In my years of teaching I dealt with brawls, harassment, lockdowns, teen suicide, communities plagued with few resources, and children enduring systemic disadvantages. But I never had to answer the questions that high school teacher Cara Arcuni and middle school teacher Nadiene Jacques fielded the morning after the 2016 presidential election.
“Can he bring back slavery?” asked one of Arcuni’s students.
“What are they going to do with the immigrants?” asked one of Jacques’ students.
While these questions are distressing, they’re not surprising. President-elect Donald Trump has threatened to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and used offensive rhetoric towards people of color. The fear his words triggered ring loudly in school communities like those of Arcuni and Jacques.
Arcuni, a 29-year-old English teacher at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, said she knew the likely results of the election around 11pm. She didn’t get to bed until nearly 2 in the morning, spending hours sifting through social media, searching for answers on how to face a classroom of 34 teenagers, many of whom are immigrants, almost all of them students of color. Arcuni has students from Nepal, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan. She has Asian students, Latino students and black students.
“The New York City school system is full of legal and illegal immigrants,” Arcuni said. “How do I legitimize their fears without overwhelming them?”
Talking about politics is often frowned upon in schools for fear of teacher bias coming through in the classroom.
“The goal is for teachers to present the facts and for students to think for themselves,” Arcuni said.
Since John Dewey had no school-wide programming leading up to the election, the burden fell on individual teachers to address the vitriolic campaign that targeted many of the racial and ethnic groups of their students. Although Arcuni’s principal advised teachers to tell their students how much they are loved in the days following the election, Arcuni knew that sentiment alone would not be enough to help students process the reality of a Trump presidency.
“There’s no training for how a teacher should treat an explosive event like this,” she said.
Nadiene Jacques, 32, was grappling with the same dilemma as Arcuni the night of the election: how to face her students the next morning.
"Especially as a white woman, I wanted to make sure I was coming from a place where I was understanding and empathic,” she said.
Like Arcuni, Jacques, an eighth grade English teacher at Theatre Arts Production Company School in the Bronx, spent election night in her apartment. Unlike Arcuni, she didn’t get any sleep. Jacques said that as soon as Trump won Florida, she knew he would win.
“My heart was pounding, it was devastating,” she said. “The first thing I thought about was my kids.”
She stayed glued to the news until she had to go to school the next morning, unsure how she would be able to teach.
“The kids are going to be too amped up,” she recalled thinking.
Jacques isn’t a veteran teacher. After getting an undergraduate theater degree, she became the assistant to the CEO of an asset management company on Wall Street. After over five years on the job, she needed a change. However, just three years into her teaching career, she would be called upon to comfort her students in the Bronx.
Jacques said her co-teacher texted her that night suggesting they scrap the lesson and discuss the election in class.
“They’re behind on their essay, let’s just get to the lesson,” Jacques texted back, trying to stick to the plan and evade the emotional topic.
That was wishful thinking. Once class began, it was a matter of minutes before the lesson was interrupted with questions about the election.
In Arcuni’s classroom, she told the student who asked about slavery, who she described as bubbling with energy despite a long commute and literacy struggles as a Caribbean immigrant, that President-elect Donald Trump didn’t have the power to bring back slavery.
But the question alone was heartbreaking.
About 30 miles north in the Bronx, Jacques started crying after listening to her students concerns about racism and deportation.
“I can’t make any promises,” she said, responding to her students’ questions in tears.
She stressed to her students the role they can play just by getting their education and being informed, taking solace in the fact that many of them are 14 and will be eligible to vote in 2020.
“It’s your turn next,” she told them.