As I returned to my 7th- and 8th-grade classroom in January after a much-needed winter break, part of me was hoping to leave Donald Trump—and much of 2016—behind. Sure, I knew he would be inaugurated soon. I knew his already ubiquitous presence would become even more suffocating. And I feared his frightening campaign promises would soon land brutally on people’s lives—including the lives of my students.
But he had already wormed his way into so many of our lessons over the past year that I thought we were ready, at least for a while, to turn to other topics, other themes.
I should have known better. By the end of his first week in office, Trump had already signed an executive order to begin building a wall along the Mexican border, threatened to “send in the feds” if Chicago’s gun violence numbers didn’t improve, blocked Syrian refugees from entering the United States, and temporarily banned immigration from seven majority Muslim countries. It was impossible for us to look away.
For my students—mostly children of immigrants from Mexico, along with a few Central American and Muslim immigrants, living on Chicago’s South Side—the worries that accompanied Trump’s flurry of first-week actions were not new. Throughout 2016, as the bizarre presidential election and the spiraling levels of gun violence in some of Chicago’s most forgotten communities made headlines, my students never had the luxury granted to most white Americans, who looked on from a comfortable distance. For the kids I teach, it all played out—literally—close to home, and the accompanying loss and fear were visceral, palpable.
As 2016 began, late-night talk shows and social media were having plenty of fun with the notion of a Trump presidency. But my students were already anxious. The possibility of Trump landing in the White House had never felt like a joke to them and, as the months went by, their concerns grew. They listened as he categorically disparaged Mexicans and Muslims, as he threatened to end birthright citizenship, as he demonized Black and Brown Chicago, as he repeatedly promised to build a wall. To my students, these were neither throwaway stump speech lines nor laughable proposals. They were direct threats.