“Our inner cities are a disaster. You get shot walking to the store,” Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump said in the closing minute of the third and final presidential debate last week, making the case for why Americans should vote for him over rival Hillary Clinton. “They have no education. They have no jobs. I will do more for African-Americans and Latinos than she can ever do in 10 lifetimes.”
Hearing Trump’s take on cities, Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, felt what she would later describe as overwhelming sadness. Trump was talking about the projects where she grew up and the nearby high school where she now teaches history in Waterbury, Conn. He was talking about her students. He was talking about her. And he was wrong.
“I was shaken and I thought, I hope someone will come out and say that’s not true,” Hayes said.
She worries that young people growing up in America’s inner cities hear Trump’s statements as a signal to give up. As a message that they come from a place without value, and they have no chance.
“My heart sank, because I know better than that, but what about those kids watching the debate who don’t know better than that?” Hayes said. “I grew up in a community like this, in the inner city, and I didn’t wake up every day thinking today’s the day I’m going to get shot. I went to the community center, I did after school activities, I went to vacation Bible school. My community was so instrumental in my life, so to say that nothing good is coming out of these communities is just wrong.”
Hayes grew up in Waterbury, Conn., a declining industrial city where she was exposed to drugs and violence. She became pregnant at age 17, but her teachers did not give up on her. She had always loved school, and they helped her believe that motherhood didn’t mean she had to give up her education.
She graduated from high school, then went on to enroll in community college, earn a four-year college degree and become a history teacher in Waterbury. Many of her students live challenging lives, just as she did. She wants to do for them what her teachers once did for her and her classmates: Show them they are capable, help them find their path to a fulfilling future, give them the tools to get there.
She doesn’t want them to be bogged down by what she sees as an outsider’s fatalistic vision of the world they live in.
“I get it, there are so many challenges,” Hayes said. “But that’s not where you start the discussion.”
Trump has proposed improving education with vouchers for poor children to take to whatever school they choose, including charter schools and private and religious schools. Trump surrogate Carl Paladino, the campaign’s New York state co-chairman, said last week that the goal is to “eventually dismantle the corrupted, incompetent urban school districts that we have in America today.”
Hayes is on leave from her classroom to serve as teacher of the year, traveling the nation as an ambassador for her profession.
She said usually she loves teaching about elections: Her students work on campaigns of both parties and volunteer at the polls, bringing civics education to life. But she’s a little relieved not to be teaching this year, in part because of the challenge of having school-appropriate conversations about a presidential race that often has been anything but school appropriate.
“There are things being said that are just not okay to say in school,” Hayes said. “I have students who are 14 years old who will vote in the next election, and they think this is what it looks like.”
She’s also glad she isn’t having to wrestle day in and day out with how and whether to share her own views of the race.
During every previous election cycle, Hayes was careful not to tell students who she was supporting. She didn’t want students to feel like there was a right and a wrong when it came to their choice of candidates.
“You just teach them to justify, support it with evidence, look at it in the big picture and understand how the Constitution works,” she said. “That’s my role, to be a facilitator, not to impart my views on them.”
But this campaign is different, Hayes said. She feels strongly that Trump’s rhetoric — on Muslims, immigrants, women, people with disabilities — is divisive, destructive and unacceptable in a way that transcends politics. She’s planning to vote for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and she doesn’t know if she would be able to — or would want to — keep that a secret from her students.
Last spring, during the GOP primary season, one of her students — a 15-year-old Muslim girl from Pakistan — approached her. The girl said she could understand why Trump was allowed to make statements associating Muslims with terrorism. But what she couldn’t understand, she told Hayes, was why other people were not speaking up in Muslims’ defense.
“We’re at the point where people have to speak up,” Hayes said. “This is so much bigger than an election or a campaign. It’s about celebrating the diversity that kids come from, not to give up on who they are.”