The other day, as my wife and I drove north on Interstate 25 in our Mazda CX5 with our eleven-year-old daughter, Mitike, and our dog, Fable, in the backseat, I thought, “Why not get rid of all these safety features in our car?”
I mean, really, our car would have been so much cheaper without all these gratuitous extras—without the blindspot monitoring, without the brake assist or the traction control, without the air bags or the rearview mirrors or the windshield wipers or the daytime running lights. And if Mazda hadn’t been mandated to install seatbelts or spend its resources on IIHS or NHTSA safety tests, this car would be far more fun to drive.
I glanced in the unnecessary rearview mirror at Mitike, who bent over a book. What kind of world are we promising future drivers like her? All these regulations! These superfluous rules, like properly registering a vehicle, or paying for insurance on it, or passing vision and knowledge tests to get a license to drive. Fettered by decades of rules, we cannot enjoy driving. Someday, the government will probably just take away this right all together, and we will all be forced to take the public bus system.
“What are you writing?”
“I’m tired. Another school shooting, and no one’s going to do anything. I’m resorting to sarcasm.”
“But you’re not writing about guns.”
“Yes, I am. If guns could be regulated like cars are, we’d have far fewer deaths. Did you know that when states started requiring people to get driver’s licenses in the 1930s, they dramatically reduced accidents on the roads? And that after most states started requiring seatbelts in the 1990s, people’s injuries in car accidents decreased by half? And that when car companies started putting in air bags in the late 1990s, they reduced the mortality rate by 63 percent? A few rules, and we’re safer. I’m trying to argue that—”
“Mom, let me try.”
“Let me write your column this month.”
“Would you mind?”
Stop This NOW! A Guest Column by Mitike Iris Campbell, Age Eleven
Why do you keep letting this happen? You grown-ups are exasperating sometimes. You would not hesitate to protect your children and your family, but you hesitate at this, at choosing the safety of your family over your precious guns? The Second Amendment reads, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This does not mean that everyone just has the right to bear arms. It means we have the right to bear them in a well-regulated way. Technology like guns is always advancing, so laws must always be made and changed to protect us. Children are losing lives they have only just begun. Our future is being destroyed by your inaction here and now. Decide. Unregulated guns or continued tragedy? Danger or safety? Violence or peace? Injustice or justice? Death or life? Hatred or love? Please remember that the choices you make will affect the future as well as the present.
A question-and-answer session with the guest columnist, Mitike, who is in fifth grade and loves reading fantasy novels, considering fashion styles, playing volleyball, and relaxing with her family.
SHC: So, Mitike, why do you think school shootings are happening?
MIC: Because of guns.
SHC: Does hearing about a tragedy like the one in Florida make you feel afraid?
MIC: Yes, it does when I think about it, but most of the time I’m so focused on my work, I don’t think about it.
SHC: What does your school do to prepare for emergencies?
MIC: We do lock-downs, lock-outs. In art class, we do a lock-down drill in the kiln room. And we do have talks about this kind of thing a lot. They talk about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate to bring to school, and how you should report it if you see anyone with anything unsafe.
SHC: What’s an example of something that is inappropriate to bring to school?
MIC: Guns, knives, swords. I don’t know if swords really exist, but, you know. Daggers, bombs, but they don’t really talk about those. That’s mostly it.
SHC: What would you say to someone who says that if we allow the government to regulate guns more, the government will take them all away?
MIC: Well, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if they do. If that’s the only way they see fit to keep us safe, then it’s probably a good choice.
SHC: Like what Australia did?
MIC: Yes, I think that’s great. They’re having a fine time down there—except they do have lots of poisonous animals threatening their population, instead.
SHC: What do you think of the idea of requiring licenses for everyone who owns a gun, as a place to start?
MIC: I think that is a good idea because if we had that, then we’d be able to trust that we lived in a little bit safer country, and a little bit safer schools. Kids should not have to worry that we’re going to die.
SHC: What are some other things you worry about?
