What I want is to tuck myself under the duvet and stay there, head covered, for four years.
I don’t want to get dressed; I don’t want to leave the house; I don’t want to go to work; I don’t know where to find the performance energy; I don’t know how I’ll paste a smile on my face and act as though apostrophes matter. I don’t know how to walk into the classroom and pretend it’s just another day.
I put on a dress that swishes against my legs, reminding me there is joy in the tactile; I get into the car and blow bubbles as I drive to campus; I staple and organize in my office to prepare myself for class; I stitch a smile onto my face and scan the editing activity, reminding myself even apostrophes send messages. I walk into the classroom, and although it’s a day like no other, I float to the front of the room, deposit my bag, boot up the computer, lay out my folders, open the grade book, and survey the faces.
I’ve done this before — taught while heartbroken.
That’s what it is to be an adult: you show up even when your only fuel is despair.
The fresh-faced twosome in the front row waves me over. They have a question: “Because we are best friends — the very best friends ever — can we do this activity together?”
The activity is a series of questions about one of the three Cause/Effect essays they have just read. Yes, of course they can choose the essay to which they both responded most strongly and answer the questions together. Their answers will benefit from collaboration.
Always engaging, they snare me with chat. The male of the duo, Joe, offers, “You’d never know we’re best friends because, whoa, we are fighting a lot lately. Every little thing that comes up, we’re at it.” As he speaks, his partner beams and nods in agreement. Clearly, they are not getting along at all.
They are joking. They are adorable. Before this class started three months ago, they had never met. Outside of class, they don’t interact. However, the two have become friends — joking, adorable classmate-friends who work together on every assignment. With great humor, they give each other grief, disagreeing about pineapple on pizza, the shape a pizza slice should be, the quality of the Cause/Effect essays they just read, and what makes a good president.
They are 18. For both of them, 2016 was their first chance to cast a vote.
Before I am able to weigh in with some diplomatic words, the female of the duo, Allie, announces, “Even though I’m mad at him right now, we do have one point of agreement: we both like pink.”
Surprised, I look at him with a fresh gaze — the 18-year-old young man in a baseball cap, the 18-year-old young man with phenomenal eyelashes, the 18-year-old young man who thinks hockey is the only sport that matters, the 18-year-old young man who works as a pizza cook, the 18-year-old who loves rolling around our carpeted classroom on the sliding castors of his chair — and ask, “You like pink?”
“Yea,” he answers, scrunching his eyes as as considers my question. “I think I do. Yea, I like pink.”
Okay, they both like pink. Alternatively, maybe they both like P!nk. Either way, what are they fighting about?
It’s not pizza, and it’s not essays.
Allie is indignant that Joe cast his vote for Donald Trump. An analytical young woman who brings originality to every assignment, Allie wrote her last paper about the hair of the leading presidential candidates, turning the state of the hair into a metaphor for the quality of the individual. Before landing on this topic, she considered writing about the merits of going braless versus wearing a bra.
In every way, this 18-year-old braless, spirited, pink-loving girl is a weary teacher’s dream.
Amazingly, Joe is not defensive about how he cast his vote; rather, he is sheepish.
“I didn’t want to vote for him. I hate that I had to vote for him. But no way could I vote for Clinton. She’s just too yuck.”
I concede his reservations had foundation, but then I push. “Why, if you didn’t like either choice, did you opt for the one that is more overtly offensive?”
“Until the moment I walked into the voting booth, I was going to vote Third Party. No question. But once I got in there, and it was real, I didn’t know what I thought or what I wanted to do. I don’t know why, but I just did it. I voted for Trump.”
I wince. I sigh. So does Allie. I try not to lock eyes with her, try not to turn us into a force unified against him, try not to take his honesty and confusion and use them as a basis for condemnation. “Wow. That’s interesting — because I have wondered about people’s thought processes. So, in that moment when you stared at the ballot in front of you, when you decided to flip away from a Third Party candidate, why did you flip that direction?”
I see it in his frozen expression. He doesn’t know.
