THE DAY AFTER
The day after the election, as I was walking to work through the clench of despair so many of us felt, I realized I was afraid to look passers-by in the face. I live just a few blocks from campus, in a shiny bubble of curious, smart people, in a city that once elected 3 Socialist mayors. And yet I braced myself before each person I passed, wondering, "Was it you? Was it you? Did you not vote at all? Or did you not mind what this man has said of us?" My state was one of those taken for granted and surprisingly flipped.
What I dreaded most of all was facing my writing students, knowing that at least some of them voted for Trump or didn't vote at all -- these beautiful young people who have impressed me so much in other ways. I kept ducking my head, afraid to look into the faces I passed, afraid I might overhear them saying something hateful or ignorant; afraid they might reveal openly, as some had done privately in their voting the day before, that the world is crueler, more baffling, more insensible, than I could stand to believe. And I realized that I recognized this instinct to cower, this feeling that I'd better lock myself in tight and maintain a safe distance from these unfathomable people, because I might disintegrate at the slightest touch.
It was the feeling I’d lived with every day of my adolescence, when I was a depressed and anxious, "hypersensitive" kid, raised by a father who enjoyed bating me at the dinner table by saying the same bigoted, misogynist things he had heard his friends and elders say, and a good, strong Catholic mother who wouldn't dare cross him to defend us. It was the frustration of being taught the beautiful belief that "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," and then being told, over and over again, "He's just kidding. He doesn't really mean that. It's only words."
These were the Reagan years in a red town that was rapidly losing its industrial jobs, a town filling with decay and anxiety, a town where many of my friends' fathers were getting laid off and demoralized and angry. Racism and misogyny were open facts of life. We were hobbled and divided by fear then, too -- bracing ourselves for a nuclear attack -- and I had nightmares all the time that the sky would turn orange, as in The Day After, and that Soviet soldiers would somehow come rushing down the stairs to my basement bedroom.
Such fears have seemed laughable for a long time now, and that's good. Our country survived those times, at considerable cost. My sisters and I grew up strong and capable, with the toughness we learned from our mother's restraint. Only one in four of us voted for Trump. I managed to get out of that town and that mindset, to build a life devoted to words and to helping other fragile, searching young people find ways to make their voices heard.
When I got to class, I could barely lift my eyes to look at my students. The most pointed thing I could bear to say about the election was to ask, with a face I hoped shone with compassion for the most vulnerable and scared among us: “How are you doing?”
“Terrific!” said one student in the back corner. A cop, a nice guy, a good student, a decent writer. Stupefied, I said, “What?” and he said again, “Terrific!” His smile was huge. The rest of us cowered. I should have said something, but what?
It has been so long since I felt that old helpless despair and smallness that I'm shaking as I type this. I have come far enough that I almost forgot it. But I'm grateful I felt it back then and lived through it, because it shows me I – and, I hope, we -- can live through this moment too.
I know I should be stronger, fight harder, be fierce. I know. But the bone-deep sadness I felt that day was not just for the girl I once was, and others who’ve had it much harder than her, but also for the millions of people who felt so small and unheard and lost that they were willing to vote for a man like this, or not vote at all, and for the other millions who receive and perpetuate, unquestioned, the bigotry, hatred, and ignorance of their elders, and for the other millions who forget, at our peril, that we are a nation built on nothing but words, on truths that are indeed self-evident -- among them, that all are created equal.
– Valerie Laken
Valerie Laken teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. She is the author of the novel, Dream House, and the story collection, Separate Kingdoms. She can be reached at www.valerielaken.com.
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