Amy Morrissey Metzger Fellowship Essay

November Tenth

When I saw the torch-carrying mob of young white men in khakis and polos, heard their incantations of hate, I thought of my students first. The forty-two of them, my just-graduated seniors, about to set out for their own campuses to begin their lives as college students. They were going to New Orleans and New Brunswick, Providence and Hanover, Atlanta and Washington, D.C, but as I watched the news footage, they were all going to Charlottesville. My initial grief and rage and sorrow were for them, entering a world where Nazis marched freely on campus. This world had unfolded beginning on November tenth.

Starting with A block.

I knew that I could show up and make coffee. I could offer them coffee, tea, or hot chocolate. Something concrete. I could lug the grocery store bag brimming over with ground beans and assorted beverage packets, the tower of Styrofoam cups, the Tupperware of sugar, the half-gallon of milk, the roll of paper towels to mop up spills. I could boil water, plug in the cord, arrange it all on the table.

As usual, early birds Arielle and her boyfriend Daniel appeared at the door at least five minutes before the 8:20 start time. Whispering to themselves about an upcoming test or college visit or happening with friends, they looked no different than usual.

Liad, coming in on their heels, took in the spread of beverages, and announced, “I get it, Ms. Morrissey. You’re telling us we need to wake up and smell the coffee because Donald Trump is president.”  I chuckled, but his funny comment also made me aware of my role as an English teacher, tasked with delving into the human impact of public events. In particular, I was aware of my own role in shaping the conversation. Inevitably, I was putting myself out there. I felt raw, wordless yet screaming inside. Where were they at? What did they need? And, could I give it to them?

By 8:26—they were seniors, after all—all twenty-two students were in the room. I scanned the faces in the circle with some anxiety, trying to read the tea leaves of their emotions. “Liad asked me if I brought the coffee as a wake-up call to the American people,” I began. “Really, I just wanted to bring you all something this morning. Help yourselves.”  Privately, I wondered whether my offering implied a tragic or funereal atmosphere. It felt that way to me, but I sought to put out a more open posture to them.

Five minutes later we began in earnest. I gave them the space to write what was on their minds that morning along with the heads up that we’d do a go-round with the opportunity to share. Donald Trump would be our next president. What were their worries and hopes?  They scribbled words and sipped hot beverages. I was grateful for the few minutes to collect my own thoughts on paper.

When the go-round began, Sarah, a future nurse whose grandmother has Alzheimer’s, spoke of her fears about health care with doleful eyes. Jessica spat out her concern over “women’s issues” in a tone that was angry and with a side-eye that suggested she was being forced to declare the patently obvious. Lila glanced nervously around the room, and said, tentatively, “My family is pretty conservative. Our conversations at home are pretty different from the ones at BHS.”   Short, halting answers were the norm. No flow to the conversation today. David, a low-income student whose immigrant parents did restaurant work, muttered “the economy.”  Though he did not speak to the issue of college affordability, I imagined it was on his mind.

We rounded a back corner of the circle, where five black and Latino students sat in a row. Malik slowly swept his head from side to side, in what looked like a gesture of disbelief. Alex looked down at his desk, seeming to collect his thoughts, and without looking up, said “Race. Immigration.”  Celine sat, poised and attentive, taking her moment: “From what I know about him, police brutality and mass incarceration are going to get much worse, and this makes me worried for the people I know.”

Daniel, one of the 8:15 early birds, spoke with a relaxed confidence: “I think people are making it out be worse than it could be. He’s unpredictable, so we don’t know what will happen.”  Arielle, sitting next to him, said softly, “My parents vote Republican because of Israel. We’re dual citizens. It’s complicated.” Jenny, a recent addition from the ELL program, was the last to go.  “I am not from this country.  I do not know.”

As we came to the final speakers, my anxiety grew. How could I synthesize, tie it all up, make meaningful but not overly dogmatic connections to all the discussions we’d had so far about our intersectional identities, our positioning on an ideological spectrum, and because this was English class, the power of narrative and story?  I don’t recall exactly what I said, but I know I managed adequately. They left. Several thanked me for the hot drinks. Something had transpired in what, for me and for many of them, must have felt like a fraught space, and for that I was grateful.

At some point later on November tenth, I realized that I was in a new reality, not just as an American citizen, but as a teacher. In the previous weeks, it had been easy for my students and me to call out the ugliness of “grab her pussy,” “bad hombres,” and “lock her up,” to chuckle at “it’s gonna be bigly.”  We had rested in a comfortable Brookline liberal consensus, eliding the differences among us. Now, things felt riskier, the fault-lines in the group exposed. I needed to move on from open sharing. We needed words, tools.

The next day, I armed myself, turning to my old standby, The New York Times editorial page. I brouhgt in a slew of Op-Eds—David Brooks, Tom Friedman, Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, Charles Blow. There was reading time. A protocol for structured discussion. It felt safer to begin with other people’s words and some rules of engagement. In small groups, they shared lines from the Op-Eds and their responses:  The scariness of a President who lacks mental stability and personal discipline. The awareness that tens of millions of  Americans were like the outlier family members who voted for Trump. The sense that as a person of color one no longer feels ownership over one’s country. I overheard a couple white students pushing back against the “apocalypse” metaphor used by one writer. Melodramatic, overblown. At the end of class, Karina stayed seated at her desk, not packing up with the rest of the class. “People in my group were saying Trump’s not the apocalypse. But for black people he is.”

What was going on in our country terrified me, but showing up to teach every morning felt invigorating. Yes, I went to the protests, but I poured most of my post-election energy into my seniors. In a country that was deeply divided, not to mention cynically manipulated, my students could talk to each other intelligently and civilly. Perhaps most satisfyingly, our class was not exactly the “liberal bubble” Brookline has a reputation for, but something closer to a medium-sized tent that accommodated the moderately conservative to the far left. I gained a new appreciation for what well-educated eighteen year-olds have to say. When I couldn’t stomach the news, I could read their messy, imperfect, thoughtful papers. When I felt paralyzed, I could take in their relative absence of cynicism. Back when I was a high school student, I found it irritating when adults waxed sentimental about the inspiring idealism of youth. Now I’m one of those adults. When my seniors graduated and the school year ended, I found myself listless, ruminative, unable to relax for the first few weeks of summer. I felt embarrassed by how much I missed my students. A friend said, “you have a hopeful job.” She was right. I’ve realized that in these times, I need my students. On November tenth, I saw that I could lay the grounds, and together, we could begin the work.