After the most divisive election in living memory, healing begins with resistance

For Kelly Mayhew, an English teacher at San Diego City College, the day after Donald Trump won the Electoral College vote for president of the United States, was probably her worst as a teacher. 

After the real estate tycoon and reality TV show star won, teachers around the state struggled to talk with their students about Trump, who has said he wants to build a wall between Mexico and the United States, that he will deport 2 to 3 million undocumented immigrants, suggested a Muslim registry, and was caught on tape bragging that he sexually assaulted women. 

Mayhew was up late, running an election for her local, AFT Local 1931. She went to her Honors English class the next morning at 9:30 having gotten only about an hour of sleep. The students, who had just finished a unit on being black in America, presented videos they’d made, dealing with subjects such as redlining, criminal justice, and environmental racism. 

“That was really beautiful and resonant,” said Mayhew. “Then in my Gender Studies class, an 18-year-old Mexican-American student came up at the end of class weeping in terror, afraid her mother and father and brother would be deported.”

Many teachers at Soquel High School in Santa Cruz were also sleep-deprived and on edge the day after the election, says Casey Carlson, a resource special education teacher there. She says teachers wanted to provide a place where students could discuss what Trump’s election could mean. 

“We got questions like, ‘Is World War III going to happen?’ and ‘Are all Latinos going to be deported?’ Carlson said. She tweeted after school that it was the “worst teaching day of my career.”

“As a union teacher, I’m really worried about who’s going to be appointed to the Supreme Court. I’m not afraid I’m going to be fired for stepping up, but if our right to have a union is taken away, that’s a huge fear.”

Carlson had started working with her students the year before on how to talk about the candidate you support and use facts and listen to the opinions of others. In Santa Cruz, most of the students were for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, but there were also Trump supporters. Doing all that groundwork made a big difference, Carlson says. The students have been mostly respectful of one another, and she wants to make sure Trump supporters don’t feel targeted either. She adds that her district has been supportive, stating there wouldn’t be punitive action for a student walkout in protest the Monday following the election. 

At Berkeley High School, students organized a walkout the day after the election. Economics teacher and Berkeley Federation of Teachers organizer Matt Meyer estimates about two-thirds of the school’s 3,000 students participated. 

“There was a lot of support for undocumented students and women’s rights and Muslims and African Americans. We’re a diverse high school and those voices were front and center,” he said. “It was really cool the students were showing support for each other and using this as a way to build community.”

Students also expressed specific fears of family members losing health benefits as well as general fears about the rise of white supremacy under Trump, Meyer says. Living in Berkeley, known for its commitment to social justice and free speech, many feel shock and grief about the election. 

Miriam Stahl, lead teacher of Berkeley High’s Arts and Humanities Academy, also saw this shock and grief in her students. The following week, after deciding to make art in protest, students created a poster of an anatomically correct heart and a fist, with the words, “Your heart is a weapon the size of your fist. Keep fighting. Keep loving.” The $10 price for the posters goes to Emily’s List, an organization backing women for public office, and to Planned Parenthood. 

Stahl says that the students attended an event with a performance artist and the woman who started the popular literacy site Brain Pickings. The two women saw the poster and loved it. They both tweeted about it, and Stahl, the illustrator of Rad American Women A-Z and Rad Women Worldwide, says those tweets have led to requests for posters from all over the country. 

Carol Perez also works in Berkeley as a family engagement coordinator at two elementary schools. The day after the election, the halls were mostly silent, she says. She and her colleagues in the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees have heard stories about hate crimes — a woman getting her hijab pulled off in Oakland, for example — and they created a wall of Post-it notes from students and families with messages of love and of what kind of world they want, based on a similar wall in the New York subway. They are also putting together a forum on immigration, and Perez has gotten high school students to set up a database of resources that everyone can use. She and her colleagues want to get ready for what could happen under Trump, Perez says. 

“It’s obviously hard to predict, but based on who he’s picking for cabinet members and advisors, they’re not friends of people of color and immigrants,” she said. “With a Republican Congress, they can pass all kinds of harmful legislation against Social Security and Medicare, which are lifelines for the families we serve.”

Cynthia Eagleton, an ESL teacher at the San Mateo Adult School, also worries about getting adequately prepared for changes. She’s concerned about what could happen to pubic education if Trump’s administration tries to privatize it. 

Eagleton says her students were excited and hopeful before the election — both about the possibility of a president who might do something about immigration reform — and about a rent control measure in San Mateo County, one of the most expensive regions in the state. Neither happened. 

“It was a double whammy,” she said. “It kind of felt like on a local and national level, people were saying, ‘We don’t want you here.’” 

This seems to mark the beginning of a particularly tough time for teachers as evidenced by a Mountain View history teacher and Holocaust scholar, who talked with his students about parallels between Donald Trump and Adolph Hitler. When a parent expressed concern, he was put on paid leave while there was an “investigation.” The teacher has decided to retire after teaching at the school for 40 years, spurred by the lack of support from his administration. 

Discussing controversial issues is one of many reasons why unions are so critical now, says Carlson. 

“As a union teacher, I’m really worried about who’s going to be appointed to the Supreme Court,” she said. “I’m not afraid I’m going to be fired for stepping up, but if our right to have a union is taken away, that’s a huge fear.”

Students and staff need to feel supported, Eagleton says, so they won’t lose heart and can keep fighting. Eagleton proposed a big banner in front of the school saying “Welcome,” and a school board member wants a resolution stating that no one in the district will share students’ immigration status. 

At Berkeley High, Meyer thinks momentum is building. 

“They’re definitely ready to fight,” he said. “This election has solidified the need to be active in the world.”

— By Emily Wilson, CFT Reporter