MIC: Well … I hate snakes, komodo dragons, snakes in a pit, snakes chasing me on top of a cart that wants to run me over, finding out my house is on fire in the middle of the night and not being able to run away, losing my dog. I’m worried my cousins will get me in trouble. I worry that my cousin Ryland will break his head open because he’s not being careful. I worry about doing terribly on tests. I worry that I’m not getting enough information from the books my teacher wants me to read. I worry about forgetting my homework.
SHC: Wow, that’s a lot of worries. What would a peaceful life look like for you, then?
MIC: It would be a life where I would only worry about little things I have no control over, not about my life being threatened. Not in school, anyway, where I’m trying to learn.
NOTE: Call your senators now. Tell them to support the assault weapon ban and to push legislation that requires strict licensing and regulation of guns. Donate to and join Moms Demand Action. Please. Let’s allow our kids to worry about poisonous snakes, instead.
Trump, in a speech on Friday, February 23, 2018, to the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington, D.C.:
“Well-trained, gun-adept teachers and coaches [should carry firearms in schools]. I mean, I don’t want to have a hundred guards with rifles standing all over the school. You do a concealed carry permit. This would be a major deterrent, because these people are inherently cowards.”
Saturday, February 24, 2018, Trump tweet:
“Armed Educators (and trusted people who work within a school) love our students and will protect them. Very smart people. Must be firearms adept & have annual training. Should get yearly bonus. Shootings will not happen again — a big & very inexpensive deterrent. Up to States.”
It’s March 24, 2020.
In Denver, Colorado, a certain English teacher with streaks of silver in her brown hair completes her final “Armed Educator Training,” which her school district has mandated for all educators, in compliance with SB1999 passed after Colorado endured another mass shooting, this time in a Colorado Springs high school in May of 2019. This time, nearly fifty students and educators died. This time, finally, enough Colorado legislators stood up to demand alternatives. Thus “Armed Educator Training”: six courses all K–12 teachers are required to complete before the end of this 2020 school year. Former military personnel or teachers who can demonstrate similar arms certifications are exempt if they complete the appropriate paperwork. Upon completion of the six courses of the Armed Educator Training, each K–12 teacher receives a standard-issue M&P 9, with a Picatinny rail under the muzzle. On this day, March 24, 2020, a stern army colonel with wire spectacles perched on her nose hands this English teacher her M&P 9. The English teacher holds the gun on the palms of her hands and does not look away.
Behind her, a kindergarten teacher breaks into quiet tears as she is handed her gun. A middle school math teacher accepts his grimly. A high school chemistry teacher grabs hers a bit too eagerly. The room is silent. No one says thank you. No one laughs or jokes with each other, as they have been doing in the dreariness of these evening classes and at the shooting range, where learning how to hit the targets felt more like a sporting competition than anything real. But now. They fit the new guns into the blue plastic holsters they have been issued, and they accept the paper certificates that confirm their completion of Armed Educator Training.
At home, the English teacher sits in her car in the driveway for several minutes, trying to grasp this brave new world. She will leave the gun in her glove compartment and transport it to school tomorrow, in the clear plastic bag (all bags and backpacks at her high school must be clear now) that currently holds her students’ research papers, three books she needs to skim to prepare for tomorrow, and various spoons and forks she has neglected to return to her kitchen. She refuses to bring the gun into the house. Not with her child in there. But then she shudders: her child’s teachers all carry guns now, too. Every teacher in Denver is required to, now.
