It is 7:15 a.m. on Wednesday morning, November 9. I have just arrived at my office, a bit earlier than usual after a sleepless night. A few hours before, I was on the phone with another friend — a school leader in another city — who said she could not stop vomiting and asked if I would pray with her. Before that, there were countless texts and calls throughout the night as people processed their waves of emotions.
At 7:16 a.m., a white male colleague came into the office for coffee. He looked at me and fought back a mixture of tears and anger as he relayed his night. At 7:25 a.m., a white female colleague came in and burst into tears. I hugged her tightly, and as I released, I looked up and a black female colleague was standing there, tearfully ready to be received. I stood in my office foyer until 8 a.m., in that same spot, as it filled with colleagues who needed a safe space. I could feel this coming during my drive in, so I had the counter prepared with breakfast treats next to the Keurig machine.
We readied ourselves for the start of school. I went down to the morning meeting location to greet all of my sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders as I do every week. When I rang the chime that signals the start of our day, they fell silent more profoundly than I had ever seen. I looked at 117 sets of eyes staring up at me from their cross-legged places on the floor. I fought back my emotion, and lost the battle, as I said, “If you had a night like mine, then you’re feeling all sorts of ways this morning. Turn to someone next to you and share with them how you’re feeling.” They quickly turned and formed duos or trios, tightly knit together.
I walked among them, and saw students leaned up against each other, holding each other, or looking at each other intently. One white male seventh-grader sat there with his lip poked out. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, “This is how I feel. I’m sad.”
I passed a white female eighth-grader leaning back on her friend, looking up at me with eyes as big as saucers. “Why are your eyes so big this morning?” I asked her.
“I’m frightened,” she said.
Several students were in tears. I rang the chime, acknowledged the emotion in the room, and gave our call to action for the day:
“Today, of all days, let’s be the middle school that we say we are. Let’s be that school where you can feel however you feel and be however you are, and you are respected. Some of us are sad, or frightened or angry, and we get to be that. Some of us are excited, and happy, and hopeful, and we get to be that. Let’s try to understand each other better today. But let’s not make today the day that we are not careful with our words, or where we judge each other or ignore each other. Today, of all days, focus on what you can control — yourself, and carry yourself like one of the middle schoolers I love today.”
And that is how the morning after the election results began in my school. I have experienced many elections, but I have never experienced an election result that scared the children more.
An Opaque Wall Becomes Clear
There are no two ways about it; this election season was a long and arduous one. For more than a year, we were steeped in this historic, and histrionic, run for president. We have watched our country grapple with some of its most pressing issues, and in the midst of the protracted campaign, the level of our national discourse dipped frighteningly below the bar. As we watched the campaign season in shock and shame, we had to come to grips with the fact that our country is more divided than we realized, along more lines than we knew could be drawn, and that voices on all sides have taken up the call of “silent no more.”
One only needs to watch the news, turn on CNN, log in to Twitter or Facebook, to see the rise in acts of hate and acts of protest on college campuses, on church grounds, in neighborhoods, and in secondary schools. This is not the tale of two candidates but the tale of (at least) two Americas, who suddenly find themselves meeting at the once invisible but opaque wall between them.
An Imperative to Broaden My Circle
There are 60 million Americans who were on the other side of that wall that I do not understand. I have stood next to them in line at the grocery store, and sat next to them in movie theaters and meetings. I have had polite conversations with them at dinner parties. Many of them I have never seen or heard; I have never walked in their neighborhoods or sat at their tables. I have no idea who they are or how they see the world. I thought I was in touch and connecting across differences.
But this election showed me that my circle is not broad enough. I know I have the freedom, and, now more than ever, the responsibility, to engage with those around me of all ages, faiths, races, genders, classes, and political orientations. After November 8, it is clear that we have work to do to realize the fundamental American dream — that out of the many, many stories that inhabit our country, we would find common ground that allows one to live one’s truth without invalidating someone else’s.
Dialogue: The Ultimate Civic Duty
After moving through the five stages of grief to arrive at that illusive sixth stage — empowerment — I find myself once again thankful that I am an American. Indeed, the luxury of a multitude of opinions and the right to express them are two of our most treasured American ideals. I know many of us have shied away from talking about the results for fear of negatively affecting our relationships with friends or coworkers. I have heard from people whose Thanksgiving tables looked and felt differently because of the way this election has divided families.
Now that the election is over, I implore us all to take up the challenge that it has brought to us — to dialogue honestly, deeply, and continually by sharing our stories, learning from each other, bridging our gaps of understanding, raising the level of discourse — that we might become a people more united, more compassionate, and truly, more careful with each other. This is not the work of the president, but the work of the people performing the ultimate civic duty. Now that we know who the next president is, let us show who we are, so there can be no mistake that making America whole again resonates with us all.
A Call to Educators: Model the Way Forward
In the days immediately following the results, children were raw, and so were the adults. One woman said to me that she talks about America’s emotional reaction during 9/11, and now she will talk about our emotional reaction on 11/9. Our campuses are abuzz with post-election noise.
As educators, we must model for our students the best way forward. We must engage them in fierce conversations, even when they don’t think they need to have them, so that they are present to the power of active listening. Students need to see our firm resolve and trust in the moral arc of our nation and our democracy, and they must see us engage intentionally and positively across difference. Let us make sure that our schools have diversity practitioners who are empowered and supported to do this important work. Let us ensure that our missions specifically mention our dedication to diversity, equity, inclusivity, and indeed, justice.
This is the time that our school leaders — from the head of school to the administrative team — must be out front and out loud in their commitment to a pluralistic culture and inclusive pedagogy. The thoughts and actions expressed in this nation, including in our own schools, in the wake of this election should be a wake-up call that the diversity work that we have sometimes questioned is without a doubt a necessary ingredient to our recipe for success — reaching our shared mission to educate responsible global citizens.
Remember that each of our presidential candidates was a student in someone’s elementary, middle, and high school at some point. What lessons did they learn there that could have informed some of what we saw as they campaigned? As educators, we have an obligation to take a strategic, systemic approach to creating equitable and inclusive campuses that nurture a spirit of civility, civic engagement, and multiple perspectives.
A president cannot divide us; only we can do that. Let us have the faith of a first-grader, who said, “I hope that Donald Trump helps a lot of people. That means everyone.” And on that, we can all agree.
Rodney Glasgow is the head of middle school and chief diversity officer at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland. He also chairs the NAIS Student Diversity Leadership Conference.