I teach mathematics at a college in Northern California. In the tests that I give to my students, I always include a question that deals with the ‘big issues’ of life, such as, “Name three things that make your life meaningful,” or, “Are you afraid of death? Why or why not?” or, “What are your core values? Are you spending your time in college that reflect those values?”
Students frequently open up to such questions, something that obviously doesn’t happen when they are solving quadratic equations or constructing confidence intervals. Their responses help me better understand them as unique individuals, which help me become a better teacher.
In my recent test, composed a week before Nov. 8 and given on Nov. 10, to two classes consisting of about 90 students, my question was: “If something could happen right now that was highly unlikely, or even impossible, that would make you unbelievably happy, what would that be?”
I never connected the question to the presidential election, whose ‘foregone conclusion’ of Hillary Clinton’s victory I shared with millions of my fellow-Americans.
Was I ever wrong!
Apart from a few students who wanted to win the lottery and a few who longed for one last heart-to-heart with a departed loved one, most of the responses reflected the raw, angry and anguished thoughts they had about Donald Trump’s victory and what it meant for America.
Ruth expressed the common sentiment shared my Mario, Robert, Erik, Aurora and Andrea: “I fear for my safety and for the health of my country with Trump as President. If only the election gave a different result!”
Claudia wrote: “If only Hillary became the president! I am shocked how racist my country is. I had no idea! It saddens me how this country has so much hate in its heart.”
Cristina was outraged that America missed a golden chance to break the glass ceiling. “Imagine, the first female U.S. president! And we blew it!”
Lopez was sure that the reckless Trump will do something that will get him impeached. “A zebra cannot change its stripes,” he wrote. “Trump will be forced out of the White House because of what he does.”
Joanna was wistful: “If only Bernie Sanders ran!” Many students were angry that Hillary did not choose Sanders as her running mate, or that she did not use him as much as she should have in her campaign. “Sanders would have appealed to working-class whites in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin,” wrote Katie. “With Trump, I am scared for my family and friends, for people of color, for women, Muslims, immigrants and disabled and other minorities.”
Trisha was despondent and wished she had done more. “I regret not fighting harder for Bernie Sanders during the primaries. I should have spent more time advocating online, phone banking to other states, and inviting respectful dialog with those who had reservations about Sanders’ policies and positions. If by some miracle the presidency went to Hillary who won the popular vote, I would cry tears of joy. We must get rid of the Electoral College. What a useless relic from the past! Under Trump, we are about to enter a period of legislative uncertainty in terms of environmental protection. We need as many well-informed citizens as we can get who will act on behalf of the planet’s well-being, rather than its potential for profitability.”
The unfairness of the Electoral College weighed on the minds of Alondra, Clement, Sanchez, Zamora and Mendoza. “We brag about our democracy to the rest of the world,” wrote Mendoza, “but look what we have in our own country. A majority of Americans wanted Hillary to be our president. Instead, it’s Trump and his third wife who will occupy the White House!”
Acosta was filled with regrets too. “I regret not calling my family and friends in Florida to vote for Hillary. I regret our country’s decision. If I could make it right, I would ask for independents to be excluded from the ballot. I am also mad at the millions who did not vote. What were they thinking?”
Olivia felt it was more a case of Hillary losing the election than Trump winning it. “Hillary ran a flawed campaign. She spent the last Election Day with wealthy entertainers. That couldn’t have gone down well with angry jobless whites in rural America. I think she became arrogant.”
The theme was echoed by Fisher, Jessica and Clark. “I disagreed with everything Trump said,” wrote Fisher. “But there was no denying he was speaking his mind. With Hillary, it seemed like a production from Hollywood! No spontaneity.”
Liz took a particularly grim view. “My favorite subject is history. And I can tell from my studies that when a nation chooses a very bad leader, that nation is in decline.”
Irene was as heart-broken at Hillary’s loss as everyone else but she also took the long-view. “Hillary’s win would have made us lazy. We would expect her to do everything right and not pay any attention. Trump’s victory means we must prepare for the long fight. We will be more active and engaged. That will be a good thing for our country.”
Most angry was Patrick who would have nothing to do with the logic of working-class whites who voted for Trump. “I belong to a white working-class family here in Silicon Valley. My dad works at two temporary jobs. I have to work part-time to cope with high costs of rent, food, gas. I know what that pain is. But basic human decency counts too. Respect for others count. Respect for women count. Humility counts. How can we elect someone who is against these values? Is it only about money?”
What impressed me most was how impassioned students were about an election they deeply cared about, and how articulate they were, even though they were pressed for time. Don’t forget, this was a test in which they had to work their way through some fairly complicated statistical problems!
How do we move forward? The most eloquent response came from Erica, who wrote: “In my dark days I find strength in the words of Martin Luther King. Last night, after I had cried my heart out, I looked up these words: ‘We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.’”