She sits in the driveway, and outside the March wind pummels her car. The car rocks. Mentally, she lists all that she still does not have as a teacher, though she now has a gun:
she does not have whiteboard markers
she does not have the students’ attention, since they are staring at their cellphones
she does not have a key that works in both classrooms in which she teaches
she does not have enough desks for all of her students when all of them attend
she does not have time to use the bathroom
she does not have a printer or a projector that work reliably
she does not have a reasonably sized class
she does not have enough books, or paper, or pencils
she is not paid enough to live in most of the neighborhoods in her city
she does not have adequate healthcare
she does not have regular assistance with her students’ mental health issues
she does not have reassurance that the district has invested adequately in her retirement
she is not paid enough to save for her own child’s college education
But she has a gun. On the passenger seat beside her, the gun in its ridiculous blue plastic holster, inanimate but not innocuous, waits for her to do something with it. She remembers other times she has held and fired a gun: as a child, when her father had reached around her and held the rifle with her so they could point and fire at clay pigeons the machine threw into the air over their cornfield. And she remembers the time in Alaska. In Alaska, where she trained to be a teacher, her program required all urban education students to do a one-week intensive in a rural school. She had flown to Kodiak Island, to a village of fifty, where two teachers led a K–12 school for eighteen students, lived together (though they were not a couple), drank tequila, and shot guns. For the entire week, the teacher had become increasingly dismayed by the ferocity with which the other two teachers wanted to finish the day so they could go shoot guns. Every afternoon, the three of them walked the short distance to the town dump, set up rusty cans on stumps, stepped back, and fired. Bang. Bang. BANG. The teacher wanted to know if they could hike instead. Ha, said the man teacher. Hike? There are Kodiak bears out there. THIS is all there is to do safely here. He lifted his pistol again, a little shakily, since he had been drinking. Bang! The other teacher, the woman, laughed bitterly, examining the pistol she held. Yeah, they say you have to be insane or be running away from something to come out here to teach. I think I’m doing both. She leveled the pistol at the man a moment, and they both laughed crazily. Bang! A tin can exploded in the distance, out by the dump where only the bears and the bald eagles could hear.
Until the mandatory Armed Educator Training, the teacher had not fired a gun since that moment in the Alaska. Some of the teachers in the training had reminded her of those two teachers on Kodiak Island: desperate, fierce, angry. Give me that gun, an eighth grade social studies teacher had said, his teeth gritted. No active shooter will think to bother my classroom, ever.
Now she sits in her car beside the gun, and outside, it has begun to rain: large drops splash rough-edged circles on her windshield, which is cracked. Where is she safe, if not in her classroom? Where is her daughter safe? She thinks of a cartoon she saw once, of a boy on a playground holding a stick. The teachers gathered around him, staring down at him, debating. Should we arm all the other children with sticks? Or should we take away his? The cartoon teachers frowned in their indecision.
The front door of the teacher’s house opens, and her wife steps out, peering through the gray rain. She wraps her sweater around her body and walks out onto the porch, down the two steps, across the driveway. She doesn’t hesitate: she opens the driver’s-side door and grasps the teacher’s hand. Come on, sweet wife, she says. Come inside. She glances at the gun on the passenger-side seat, but mostly she keeps her gaze focused on the teacher.
Shivering suddenly, though she is not cold, the teacher begins to cry. I don’t want this—I just want to teach writing—I hate living in America—I—
Her wife pulls on the hand she holds and guides the teacher out of the car. She shuts the car door, and the car, smart, locks itself with the gun inside.
Dinner’s ready, the teacher’s wife says quietly. Let’s just go inside.
Inside, dinner is already on the table, and the women’s daughter sits waiting, her dark eyes round with concern. The fireplace is on, and the dog greets them, wagging happily, as he does every day. The teacher lets her shoulders relax. Her daughter springs up from the table to hug her, and the dog wedges himself happily between them.
And the teacher gives herself permission, as she does every afternoon, to forget the world outside this one, to forget guns and inept politicians and deep gun lobby pockets that refuse to ban even semi-automatics and bump stocks and fear and students who jump at any loud noise and lockdown drills and lockout drills and the flashing red and blue lights of America.
Her wife locks their front door. Here, by the fire, the three of them settle into their chairs at the dinner table, and the dog stretches out at their feet.
But it is not enough. The teacher knows it: it is not enough.
Stacks of research papers teeter on my desk; my colleagues and I slog through hours and hours of standardized testing proctoring; the students are irritable and restless, and so am I. Every April, my mind hums with the same old question: What else could I be? What else am I qualified to do? I search the internet for job postings, but drift toward all the ones that sound quite a bit like teaching. Could I get paid to garden? Would someone employ me to hike mountains? Is it possible to work as a professional reader of books?
