Last week, I tallied up how much time I spend teaching, grading, or preparing to teach. It was a shocking amount, partly because the number of hours was so high, but also because it doesn’t feel like that much. I love my job teaching sciences at a community college, and, with the exception of grading, it never feels like work.
Most of my time as a teacher is spent asking questions rather than offering answers to them. Working my way through a stack of lab reports, I scrawl the same, “How do you know this?” or “Why would that be?” or “Is it?” across paper after paper. In class, it’s “Does that solve the problem?” and “Can you back that up with evidence?” and “Does your explanation make sense?”
“Would it?” “Is it?” “Why?” seem like more than half the words I utter in a day at work. Asking these questions is how I find out what my students know, but less in a sense of facts or terminology. It gets me to how they think, and I am often surprised. Things I take for granted, they often have never seen before. The assumptions they make, or the holes in their understanding astonish me sometimes, not because they are dumb, but because they are beginners. The farther you get from being a beginner, the easier it is to forget how you felt as one.
On Wednesday morning, I walked into class to silence. There was none of the usual chatter and joking. There was what appeared to be a pool of vomit outside the classroom that public safety was steering people around until it could be cleaned up. I teach in Massachusetts, which had gone, predictably, deep blue for Clinton. Most of my students sat quiet and stunned, though not all. One confessed his fear about the future under Trump, and another snapped, “The country had already gone to shit. Get over it.”
I told them all I just wasn’t equipped to manage a room full of people yelling and talking over each other, so we shifted back to the science at hand, and I pretended to feel normal for them.
Most of the work day, I moved among disappointed Democratic voters. I work in a blue state, but I live in a red town in the purple state next door. In the aftermath of the election, I have seen reams of analysis pointing to the retreat of either side to their respective corners: conservatives to the rural counties; progressives to the big cities. The result is that most people can then live in a comfortable bubble where they only ever hear their own values echoed and reaffirmed to them. The “liberal elite,” they say, can’t hear the other side, marginalizes them, dismisses them all as racist and sexist xenophobes.
I grew up in Massachusetts, but the town I live in now in New Hampshire is Republican 2:1. I have been both within and without the blue bubble. I know what it’s like to be able to presume the political views of everyone around you and be just about right. I went to school out in Amherst, in the Happy Valley, a land of communes and radical vegan stores. There is a great deal of comfort in feeling you are understood–that other people looked over the whole messy situation and concluded the same as you have.
Now, where I live, I assume most of my neighbors disagree with my politics. Chatting with folks around town, I cautiously test, tap the conversation and listen for the solid and the hollow spots in it. There are some like-minded people here, and a lot of differently-minded people. I have opportunities to find out why, looking out over the same country, we see such different things.
Since the election, I have heard plenty of things that disturb me. Students have said, “Who cares anyway? Politics doesn’t matter,” and “Whatever,” and “We just shouldn’t talk about politics. It’s too touchy.” I can’t abide by that, and I tell them so. Our founding fathers would be ashamed of us for that. I’ve heard idle and not so idle threats to move to Canada. I’ve heard people giving up. But worst of all, I’ve heard people on the winning side telling the other to “Get over it,” and “Stop whining.” People comparing the election to a football game where your side lost. Big deal. Move on with your life. I’ve seen people mocking those posting online how scared they are. I’ve seen eye-rolling.
I know a lot of good people who don’t vote the way I do. Who have genuine policy disagreements with me, but who are kind and generous. But I wept over these election results too, and felt waves of nausea, and above all, fear. I genuinely hope this new President does not follow through with what he said he would do all along. I hope he turns out to be a centrist, that he has inventive ideas that only a complete neophyte might have. I cannot root against the President of my own country. I have to hope for his success. I am approaching his Presidency with my beginner’s mind, asking questions whenever I can, rather than offering explanations or answers.
Here’s my first: If you came across a stranger crying on the stoop outside your work, what do you do? Do you ask what’s wrong? Ignore him and shuffle past? And now, what if you came upon a friend sitting there crying? Or a co-worker. An acquaintance. I know it’s awkward to ask someone why he’s so upset. Easier to walk on by and figure he wants his privacy. But I struggle to believe you would push him aside with your foot and tell him to “Get over it,” without knowing what “it” is. Lost job? Cancer? Dog died? Mom died? Aren’t you at least curious?
I am really puzzled by why “get over it” has been the response of so many of the people I know who voted for Trump. When I have asked why they find it so easy to dismiss our concerns, I have gotten many variants of, “Oh, he’s not actually going to do any of those things he said.” Maybe he’s not, but all along, his supporters pointed to how he “Says what he means, and means what he says,” as a selling point. And we took him at his word. Maybe you didn’t. Maybe you thought he was playacting and talking a big game about turning all the tables over and ransacking the place. I hope you’re right, but I fear you are not. And it’s fear, not hope, that keeps people up at night.
Maybe the difference is that, all along, conservatives have had no faith that government can do anything at all. Surely, the fecklessness of our Congress would give you cause. But if you want to know why progressives are clutching our guts and huddling together, it’s because we always have believed in the immense power of government to change people’s lives. What chance we ever had to put some drag on the climate change juggernaut, we see that slipping away. The hundreds of thousands of people, including military veterans, here under DACA who face Trump’s promise to start deporting them on day one, the fragile protections we have on abortion rights, and same sex marriage–these things are life-altering, some life shattering. So how is this “just like a football game that your team lost?”
I want to know more. I want to learn more about why my neighbors, and former students, and current students voted for Trump. It is not strictly necessary that you show any interest in my views in exchange, but it would help. I am reserving judgment on the new President’s actions until he’s actually made some. But I am not just sad because my team didn’t pull off the win and now it’s time to go home. I think about when we were kids, and my father used to say to us, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
I’m not offering quid pro quo listening. I’m not saying you have to listen to me if you want me to listen to you. I want to understand how we got here. I’ll go first. Tell me what you know.