A quick shove in a rolling chair across the aisle from Joe, another student — a woman a week overdue with her third child — keeps her head down as she scratches out her answers to the discussion questions.
Joe’s not proud of himself. His vote was committed in a moment of flutter. He doesn’t quite know why he went with Trump, someone who repulses him, over the other option that made him recoil.
Watching Joe struggle to explain, to even understand, his quick, oval-shaped impulse, I realize I could help him formulate an answer. He is 18, white, lives in a relatively homogeneous area, loves hockey, is never seen without his baseball cap, has never been anywhere “foreign” or rubbed up against trauma. His life is insular and privileged. Of course he voted for Trump.
But I stay silent. I’m not sure a teacher needs to tell a student who he is, in the larger context of the world. The point of his being a student is that he gets to figure that out.
Less measured is Allie. An audible harumph of disgust issues from Joe’s classroom best friend as she rolls her eyes. “This is why we fight! How can I be okay with him voting for Trump when he doesn’t even know why he did it?”
Not wanting to reproach anyone, but too heartsore to be noble, I give over and unleash — smiling at Joe as I lecture. “This has been a devastating day for so many people. And it would have been a devastating day for many people if Clinton had won. You voted for a man who has never held political office or served in the military, a man who has mocked people with disabilities, called immigrants ‘rapists,’ black people ‘thugs,’ and women ‘piggies.’ If you cast a vote for those demonstrated values, you need to be honest and acknowledge you have a place inside yourself that can accommodate his offensive words and derision of others. For sure, you have every right to vote for whomever you choose, and that includes a Third Party candidate, no matter what anyone tells you. But: you need to pressure yourself to know why you make the choice you make — because your vote means you support everything that person stands for. And even if you only like the part where Trump says he’ll work on infrastructure, your vote for him was a vote for all of him, not just the parts that appeal to you. The same would have been true, if you’d voted for Clinton; you’d have been acknowledging to yourself that you could tolerate the bad parts of her along with the good. My guess, if we wanted to figure out why you surprised yourself and voted for Trump, would be this: as you stared at the ballot, you were aggravated by the dismal reality of the choices, so you tipped towards the voice that hits a tone of aggravation. Anyhow, kiddo, just remember that no one makes up your mind but you, so really try to know your own mind. Also: DON’T MAKE US SHOUT AT YOU ANY MORE, Joe, because you are our best friend.”
In the back row of the classroom, a soccer player from a European country is googling the origin of a word. Five minutes earlier, I’d complimented him on his pom-pom hat, telling him it make him look “jaunty.” When I ask him if he already knows that word or needs to look it up, he admits he tends to retain words that come from French or German, as those are the languages he’s most familiar with.
From his research, Mathis discovers: jaunty descends from the French gentil.
It will stick with him. It’s connected to his roots — from his tradition.
Up front, listening to my admonishment, Joe is grinning. He hated his first outing as a voter, hated the vulnerability of “What the hell should I do?” in the moment of making an important choice.
Cutting him some slack, I acknowledge, “In Allie’s paper about Trump and Clinton’s hair, she conceded that she was not completely thrilled with Hillary as a choice. I will second that and say that I hope we never again have an election like this one that just ended. I hope you, as a voter in your lifetime, have choices that feel clearer and more authentic to you.”
Startled, Jake half agrees. He’s not entirely sure what I mean. So I carry on. “The point of voting for a candidate is that you’re putting your support behind the person who best represents your values and hopes. In this recent election, many people felt neither candidate did that for them. In your case, that caused you to fall into a regretted vote. It is my fervent wish that, in the future, you have stronger choices, ones that make you feel like voting was a proactive statement and not a passive rollover.”
Ah, okay. I just want the best for him. That, he understands.
Turning towards my desk, I throw one more glance at this power duo and ask, “Hey, are you two really best friends?”