Yes, I could be a writer. Since I was nine, when I wrote rambling stories about a girl named Zoe who lived on a farm oddly like mine, I have yearned to be a writer. Not just someone who writes every once in a while, not just someone who writes in the precious early hour before work, but someone who, for a living, writes. My secret love has always been words and sentences and paragraphs. Stories.
But at twenty-six, drifting through Central America with a piece of paper that proclaimed me a college graduate and trumpeted the profoundly useful double major in English and religion (majors to which I had switched my sophomore year, romanced away from chemistry and math), I sighed, and became a teacher. The old adage mocked me: Those who can’t do, teach. I pulled the first stack of student essays toward me and began to read.
“Teacher” is the identity with which I am most uncomfortable. For fifteen years, I have viewed it as temporary. Someday, I say to whomever is listening, I’ll quit this job and write full time. I try to wake early to keep my writing discipline. I try to attend writing workshops, where a surprising number of people seem to have hours each day to write. I try to learn from others: at a “local author” book signing for Grief Map recently, I talked to two other local authors and grilled them on how they have made the jump into a full-time writing life. One woman told me: You just do it. You just jump. Right. Except jumping requires the confidence that the stories I’m trying to tell will translate to a living wage somehow, that we’ll be able to continue to do all the other things I love and value: travel, buy plants for my garden, eat out at restaurants, save for Mitike’s college education. Better to keep teaching.
A colleague told me recently, in response to my “Someday, I’ll be a writer full-time,” that someday I’ll admit that I’m actually a teacher at my core, and I bristled. He laughed. We stood in the echoing hallway, both of us holding armloads of papers to grade. Too often, I feel like a character in a Stephen King or a Kent Haruf novel—the jaded English teacher, correcting papers late at night, staring back at disengaged students by day, her own half-finished novel in a drawer because she has to plan lessons for this week and attend professional development and call the parents of every student who is failing and beg the district to give me adequate health care.
On PSAT testing day this April, I walked in circles around and around a room full of sophomores. In my monotone voice, I read the script: “You will only receive credit for answers recorded on your answer sheet . . . If you have any questions about testing procedures, please ask them now. I cannot answer questions during the timed sections of the test. . . .” I looked up. The sophomores held their number two pencils politely, but they were hearing nothing I was saying. They had heard all of these instructions before. Outside, a tree blossomed white, and the robins and chickadees announced spring. I thought, We are all trapped here. I told the students to just begin the test.
There are days when my job feels like one of the best possible jobs in the world. After all, I am free to plan my own time, to teach whatever texts I deem relevant, to engage roomfuls of teenagers in meaningful conversations about their lives. And every year, I reach a few students who needed to be reached.
This job, teaching, is cyclical. As soon as I sink to my nadir, in the first weeks of April, the end of the school year begins to shimmer in the near distance. At home, my plants begin to sprout in the garden: the peas and kale and broccolini and radishes I planted on St. Patrick’s Day, the perennial native flowers I planted three years ago. I store the skis and the winter coats; I spend an entire weekend digging in the dirt, carefully pushing mulch around greening plants. The delicate soft green leaves of the sage plant reminds me to have more empathy for my students, who are trying to thrive in soil and air that is not their native habitat. The delicate butter lettuce leaves tell me I need to bring those students more water, more peat moss and compost. On a Monday after gardening, I am always a better, more devoted teacher.
But I still don’t believe I will be a teacher forever. It’s a stop along my way, no matter what anyone says. On the first weekend of April, as I sank my fingers into the newly friable soil I had created for my new herb garden, I made a mental to-do list of the writing projects I intend to finish this summer, while these plants are growing: the Anna Dickinson manuscript (finished, but needing major editing), the Colorado women place names project, the new collection of hybrid essays I want to begin on the wilderness and nature, the short story about the lockdown. Someday, someday, someday. The word is the rhythm of my spade in the Colorado clay. Every morning I make myself write is a little more amendment to the soil; someday, the writing life I imagine will thrive here.
