Where Liberal Atlanta Meets Rural Georgia: Student Reflections on the 2016 Election
I teach Art at Georgia Gwinnett College, located in Lawrenceville, GA, twenty miles outside of Atlanta. Today, I asked each of my sections at the beginning of class to vote on whether or not they would like to spend some time doing an exercise to reflect on the election or continue with the day’s regularly scheduled activities. Three of my classes overwhelmingly responded yes, they wanted to reflect, except for my first section of Drawing I, in which only one person voted that they wanted to participate, so we did not. I gave the students 20–25 minutes to write down their thoughts and feelings about the election and then asked them to summarize those thoughts in one phrase or sentence at the top of a new page and draw a picture that represented their thoughts and feelings. They then each had the option to stand up individually at the front of the room and share their thoughts and drawings with the class, with no interruptions, cheers, or boos. (Only once did someone interrupt.) Everyone applauded when the student was done, and they had the option to either keep their drawing or tack it to the wall to share with others. It’s a powerful visual to see each student speak their peace and then tack it to a wall for others to see.
My first section of Art Appreciation had many calls for togetherness, many pro-Trump supporters, and, most memorable of all, multiple students who said they didn’t really care and that they didn’t vote. One immigrant student chose not to speak, although I reached out to her individually after class. I can understand why she wouldn’t in that atmosphere. My second section was a completely different dynamic. There were the same calls for unity or statements of apathy, but many students did not want to speak, either silently shaking their heads, or saying they were too angry. One Hispanic girl walked up, and stated a comprehensive list of the insults Trump had made to minorities, women, and Muslims, and how angry and sad it made her. She started crying early on and stopped multiple times to gulp air and compose herself. The most compassionate thing I’ve seen this week is another student grabbing a paper towel from the back of the room and running it up to her as the speaker sobbed. When this speaker sat down, the same girl who got her the paper towel said “Well, if she talked, then I’m gonna talk!” Another student who previously declined to speak also stood up to speak about how the things Trump said had hurt her family and made her fear for her future. She cried too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen something as brave as that first student standing up to speak and inspiring others to do so. I wished she had been in my first section and that those students could understand how profoundly the results of this election affected others. My second Drawing I section began with a white South African immigrant who made a comprehensive, unemotional and eloquent list of reasons he supported Trump (leaving out any mention of Trump’s insults or indignities), and stating how much money and effort his family put into immigrating to the United States and how it was not fair people did it illegally. He was followed by a Hispanic Honors student who just as eloquently listed Trump’s excoriating statements and how wrong they were.
I think I teach in one of the most unique and fascinating campuses in the country, on the edge of liberal Atlanta and rural Georgia, with such a diversity of students who can think so differently and come from such different backgrounds and still… they’re all friends. The same students who sit in a corner chatting it up all class who I have to constantly ask to be quiet ranged from a black Muslim to a white pro-Trump supporter who said Hillary just wanted to “change what people have in their pants.”
Before we ended the exercise at the end of the day, the South African immigrant student asked to say one more thing, and I let him take the floor once more. He said “We’re all so lucky to be able to live here and express our opinions, regardless of what they are,” gesturing to the wall full of words and images.
Here’s how (mostly) millennials from Gwinnett County, Georgia feel about the election:
(A huge debt of gratitude to fellow teacher Jessica Estep for inspiring this exercise and helping me figure out how to conduct my classes today. Most of the previous exercise was hers, minus the drawing portion.)