You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise. --Maya Angelou
It is Sunday already, five days after the election, five days to try and absorb it all. The weather is unseasonably warm. I fret briefly about global warming, but then decide to just accept the sunshine seeping through my window as some type of sign. Good news is hard to find.
I think about 1980, when I stood in line for two hours after Reagan had already been declared the winner to cast my vote for Carter, a man whose character I still admire, a man I eagerly supported in my very first presidential vote. I recall the first Bush (my side lost), and then the promise of brash Bill Clinton and his saxophone. Gore’s defeat in 2000, despite winning the popular vote, shook my patriotism momentarily, until the following year when the horror of the 9/11 attack on New York City, the birthplace of two of my children, put it back. Bush II, despite his hard right enabling, seemed genuinely wounded that day.
Of course, I can never overstate the reach of my joy and pride when Barack Obama won the presidency not once, but twice. I never imagined seeing a family like mine occupying the White House. His optimism, energy, and intellect inspired me. I had only been teaching for three years in 2008, but I remember vowing to always remember that Obama was once a tenth grader too. I saw his stride, and the gait of Michele, our First Lady, in the bounce of my students. I still do–but it’s different now.
Through proximity alone, a high school teacher is never too far removed from youthful spurts and growing pains. Hormones and high hopes perfume the air. Some days in class, particularly after a heartfelt, personal essay read aloud by a hesitant author, I see myself in my students. I recall again my teenage moments of excitement and trepidation with equal measure. Once, in my senior year, I sat in a small Honors English class, my last class of the day, where a round, bespectacled teacher I never really liked told us about a writing contest sponsored by the American Legion. I remember the topic was “My Responsibility to Freedom.”
By way of background, a private benefactress, Anne Forsyth, the granddaughter of tobacco tycoon R. J. Reynolds, had paid for my secondary education at Saint Andrew’s, a previously all-white, boarding school in Boca Raton, Florida. After interviews and testings, I was part of a larger group of twenty awardees the spring before my freshman year. We, in turn, were members of a growing cohort of sixty or so black males chosen over three years from across the South. The program, the Anne C. Stouffer Foundation, sent us to Duke for six weeks in the summer to learn about dorm life, note-taking, algebra, new sports like wrestling, and strange vegetables like brussels sprout. Then we fanned out to various Southern prep schools in the name of racial integration.
I was one of only two African-American males in my high school class. Both camaraderie and isolation marked my adventure there. Perhaps it was only my keen awareness of the mixed nature of that blessing which led me to raise my hand that day and ask the teacher, “What if I want to write about freedom’s responsibility to me?”
He exploded. “How dare you?” he hollered over and over again. I, of all people, should be grateful, he yelled. Did I ever consider all the Negro boys who would give their right arm for the opportunity I had been given for free, at no cost whatsoever to myself? When he finished, I looked at the blank faces of my fellow students and friends, grabbed my things, and left the class–something I had never done before or since. I don’t recall where I went. Perhaps I wandered by the central, man-made lake on the impressive campus. Or maybe I just retreated to my dorm room. I was a senior and finally had a single to myself. Maybe I played my favorite albums by The Delfonics, or Cat Stevens. Or maybe I just took a nap before dinner. One thing I did not do was enter that writing contest.
Today, eons later, Hillary Clinton, a formidable woman who devoted much of her life (but not all) to helping others, must sit on the sidelines while a man with no record of public service anywhere to anyone but himself prepares to inhabit the White House. Come January, Donald Trump will be our 45th president. Today, before grading papers about language and identity, I find myself thinking about the young man I once was. I wish I had been his teacher that day. “Great question,” I would have said. “Write about that if you want. We all assume the bounty of freedom is equally distributed, equally earned, equally defended. We assume Freedom, like her cousin Justice, is blind. But maybe history teaches otherwise. What a great question to ask.”
Tomorrow, I will return to my classroom in Bladensburg stronger than before. It is my third high school in twelve years of teaching, and my favorite thus far. While I cherish all I have taught and encountered with great fondness, I especially welcome my present challenge. The majority of my students are first generation Americans hailing from El Salvador, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica, or Cameron. African Americans form most of the balance. One male student is Chinese, and a young lady traces here recent roots to Pakistan, while another is proudly white. Together, we are something of a family,. a tenth grade Honors English collective studying argument and rhetoric, nuance and literature, language and composition. There are one hundred of us in total, counting me, and our mission is clearer now.
On Thursday, I apologized to my students for taking the day after the election off. I was disheartened, had a horrendous headache, and needed space to regroup. Some hope in me had died. But as I thought of my own children, and my students, and all the eager young faces from the past, I grew well again. I reminded my students that they must never be like the 46.2% of registered American voters who decided Tuesday’s exercise in democracy did not warrant inconvenience. I told them about my own family’s battles with democracy since before the Civil War. Yet here we are, I opined, rising still, rebounding, shaping and reshaping that “more perfect union” in good times and in bad.
I did not need to remind them how much their active participation in this life, in this country, matters. I did not linger on the bounty at stake. They already know, first-hand and through their parents’ journeys, that “freedom isn’t free” and must be renumerated and then protected again and again–even as it sometimes sputters in its yield.
-Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)