For now, I’ll drive to work at a huge Denver high school, where I’ll grade two more papers before the bell rings, and then I’ll stand in front of thirty teenagers and tell them, “Okay, let’s start by writing a little.” It’s always about that, about beginning. And then, as the morning sun streams through the tall windows onto thirty heads bent earnestly over notebooks, pens scratching, then, for a moment—just before I take attendance—this is the perfect job for me, after all.
This month is NaNoWriMo, a month in which the question “What’s your word count?” separates Nanowrimoes from the rest of the world.
The word comes from fragments of the month’s title, National Novel Writing Month; the goal: write 50,000 words of a novel, forego more sleep than usual, win promotional prizes, and—well—have a novel draft you might not have had otherwise. Except for 1999, the inaugural year of NaNoWriMo, when the month was July, the month has been November.
To me, November has always seemed the perfect month for this—as fall sets in, as the garden dies in the frost, as the holidays and their attendant family drama loom, I am comforted by the prospect of sitting down in front of my laptop with my new novel idea and the straightforward task of writing 1,667 words each day (the word count one needs to maintain to achieve 50,000 words in the month of November). Note that the idea behind NaNoWriMo is not to publish a novel in a month, or to even write a good novel in a month. The idea is simply to write, and write, and write, until the word-count bar at the top of the NaNoWriMo.org account rises above 50,000 and a happy badge flashes onto the screen: “Winner!”
I’m a proud NaNoWriMo winner from 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2015. In 2012, I wrote 29,538 words and realized the novel was a novella, and was finished. Last year, in 2016, I wasn’t in a novel-writing mood, and I only wrote 6,921 words. But this year, I intend to win again. My current word count as of this writing? 17,060. Only a few more to go.
There’s a beautiful camaraderie to NaNoWriMo that I need in this Trumpian world. At local write-ins, we strangers sit next to each other at coffee shops and just write. Sometimes, we compete in “word sprints,” in which a leader sets a timer for, say, twenty minutes, and we all try to write as much as possible (my average in twenty minutes is about 800 words), but mostly we just write. And write. During breaks, we share the story we’re attempting, or we discuss ideas of what to do to a main character. We trade tricks to increase the word count: have the character write a letter, suddenly decide to tell the backstory, write a side story that is only loosely related to the novel—or write a column about NaNoWriMo and include the column in your novel manuscript.
NaNoWriMo is a sort of escape from the real world that requires me to wake up and drive to my job and put in my hours and drive home to help my daughter with homework and make my family dinner. For just one month, I get to give in to the frenetic energy of writing. And yet—it is not really an escape. Every year, I craft a novel I need to write. One year, I wrote a series of letters (what would become The Beginning of Us, which Riptide published in 2014) between two women who discovered they loved each other in college, because I wanted to know what would have happened if I had met Ali, who had just died, at an earlier juncture in our lives. Another year, dismayed by the way my students were sinking farther and farther into their phones, I wrote a science fiction novel about a dystopia in which the government barely needs to control the people because they are already controlled by their own technology. This year, horrified by Trump and the immigration discussion, I’m writing about a lockdown in a diverse city high school in the near future—a lockdown the main character, a teacher, begins to realize has been instigated by the U.S. government, which has declared a military state until sanctuary cities like Denver turn over their undocumented residents.
At my real high school, I am one of the faculty sponsors of the school’s Writing Club, a group of students who meet on Thursdays at lunch to just write. In November each year, they all attempt NaNoWriMo, so each week, we discuss our word counts. They want to know how I’ve written so many words: I write, I tell them. Turn off the inner editor. Even if you hate what you’ve just written, leave it on the screen; let it be counted. After November, you’ll revise.
