My ninth-graders give me hope for the future

“I’m right,” I announced to the class on Thursday, two days after the election. They were a bit taken aback, and rightly so, because just two days before I had told them that I am an ardent anybody-but-Trump supporter and that statement had appeared to be highly partisan, a position that they have not found many teachers willing to take. But I was right then, and I continue to be right, and here is what you’ll need to know to understand how right I am.

I teach English to ninth-graders at Crater High School. and for the past 15 years I have started the school year with classroom rules and procedures and I always emphasize to the students that they are much closer to being adults than children — much closer to 18 than to 8 — and as such I try and craft rules that treat them like the fledgling adults I see them to be. I am sure that (at first) this comment made early on the first day of school seems like so much blathering by the graying old man standing at the front of the room, but this year — and I think they would agree with me — that concept would really sink in.

On election day I volunteered to cover the basics: the Electoral College and the 270-to-win concept; how a candidate can win the popular vote and lose the election; and a map or two showing historical election results by state and county. Lastly, I conducted a mock election and by anonymous ballot Trump won every class, in most cases by a landslide (I recall that Kanye West and the deceased gorilla Harambe earned more votes than Hillary). I ended by telling them that I had already voted for Hillary Clinton. Late Tuesday night, as the election results hardened in favor of Trump, I wondered how I would handle the subject the following day.

I eventually decided that bringing in the front page of the Mail Tribune was the most expedient method of dealing with an issue upon which I had no desire to dwell. I showed them the electoral vote numbers at the top of the page, the popular vote percentages (which later changed), told them that the results were solid (unlike in the 2000 election), and covered the election results in Congress. In a 60-minute period, that took all of 50 seconds. Then, I asked for questions. Before I tell you what happened next, let me assure the reader of one thing: I would brook absolutely no one to rub the election results in my face. And do you know what they asked?

The first question that I recall was, “how do you feel about the election?” I responded that I was stunned. “Why?” they asked. I was stunned that our great nation had supported a candidate that espoused bigoted, racist, sexist and religiously intolerant values. I was stunned that our nation had elected to the White House a candidate that suggested that his political opponent be either assassinated or jailed, one that attacked John McCain’s great service to our country as a war hero, one that made light of our civic duty to pay taxes, one that suggested he might not accept the will of the people and concede the election, and one that treated with disdain the family of a slain American serviceman.

Their response? The students’ response to my critique of a candidate that I knew they supported (based on the mock election results of the day prior)? More thoughtful questions.

“You’ve talked a lot about why you didn’t vote for Trump, but what about Hillary attracted you to her as a candidate?” “Is there anything Trump can do to redeem himself in your eyes?” “How open are you to the possibility that Trump might actually make a great president?” Overall, most class periods wanted to discuss this for either most of, or all of, the 60-minute period.

And not once did the conversation devolve into name-calling or hostility.

And not once did I feel the students were stalling or asking questions just to waste time.

And not once did I feel the students were interested in humiliating me with the election.

I assumed politics as a classroom discussion topic would be either unproductive or divisive, or both. I was wrong. But what I was right about was the maturity of these students. They are the future of this country, and last Wednesday these Crater High School students proved themselves to be thoughtful, adult, open-minded and mature Americans, and it left me feeling a little better about the prospects of our nation moving forward.

— Frank Bertrand teaches English at Crater High School.

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