Nodding and shaking their heads simultaneously, Allie articulates why the answer is both yes and no. “Sort of. We never knew each other before this class — but think the reason we’re such good friends is that we can fight with comfort. We totally call each other out and shout when we smell b.s. I know we can say anything to each other, and he’s still going to sit up front and work with me. So, yea, that feeling of safety makes Joe a special kind of best friend, for sure. EVEN IF HE WAS A DUFUS AND VOTED FOR TRUMP.” Reaching out, she whacks him on the shoulder, her mock anger a gesture of affection. Lowering her voice, she leans close to his face: “See, I’m right next to you so that I can teach you stuff, like this: if a man ever tells others that it’s okay to call his daughter a ‘piece of ass,’ you may not vote for him for president. Even though I could tell you more, you actually don’t need to know anything beyond that. It is what we’d call ‘sufficient evidence.'”
Dropping his head into his hands, Joe responds, “Aghgh. I know.”
They are so young, so artless, so willing to say the words.
Steadying myself, I put my fingers to my lips and push in on them, forcing a quiver into a smile.
I haven’t cried yet, but these two might break me.
The classroom is almost empty, with the last two students — Mathis in the back, pregnant Kara in the front — wrapping up their answers to the activity.
Finished, Mathis comes up to hand in his assignment. Giving me a preview of his answers, he tells me how, of the three Cause/Effect papers written in previous semesters by students taking this class, he chose to analyze the one titled “Chicks on Bikes” because he likes motorcycles. He also was intrigued by the one about homeschooling, but, oh man, he was bored beyond yawns by the one about domestic abuse.
Kara’s head pops up. Her pencil stills. She is listening
Ruffling the pom-pom on his hat, Mathis explains, “All my life, I’ve been reading stories about domestic abuse, and now they just slide off my back. It’s blah, blah, blah to me. My eyes glaze, and I check out. I just turn the pages, hoping it will soon be over. I mean, I’m not a fan of domestic violence, of course; that’s not what I mean. I just mean it’s always the same stuff over and over, so it doesn’t connect. My brain shuts off because it’s so boring.”
He’ll never know it, but my self-control in that moment is hard won. He doesn’t see it, but I make myself inhale slowly, exhale even more slowly, before I speak. He does not deserve my raw reaction, which would be a sarcastic, “Yea, whenever women tell nuanced stories of how their husbands of thirteen years punched them in the face, it’s super boring. Whenever women try to convey the mucky helplessness of being hobbled by what a man in power is doing to them, it’s a real yawner.”
My exhale fills the space between us, and I tell Mathis that, while I understand feeling besieged by information to the point of deafness, his reaction really is a shame, for the writer of the paper that bored him, a petite five-foot woman who started running marathons once she stopped running down the alley at 2 a.m. with her husband chasing her, was an example to make a person’s heart swell. Mathis shrugs and notes that the paper should have contained more personal information to make him care.
So, anyhow, he liked the motorcycle paper. It wasn’t boring since bikes are cool.
As Mathis and I talk, Kara never speaks. Her pencil is moving now, but slowly. She is listening with a focused interest that tells me which of the three papers she chose to respond to.
The same topic that bored the 19-year-old boy resonates with this in-transition mother of almost-three who left her husband a few months ago.
Mathis bounces out the door, his pom-pom perky as he heads home for ten hours of playing video games. Although she needs to pick up her kids, Kara bends her head over her paper. She writes and writes.
I haven’t cried yet, but these two might break me.
Eventually Kara hands in her activity, yet she stays — as she always does — to talk for a solid twenty minutes.
The class ends at 3:15. She has kids to retrieve. But every single time: she lingers.
I, myself, have too much to do. I’m late for a meeting. But every single time: she lingers. It’s often 4:00 before I get back to my office.
She needs my ears.
In particular, on this day when she’s just written a lengthy explanation about why the Cause/Effect paper on domestic violence resonated with her, she’s primed for a verbal spill.
More than anything, her twenty minutes of talk prove that — like rape — domestic violence is often unclear, rarely has sharply defined edges, rarely is the TLC made-for-tv version of “a woman done wrong.” Rather, it’s muddy stuff, a complicated web of manipulations, nicks to the spirit, give and take, befuddlement, reconciliation, hope, knotted obligations, all playing out in ways often so subtle neither participant is aware of them.
