almost all of them are from poor families. Very few are Hispanic or Muslim.
We had been discussing the Holocaust in preparation to read “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
I often try to make connections with current events during this time, but today I didn’t have to do any connecting. My students did it for me.
“I don’t like Donald Trump,” Jacklyn said. “He’s racist.”
And Tyree spoke again – impatiently, nervously – “Who are you voting for, Mr. Singer?”
I paused. “I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to say,” I responded, “but I will say this…”
And I looked all of them in the face.
“Not. Donald. Trump.”
You could feel the sigh go through them like a physical thing.
They are actually scared. And something like it happened in every class today.
I mentioned Adolph Hitler and they came back with Donald Trump.
History had come alive. It was a boogeyman haunting the shadows. And the only thing that dispels shadows is light.
I had to reassure them. It wasn’t in my lesson plan. I had done no prior research for it, but this was the direction they were pulling me. I had had no intention of talking about Donald Trump, but we needed to go there.
We had a discussion comparing and contrasting the two men. They both wrote books, but “Mein Kampf” is very different than “The Art of the Deal.” Both were captivating speakers who promote violence, but Trump speaks at a third grade level. Both said hateful things against minorities, but only Hitler advocated eradicating people from the face of the Earth. Both proposed minorities be monitored by the government but Hitler focused mostly on Jews while Trump focuses mostly on Muslims.
The conversation went on.
In over a decade in the classroom, I’ve never had students so upset about politics. Sure they get angry when unarmed people of color are shot by the police. Sure they feel the pull of Baltimore and Ferguson. But never have they cared about who’s running for President. They won’t be able to vote, themselves, for five or more years.
But they wanted to talk public affairs. What was I to do? The purpose of history is to learn from it. We look to the past so we won’t repeat it. Yet that was a lesson I didn’t need to teach. They already knew it. That’s why they were bringing this up.
We talked political parties. We discussed how the Nazis were a political organization like the Democrats and the Republicans are today. We talked about how Hitler had been a house painter and Donald Trump was a reality TV star who inherited most of his money.
And we talked about racism.
Why people hate others. The definition of prejudice – how racism is one kind of prejudice but there are many others – hating people because of religion, because they’re disabled, because of their sexuality.
Jermaine said he was uncomfortable going to the bathroom in public in case someone gay walked in.
I asked if he thought a gay man would try to make a move on him while he was on the toilet. I asked if he’d ever make a move on someone while that person was on the toilet.
The class laughed.
Someone mentioned Chicago and how protesters had forced Trump to cancel his rally. Yes. An 8th grade student knew about that.
And then someone mentioned Bernie Sanders. Yes. They brought him up, too.
Some of my kids liked him because they said he wasn’t racist. Others thought he would legalize marijuana.
So I asked if anyone knew about the other candidates. And that’s where their news-savvy faded. Someone said something strange about Hillary Clinton that they heard she was against soil. I still don’t know what he meant.
Another child said he heard Tom Cruise was running. “TED Cruz,” I corrected. None had heard of John Kasich.
I explained how a primary election works. We talked about how Hitler was elected. We talked about the Reichstag vs. Congress.
“Didn’t we have concentration camps here in America?” someone asked. So we talked about Japanese internment camps and compared those to what you’d find in Europe.
At some point I lost track of all we talked about. But when the bell rang, the tension was gone.
They got up calmly and went to the door. Many of them made a point to cheerfully say goodbye or dap me up on their way. You always know middle school students love you when they do that.
Jason stopped by my desk on the way out and said, “My dad’s going to vote for Donald Trump.” He was blushing.
“He may have good reasons,” I said. “Maybe you should ask him about it.” He smiled and walked out.
Only one student was left.
“You, okay, Tyree?” I asked.
He was grinning. “You’d be a good history teacher, Mr. Singer,” he said.
I shook my head. “And you’re a good history student.”
I clapped him on the back, before writing him a pass to his next class.
My plans sat murdered on my desk.
But I had taught a much better lesson.
Nothing happens without cause.
We can understand it if we try.
Understanding is the key to prevention.
And we’re in this together.
NOTE: All student names have been changed to protect their anonymity.