In the second week of November, our high school had a sudden lockdown at lunch—a real lockdown. At the time, I was meeting with the school’s Science Fiction/Fantasy Club (I am the faculty sponsor of the two coolest clubs at our high school), where we were discussing the 1958 film “The Fly.” Suddenly, an assistant principal announced over the intercom that we were in lockdown, and within minutes we had paused “The Fly,” locked the classroom door, and huddled in the darkness in the corner farthest from the windows. My heart was beating in my ears; one girl had begun to cry. Sudden, unplanned lockdowns conjure terrifying images: Columbine, Sandy Hook. A boy under the row of desks beside me dropped his book, and everyone in our room jumped. But then, softly, Jocelyn, a girl who is in both Writing Club and Science Fiction/Fantasy Club, whispered, “Ms. Campbell? Are you allowed to write during a lockdown? Because this is exactly what you are writing about! You could get more words.” Even under duress, NaNoWriMo possesses us.
The lockdown ended, the issue evidently resolved, and the bell rang. Strange. But my mind swirled with all the ideas I hadn’t considered for my novel. I hadn’t remembered, for example, that in a lockdown, we all have to cram into one corner of the classroom. I’d forgotten how the tension builds and builds with each minute. I’d forgotten the odd silence of the hallway outside. More words.
Every November, I meet other writers who want to get published and who wonder where they should send the novel they write for NaNoWriMo. There are many places to submit work, of course, but NaNoWriMo itself is not a publisher; it’s a kick in the pants; it’s a fire lit; it’s a reminder that no book will be published that does not get written.
I teach full-time; I’m a parent. I don’t actually have time or space to be a “real” writer right now. Or do I? At a writing retreat in New Mexico a couple of years ago, I attended a session led by a self-named “creativity consultant,” who specializes in working with women artists. One woman in the session complained, “I’ve got four kids and a full-time job. I do not have time to write.” The creativity consultant took a deep breath, looked the woman square in the eyes, and said, “Yes, you do. You have time if you make the time. Even just five minutes here, five minutes there.”
NaNoWriMo does not give me more time, but that word counter on my NaNoWriMo screen—and all the thousands of Nanowrimoes typing away across the country each day in November—remind me that I can make the time. And so I do, one word after another.
Feedback on Donald’s final semester research paper, from his English teacher:
Donald — While you have some interesting, unique ideas here, you have not always organized them in a way that makes your agenda or your principles evident. Also while you argue for change in the United States with great passion, you have not proved that any of the sources you chose to use in this paper are credible or relevant. You fall often into non sequitur, into sweeping generalizations and into ad hominem. Finally, you overuse the simple-sentence construction, and your frequent repetition is not often effective. Note my comments throughout your paper, as well as the rubric and the original outline for this research-based position paper. You have until noon on December 22 to revise this paper. If you do well on the reading/language portion of the final, you have a chance of passing this course with a D. Please do this! I look forward to reading your revision. — Ms. C.
The vocabulary list Donald refuses to study for his finals:
An email exchange between Mrs. Mary Trump and Donald’s social studies teacher:
Dear Mrs. Trump,
Thank you for your email. Donald is fortunate to have such a supportive parent in his life. I hear all that you are saying about your concerns about the school and about Donald, but I can only speak to the concerns you have shared about my U.S. History class. I’ve responded to your specific comments below:
Donald needs extra time on all assignments. He does not have one of those special plans, but his father has always paid his teachers to make allowances for him. His father would like to know what amount would be sufficient.
I cannot take bribes. Donald has turned in most of his assignments on time, but he has not met the expectations. When I’ve asked him to revise, he has said, “It’s not important. My GPA is already bigly. It’s the best GPA, ever.” Have you and Mr. Trump considered having Donald tested? He might benefit from additional support.
Donald feels nervous and afraid when he is surrounded by people who look and act different than him. He tells me that your class is full of immigrants from South America, Africa, and Asia. Can he be switched to a class where he will be more comfortable?
No. It is too late at this point in the semester (the last week) to switch classes. Also, I must point out that Donald is surrounded by students who bring fascinating stories from their lives; he could learn quite a bit from them. I know from a passing comment Donald made that you are an immigrant from Scotland, Mrs. Trump. If Donald could see that the immigrant students who sit beside him in my class are immigrants just like you, he might relax and begin to get to know them. Maybe you could encourage this mindset at home?
