My students, a disproportionate number of whom are LGBT, are reeling. Each day some new horror is unleashed upon them, people of color, immigrants, and anyone unfortunate enough to be standing in front of an angry white man playing Rambo. There is an incipient hollowness in the eyes of my students that I recognize because I have it too. How can I be there for them, I wonder, as we all watch already shaky footholds of tolerance being hacked away by a vengeful, petty tyrant and his many enablers?
I won’t slap pink wallpaper — in the form of positive thinking or dopey optimism — over the sorrow, fear and outrage that’s plain for all of us to see. There is no point in condescending to students by offering platitudes about how it will all be just fine. Such candy-coated bromides and lazy prayers would be especially unpersuasive coming from a professor like me whose work rests on the shifting sands of social justice. I routinely caution against naive historical narratives that assume the triumph of good over evil, so I couldn’t get my students to start believing in an inevitable “arc towards justice” even if I wanted to.
But I don’t tell them my whole truth either, about bleak, sleepless nights or the sopping blanket of disillusionment I’ve carried since the U.S. (sort of) elected this oozing eyesore of a regime. Nor do I share the full measure of my grief at personal relationships drowned in the wake of this newly legitimated racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Like many of my students, I am no more devastated by the overt displays of evil from our “leaders” (i.e., ringleaders) than by friends and acquaintances who stand by, pie-eyed and privileged, as my lovely students, and countless vulnerable others, fear for their lives.
Because, though my students are to be respected as adults, they are also relying on me to help hold back the tide of paralyzing despair. Whatever anyone else says, they are not my clients or my customers, but are in my care as developing intellectuals and citizens. I can see their need. They think I know something. They hear that these are unprecedented times and, because I am an activist professor from the good old days, want some kind of reassurance from me that we can handle it, that it will be all right. They bend toward me like flickering candles to borrow from my flame and it is my job to keep it lit.
I take it on faith that sometimes the most political act is a refusal to give in to despair. In the wreck and ruin of the past two years, I feel a new tug of moral, political and pedagogical duty to resist the sickly sweet anesthesia of bleak pessimism, or whatever blithe indifference my privilege could buy me. I am not merely playacting optimism in order to inspire my students keep a stiff upper lip. Committing to be there for them as an example of pragmatic, energetic hope is also how I connect with my own will to fight. My responsibility to them pushes me to be better than I would otherwise be. Perhaps in these lurching, disjointed, heartbreaking times, the very best place to be is in the classroom, with students who have a right to expect that I rise to the occasion.