Amani Elkassabany is a staff development teacher and English 12 team leader at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Montgomery County, Md. An Egyptian American, she was brought to the United States in 1970 when she was 2 years old. As an immigrant from the Middle East and a Muslim, she says she now faces new challenges as a teacher in the era of President-elect Donald Trump, who takes office in January. During his campaign, Trump bashed illegal immigrants, suggested preventing all Muslims from entering the United States and said he wanted to set up a registry of Muslims, though some of those proposals have been tempered.
After the November presidential election, students in Elkassabany’s class wanted to discuss it — and when one student said he was pleased that Trump had won, she found herself in a quandary. As an immigrant from a Middle Eastern country and a Muslim, she wondered, “Which ‘me’ would respond?” Here’s what she decided she had to do — and why she feels a moral obligation to listen to all of her students, whatever their message.
By Amani Elkassabany
The morning after the November presidential election, I greeted my class of high school seniors the way I always do: “Good morning,” I said, but my smile was forced.
I was actually feeling everything that is the opposite of good: sad, angry, fearful, shocked, betrayed. For the better part of a year, I had listened as the Republican nominee’s rhetoric had helped divide our country along racial, religious and gender lines. As an Egyptian American, a Muslim woman and child of immigrants, I felt especially vulnerable, and I was horrified that my country had chosen this candidate to be our nation’s president. That morning, I dressed in black as an outward display of my grief. Still, I met my students with a message that it was a new day, and that newness was a good thing.
One young woman immediately responded to my greeting. “It is not a good morning.” She didn’t elaborate, she didn’t explain. She didn’t have to. I live in a blue state, and the candidate we voted for lost the election. But it wasn’t simply that Hillary Clinton lost; it was that Trump won. His message — that people of color, immigrants, women, Muslims — somehow threatened the greatness of America, seemed to have won. It was not a good morning for me or for my students.
Before I had a chance to ask the young woman to say more, another of my students, a young man, disagreed. “It’s a great morning!” He sat up in his seat and smiled broadly. The silence that ensued was palpable. We were a divided country. Mine was a divided classroom. And everyone was quiet, waiting for a response from me.
Which “me” would respond?
The Muslim, woman and immigrant parts of me wanted to loudly object to that young man’s opinion, to draw out and expose the flaws in his thinking, to attack his smug self-satisfaction. The compassionate me wanted to create a safe space for all students to express their views, no matter how ignorant or ill-informed. The teacher in me recognized this as a teachable moment and wanted to help students see that disagreement need not destroy a sense of community. Civil discourse in matters about which we disagree is, in fact, the heart of our democracy.
That morning, the teacher in me won out.
“It seems that whether or not this morning is good depends a lot on where you are standing right now,” I said.
I went on to explain that I was disturbed by the election results and that I was trying to understand how we got here. I told my students that despite my distress, I still believed that most people were good, and that I wanted to understand how good people could choose to elect to the highest office in the land a person who had insulted and alienated so many Americans. Even though I wanted to cry for my country (and later did, and still do), in that moment, I tried to model the kind of behavior I wanted my students to practice: respect for all people and openness to multiple perspectives, even those with which you do not agree, especially those that anger and disgust you.
But teaching with conviction is tricky. Even when a teacher models self-revelation, most high school students are often reluctant to express their personal and political views openly in class. They fear saying something that will, at best, arouse criticism from their teacher, at worst, alienate them from their peers. That morning, I at least wanted those who answered my greeting to explain their responses. Uncomfortable as it was, I pressed the students to tell me more. The students who were upset at the election results spoke first.
The young woman who’d said it wasn’t a good morning described her fear about losing her right to make important choices about her body. Another student, a young African American woman (one of only two African Americans in my class) wore a mournful expression and shook her head. “It’s like we’re going backwards,” she said. “All the rights we fought for. They could be taken away any time.” A few students nodded in agreement.
The young man who had proudly proclaimed his glee spoke next. He claimed that his response wasn’t a commentary on the election results, but an expression of happiness that stemmed from a personal, individual experience, and had nothing to do with the previous day’s events. The teacher in me wanted to believe that he was being genuine. But it was hard. I tried to recall a time when the student had ever said something so positive with so much pride and self-assurance as he had that day. I couldn’t. In fact, he was usually uninterested in, even dismissive of, our class discussions. He made it too easy to mistake his exuberance for gloating, and he seemed unconcerned about the effect it had on the rest of his classmates.
All semester, I have impressed upon my students that one of the reasons we read literature is to develop empathy, particularly for those whose lives and experiences differ from ours. But at that moment, I felt like a failure. The student who ignored the palpable dejection in my classroom that day did not display empathy. Quite the opposite. His intent was to get attention, inflict pain and bait others. Worse yet, he hid behind the claim that his statement was harmless.
But words are not harmless. They are incredibly powerful. And so is context.
After class, I spoke with the student about his comment. He insisted that his response was not an endorsement of the election results. He did concede, though, that given the context, it was understandable that it would come across that way, and that his tone sounded hostile to students who felt marginalized by the election outcome.
Did he care that his words had a wounding effect on others? It’s hard to tell. Most 17-year-olds aren’t characterized by a deep sense of empathy. Had the antagonistic rhetoric of the previous year emboldened him to be even less empathetic? I suspect it had.
To be fair, the young man did, during class, offer a reason for the election outcome. A Trump presidency, he suggested, would strengthen our alliance with Russia. Given our two countries’ strained relations over the years, the president-elect offered a chance for finding common ground with Russia’s leader, whose influence on the international stage is growing.
Being Muslim, it was hard for me to make space for that young man’s voice. But I did it because I am a teacher. I wondered how much space he would make for the voices of those who felt marginalized. How willing would he be to listen, to empathize? More importantly, how could I continue to create a classroom environment that helped all my students listen more compassionately and empathize more deeply?
Recently, I checked in with my students again, asking them to write out their feelings about the election results now that some time had passed. The responses weren’t surprising. Most of them expressed disappointment, fear, dread, outrage for all the reasons one would expect: Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, the rise in hate crimes, the real possibility that progressive policies that benefit women, the LGBTQ community, and minorities will be reversed, the slew of cabinet appointments that threatens to roll back progress on everything from environmental protection to international trade. Most students filled an entire notecard with their explanations.
The gleeful young man wrote only one line. “I feel happy that Trump won.” I was less troubled by his opinion than by his inability or unwillingness to say why.
Once I’d collected the cards, a student asked if we were going to have a discussion. I said that I wanted to, but I was worried that my own biases would prevent me from being an objective facilitator of such a discussion. Like anyone else, I had triggers, and I had to work to be aware of them and not allow my biases to prevent me from treating all students with fairness and civility. I had to listen without judging.
After the holidays, I will go into my classroom and do what is hard, but necessary. I will model what I believe is the purpose of teaching: to seek out opinions and experiences different from one’s own, to use dialogue to work toward real understanding and mutual respect.
All of the “me’s” — Muslim, woman, immigrant and especially teacher — feel a strong moral obligation to instill in my students values that I believe are now under attack: empathy, community, fairness, respect and the courage to speak out when these values are violated.
It is clear that my students want to speak; my job is to help them listen to one another.