Let me frame this situation and story for you..
Last fall semester, I was asked if I can teach an English 111x course. This course is designed for first year college students, and/or those students who decided to put off the English course requirement for their degree until they could no longer do so.
The English department was in need of instructors, and since I was one of their graduate students in the Master of Fine Arts program, the Chair kindly asked if I could teach one night a week from 6:00 – 9:00 p.m. I already have a full time job, and was taking a graduate course. So, of course, I said, “sure, why not?”
Here’s the situation: I’ve never taught before. But, I’v always theorized that if I did, my methodology and pedagogy would be designed to teach literature so that it’s relevancy would have a greater impact on my students long after they were done with my class.
So, there I was about to teach a class filled with students–that were the same age as my middle child. I must say, that I had some non-traditional students there as well who rolled with the younger ones.
Here’s the story: my class were on Tuesday nights. One of those Tuesday nights fell on November 8, 2016. Election night.
I got to class that evening ready to discuss Hawthorne’s The Birthmark, Byatt’s The Thing in the Forest, Frost’s The Road Not Taken, and Parker’s A Certain Lady. I also did early voting that previous weekend and did not feel rushed because I was one of the many who waited till the last minute to vote. The week before, I informed the class that I will assign someone to keep a tally of the electoral votes, and I encouraged them to get out and vote. I told them that was my PSA contribution. Many of them laughed it off, but I knew that they got the point.
As I started to write on the board preparing for my lecture, one by one, my students came in. Several of them pointed to their “I Voted” sticker. The sticker was the dark blue color of the Alaskan flag, and it had the stars of the Gold Dipper. I started my lecture by commending them on all those stickers, and they all raised their hand to indicate that they had voted. Several informed me that it was their first time voting and felt pretty proud.
The student that I assigned to tally the votes had her laptop open. I informed them that I don’t allow electronics in the classroom, unless I asked one of them to Google something. My students were very engaged in the lectures, and were never on their phones–until break time, and I’d look up to see all of them on their phones.
But, on election night, only one student had her laptop out tallying the votes. I had assigned one section of the white board for her. As I lectured on the concept of Frost’s poem, and Byatt’s short story, she started to tally the votes. I was cognizant of the reaction of my students. As the votes started to increase for one candidate, and as I was discussing what the thing in the forest was–one of my students (who is quite funny, and outspoken) said, “WE GONNA DIE! YA’LL, WE GONNA DIE!!”
“We are not gonna die… We are gonna die a slow death,” student in the third row said.
“This is wrong. This has to be wrong. Are you sure she’s tallying it correctly? I’m going to check my phone,” student in the back yelled.
“Alright, guys, someone else check another news source to see the projected tallies and which state is projected to belong to which candidate,” I told them. They all decided to take their phones out to check their sources.
Finally, I took a deep breath, and I looked out into my classroom. There was this silent panic that covered their faces–almost as though an invisible white down comforter gently floated out from the ceiling covering them. But, instead of comfort, there was worry.
The majority of my students were millennials. Many of them were merely toddlers when 9/11 happened. They don’t know a world where terrorism didn’t make it to the daily news. My students grew up in a post 9/11 world. And, unlike what many stereotype as millennials, my students are adamant that they are not the same millennials that are often stereotyped in the mainstream. They believe in hard work, they believe in protecting the environment, and they love Alaska. Many of them were born and raised in the state, and those who were not decided to go to the university in the state and immerse themselves in the Alaskan lifestyle.
I, on the other, is a Generation X-er. Born in the Nixon era, raised in the 80s, graduated in the 90s–and yet, I am still filled with great wonder even after seeing the devastation in the world.
However, that evening on November 8th, as I watched my students slowly grow to a panic that they cannot comprehend. I realized that they were going to remember this night for as long as they live.
“Hey guys. Let’s stop for a second. Put your phones down. Let’s focus for just one bit. Let’s do a writing prompt, and let me tell you why. By the fate of the universe, you, your colleagues, and I are all in this same room tonight. We could be doing something else, right? Watching the election as it unfolds in a bar–although some of you are NOT old enough to be in one–or at you could be with your family or friends. But, you are here. So, how about this–since we are in an English class, and I am your instructor –although that may be questionable sometimes–just kidding–I want you to write about this night, what you’re thinking, and feeling. Write about that in your own voice. Because if there is one thing that I have been on about teaching all of you at the start of this semester –is to never, ever lose your voice. As you continue with your academic journey, you may lose other things and gain other things–but your voice is the one thing that is your own. Own it. Now write,” I said.
For twenty minutes, they wrote. There was only one interruption from that silence, and it was my student who was doing the tally. She stood up and hesitantly walked to the board, and wrote a number. As she did this, my students stopped and watched her. As soon as she wrote the number, they went back to their writing–vigorously. I even heard one student sigh out loud with exasperation. She was one of the feminist of the group.
When they were done, they all looked up.
“So, your unexpected writing prompt for today will count as your extra credit. I know you’re all going to remember tonight. And, right now, you want to be with your friends and family. This is a historical night of your lives. So, take in what you can from tonight’s class, and spend the rest of it as you wish. Class dismissed,” I announced.
I heard a few “thank you, Professor,” and “this election is bullshit!” and “I just want to take a nap.”
But, I let them go on their own that night. I knew that their attention will be outside of what I had planned on teaching them.
The next day through teary eyes (the morning after found itself filled with tears), I read their mini-essays that were filled with humor, and practical truth. I found that their essays were my own version of a feathered down comforter. Except, instead of worry, they actually provided me with comfort and a sense of hope for whatever may come.