After midnight, moments after setting my iPhone on the nightstand, deciding I couldn’t refresh NPR.org one more time, I heard what I thought was a gunshot. I live in a red state and my first assumption with every bang is it’s a gunshot, but then there was another, and another, four bangs with a silent even pause between each one.
“Fireworks,” my husband said. “Trump won.”
We both reached for our phones. 244 electoral college votes became 279 votes and the angry caricatures of both Trump’s and Clintons faces stared back at me from their places above the abstract map of blue and red squares. We turned out the light and went to bed.
I don’t remember what I dreamt about, or if a dreamt anything. My brother said he dreamt about zombies. At 4:30am I woke up, I can only assume from stress or panic. With deep breaths I fell back asleep only to awaken, leering, two and a half hours later. My period started. Even my body was exhibiting some kind of ironic biological defiance to America’s new reality.
Two days before, a friend and I had hosted the first event in a series of Write-Ins, an hour for people to come together to write and be in community with one another. The series was part of a literary organization (with a hardly subtle hint of feminism) that we started with a mission to create more writing opportunities in our town. Two days before we were feeling revolutionary and empowered. Overnight our confidence turned to desperation.
The day after the election, my friend’s text to me read, “Hello. Did you get any sleep? I want to do something. Hold safe space for people to write and hug and be. What can we do?”
I texted back, “Barely. We could do another impromptu/pop up Write-In maybe,” and then I digressed as I thought about my commitments for the rest of the day.
I had to meet a student at my office then teach a composition class. Also, I was an artist-in-residence at the public library. I had been leading a workshop for the last four weeks leading up to the election. I was helping teens write letters to the next president as part of a project hosted by the National Writing Project.
The rest of my text read, “I don’t know what I’m going to say to the two thirteen your old girls who participated in the Letters to the Next President project—we’re supposed to have a pizza party at the library tonight.”
The moment needed immediacy and action, but I was grieving along with everyone else in my bubble of America. I wanted to hide. I called my friend and we poured over our options. Our literary organization was new and we had no idea what the political leanings were of our participants. In the end, she opened her home to anyone who wanted a place to write but asked people to private message her for the address.
I stumbled through my morning and wondered how I would face my students, many of whom had made it clear in one way or another that they were Trump supporters.
When I got dressed I wore a jacket I purchased from J. Crew several years ago when Mad Men style was a thing. I curled my hair and put on some lipstick and my big black sunglasses. I looked like Jackie Kennedy Onassis. I thought about how she performed her civic duties at a time when she might have wanted to hide.
On campus, walking to the liberal arts building I passed students. Fear set in, labeling set in, and everyone I passed was either a “likely Clinton supporter,” which brought a feeling of relief, or a “likely Trump supporter,” which brought on a feeling of distress. I’m not proud that in that moment I was engaging in the same kind of irrational thinking that contributed to Trump’s election in the first place.
Before my lecture, I had to meet the student who needed to take a test. She arrived at my office and her greeting was careful, her voice polite, and it took on a tone she hadn’t used with me all semester. Though I had never said it she knew which side I was on, and I which side she was on. We exchanged the appropriate professor/student pleasantries and I sent her to a conference room to take her exam.
While she worked I graded papers. I checked Twitter and Facebook. I sent texts to my brother and my husband. I wanted to cry but didn’t because I didn’t know how my students would meet my vulnerability. I tried to understand what exactly I wanted to cry about.
Before class I went to the bathroom and coming out of the stall I ran into a student who had written an essay for me about voter apathy. She was my mirror that morning. We couldn’t smile. Our eyes were tired. Our skin lacked the pink that comes with breathing deeply. We didn’t say anything to each other but we knew.
On my lunch break, I watched Clinton’s concession speech and had my cathartic moment. I sobbed while admiring those steely nerves that characterized her as being robotic. I listened to her words mindfully (it was the first time in a while I hadn’t scanned something on my phone during a long video), and near the end of twelve minutes, I found the smallest ray of hope. She said, “To all the little girls watching…never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world,” and it reminded me of the two girls who were taking advantage of the opportunities presented to them, who were asking important questions and finding their way through the answers. Hope for me was two girls who wrote letters to the future president about making school lunches healthy, and developing community programs to educate people about nutrition choices. Hope was two little girls who, despite the outcome of the election, believed their voices would be heard.
That night we had our pizza party at the library, the girls and I. We read letters about medical marijuana and cyber bullying, and unemployment, and we shared ideas and opinions. We smiled and we laughed because we needed to.
On the day after the 2016 election, in my darkest moments, I was planning for the worst. I was planning for the reality that I could lose my health insurance and that my student loan payments might not be adjusted for my income anymore. And when I ran out of plans I worried. Worried whether my cousin’s husband and family would be allowed to stay or return to the United States because they are Muslim. I worried for my Muslim students and my African American students and my gay students and my female students.
But eating pizza in a small conference room with two intelligent, adolescent girls, I realized I was doing something, however small my actions might seem.
I was doing something by mentoring them. I was doing something by teaching my Trump supporting college students how to write effectively and think clearly. I was doing something by running a literary organization with my friend, even if our feminism made us vulnerable.
And with these thoughts the hope caught on and pumped in my heart, like small bangs, with silent even pauses between them.