For Kara, right now, she’s trying to figure out how to set boundaries with her ex . . . yet she’s sometimes still with him a little bit, but they are for sure over, except not.
At one point, she had an Order For Protection against him. Then she dropped it so that they didn’t have rely on his power-hungry mother as the conduit of communication any more. Wanting to win me to her side — not understanding that her presence in my classroom assures my advocacy — she details the ways he is controlling and manipulative.
A few weeks ago, he got into her truck (“I was being nice; I never let him in my truck”) to drive to one of the kid’s conferences at school, and his first words were, “Why is it so clean in here? And why is the seat set so far forward?” Issuing an exasperated sigh, she adds, “If the truck had been messy, his first question would have been ‘Why is it so filthy in here?’ And the seat has to be that far forward for the kids to get into their car seats. He’s 6’4″; it always only occurs to him that he needs space, not that there are others with needs, too.”
Recently, Kara has landed a subsidized place to live, but she hasn’t told her ex about it because then he’d want a say in it. She and the kids are “sort of” staying at his apartment so that he doesn’t find out she has her own place. He is upset with her for not chipping in towards the rent on his apartment, for letting the three-year-old climb on the jungle gym, for leaving her purse on a bench at the park while she assisted the kids. And, yes, sometimes he has put his hands on her in violence.
Standing in front of me, her belly filling the space between us, Kara admits she wishes her ex was the type to become a deadbeat dad, simply so that negotiating her days was less complicated. If he’d just leave, this guy who tugs her around emotionally, mentally, and physically, at least she’d have clarity. She could move on. As parents, however, they are permanently ensnared.
These are the things Kara was thinking about when she read the “boring” paper about domestic violence.
Neither Mathis nor Kara voted in the presidential election. Like Allie and Joe, they would have cancelled each other out.
Finally alone, still wishing I were head-under with my duvet, I read all the activities the students turned in. In their responses, I see the election played out, in the abstract. There are nine women in this class of 25 students. Seven of those women identify the domestic abuse paper as the one that they identify with, that has the most impact, that makes the most important statement. Three of them admit they have lived with and through violence at the hands of men.
Of the 16 males in the class, 12 have chosen an essay other than the one about domestic abuse. They see merit in the homeschooling essay and in the paper about women on motorcycles. Outside of one young man — who has lived in eight places during his 19 years, both domestically and abroad — the only other males who have written their responses about the domestic abuse paper are those who have opted to work in groups or as partners with females in the class.
Joe worked with Allie.
By virtue of working with Allie, she who challenges him, she who teases him, she who makes him feel seen and safe, Joe agreed to analyze how the domestic abuse essay affected him as a reader, a thinker, and a person.
I daresay, though, that it’s the experience of sitting next to, laughing with, hearing from, and fighting with Allie that is affecting him most profoundly.
Certainly, our class provides him with a structure. Some materials. Ideas to explore. But the person next to him, ribbing him, presenting her reality to him, pushing him?
The mother of soon-to-be-three who lumbers in late and sits across the aisle from him?
These are the true instruments of his education.
Surrounded by the random, motley crew that is our class, Joe is exposed to Otherness. He is not speeding along the expressway, alone on the back of a motorcycle. He’s not living in a cookie-cutter house in a gated community, homogenized to the point that diversity feels threatening. Opening himself to a variety of sources of information, he’s risking the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. In the college classroom, he’s not safe in an insular world, chilling on a Barcalounger inside an echo chamber that only reflects back to him reiterations of his own voice. Oh, no. In the college classroom, Joe, Allie, Kara, Mathis, Jocelyn — we’re all given the opportunity to wonder if we know anything at all.
Every day, I hear Joe, awed, trying, sheepish, interested. I hear Allie and Kara, speaking from their experience. I hear Mathis, avowing his distaste for violence against women at the same time he pleads to never hear about it again.
We clunk up against each other, all of us, and we’re the better for it.
I haven’t cried yet.
Maybe I won’t need to after all.