What Should We Say to Kids When the Bully Wins?

The 2016 election, unlike others in recent memory, has forced parents and teachers to try to explain how a bigoted candidate could succeed.

Processing the results of a national election can be challenging under normal circumstances. But explaining election results when a major party nominee wins — on the promise of immediate deportation of all undocumented immigrants, building a wall to keep Mexicans out of the country, and a stronger police presence in Black communities — is especially difficult within a school community. Educators and parents alike have to set aside their own emotions and begin to help guide young students in their understanding of how a bully can be elected president of the United States.

Fortunately for me, I knew that I could rely on the wisdom of my colleagues at Marin Country Day School to help me determine how some students might be responding to the election results.

As I stood before the first of two eighth-grade classes that I was scheduled to teach on Nov. 9, I soon realized that the only president these students have really known is an African-American man, and that they had witnessed the first female nominee in a major political party just win the popular vote. How would I explain to them that a candidate with a message of misogyny and bigotry could win the election? How could I ever admit that, sometimes, hate trumps love?

In “The Day After,” a Nov. 2 blog entry on Teaching Tolerance magazine’s website, Lauryn Mascarenaz writes that all teachers and parents should “take the opportunity to talk with your students about what happens when you try really hard for something — and you don’t get it.”

“Remind them that we all lose and confront failure, but it’s how we recover that matters,” she adds.

I stood quietly at the front of the room and asked the students if they wanted to continue with the lesson plan or take time to discuss the election. They all raised their hands and emphatically nodded that they preferred to discuss the election. While giving the class time to reflect before speaking, I read sections from my Oct. 26 column, “How to Talk to Teen Boys When Donald Trump Tweets,” and the students began to raise their hands to speak. The looks in their eyes told me that they needed answers. The first student started with the one question on the forefront of everyone’s mind: “How did this happen?”

This was the first time in recent memory that I, as an educator, felt that all I could do was listen with compassion and remain hopeful that we can rebound from this enormous setback.

The day before, as I commuted home from an unusually quiet day at school, I considered my options for the evening. I was still riding high on the fact that I had just seen a female candidate’s name printed on the ballot as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. Projections for Hillary Clinton looked promising, and I anticipated her decades of public service to our country would be rewarded with nothing less than a landslide victory.

Because this was such a long and arduous campaign, I was feeling fatigued, and I sought refuge in a distraction from all things political. A day of parent conferences was fast approaching. So, in preparation, I committed myself to resting and anticipating the opportunity to finally say to a select few parents, “One day, your daughter could easily be the next female president of the United States.”

I plopped down on my sofa and decided to start binge-watching Season 6 of The Walking Dead. As I waited to turn my attention to the initial elections returns, I mused, “On the off chance that Trump wins, our world will certainly be worse than any post-apocalyptic fantasy depicted in the television series.”

Then my greatest fear became a reality as I glanced at my Facebook newsfeed. A 12:01 a.m. post from a lifelong friend, Clinton supporter, and parent to a young daughter read: “I’m really wrestling with how to explain this outcome to Nia in the morning.”

Perhaps Huffington Post contributor Ali Michael offered the best immediate response in her piece, “What Do We Tell the Children?” In it, she addressed what all young people need to hear by advising, “Tell them, first, we will protect them.”

There has been a seismic shift in our national political landscape, and what many had anticipated would be an affirmation of equity and the election of the first female president was not to be. It is a shift so severe that many people are beginning to question the very foundations of our democratic process. It is a shift so profound that we no longer can rest assured that we are all safe.

We come away from the election with the unwanted consolation prize of knowing that the racism, sexism, and xenophobia that many of us perceive in American culture is not just in our heads. While the bully may have won this battle, we are now, more than ever, positioned to reflect upon the writer Alice Walker’s wisdom that “the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

Vincent W. Rowe Jr. is the director of equity, affinity, and diversity at Marin Country Day School. He has worked in education for the last 21 years. Follow him on Twitter at @evinced_ones.

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