Donald told me that you encourage the students to criticize our great country. I would like to request that Donald be excused from these uncomfortable conversations.
Donald regularly quotes from sources like Breitbart and Fox News in his papers for me, and he argues regularly in class discussions that the U.S. should build a wall on our southern border and that we should obliterate North Korea with a nuclear attack. As his history teacher, it is my job to provide other perspectives; it seems particularly important for Donald. However, he usually puts in his earbuds or watches Netflix videos on his phone when he does not like the topic of discussion. It is not criticism of our country that I am encouraging, but responsiblecivic engagement. I’d love to see that in Donald.
Thank you again for your email, Mrs. Trump. If you have any more questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Transcript (from the video) of a restorative justice conversation between Donald Trump and five girls who have accused him of inappropriate behavior with them after a football game. To protect the girls’ privacy, we will call them by the randomly selected pseudonyms Jessica, Ivana, Jill, Kristen, and Lisa. Note: after this session, the mediator, Mr. Jones, recommended the administration expel Donald, file a Title IX complaint, and get the district legal involved immediately.
TEACHER: Okay, guys, we have brought you in here because you five girls want Donald to hear something, right? And Donald, you want the girls to hear something, right? Okay, you’re all nodding. Good. So let’s start with Donald, okay? Donald, why do you think we’re sitting here together this afternoon?
DONALD: Because my father’s lawyer made sure we did it this way.
TEACHER: Ah. That — might be true, but this is also one way we solve conflict in this school, and —
TEACHER: I hear you, Lisa. Look, let’s back up, everyone. We are doing this through restorative justice, okay? So Donald has two minutes to tell his side of the story, and then you girls are going to repeat back what he said. Okay? Go ahead, Donald.
DONALD: Well, we were all hanging out after the football game, in the parking lot, right? I mean, Mr. Jones, you did that, too, right? Hung out with girls in the parking lot after football games?
TEACHER: Um, yeah.
DONALD: Right, this is just locker room talk, right? I mean, I was hanging out with these five beautiful ladies in the parking lot, and we were dancing to some good tunes someone was playing, you know? And that’s it. I went home after that.
DONALD: She says we were dating at the time? I can never remember which of these blonde hotties I’m dating when.
JESSICA: You do see, right, Mr. Jones? I mean, that night of the football game? Donald was like an octopus. His hands were everywhere. People have definitely been expelled from this school, with criminal charges brought against them, for far less.
DONALD: Are we done here? I’m meeting my buddies for lunch at Chick-Fil-A, and they’re texting me.
Documentation in the high school’s online records system, by Donald’s physics teacher, Ms. Sheridan:
December 15: Emailed Donald’s parents that Donald will receive a zero on the physics final, as he was 1) standing in the hallway during passing time and proclaiming loudly, “I could stand in the middle of this hallway and shoot someone, and they would still pass me in physics!”; and 2) boasting on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat that he had paid two students to allow him to copy their answers on the final exam; and 3) physically copying answers from the student sitting at the desk in front of him (in the video a classmate took, Donald stands at his desk so he can adequately see the other student’s scantron bubbles).
December 18: Called Donald’s parents, per request of the principal, to explain my reasons for giving Donald a zero on the physics final. Father asked how much it would cost for Donald to re-take the final, then explained he will sue the school. Mother said, “What kind of son have I created?”
Screenshots Taken of Donald’s Snapchat Story on December 22:
[image of a Mexican girl standing alone in front of the wall, looking up]: Ha ha ha can’t get in!
[image of five men in Chad trying to fill a plastic jug with brown water]: Why America is BETTER!
[image of ten dancing women bent over, backsides to the camera]: Yeah I’ll grab THAT!
[image of dead Sandy Hook teacher]: What I’d like to do to my English teacher
[image of a cat licking another cat’s anus]: JK! What I’d like to do to my English teacher
Email to Donald’s parents on December 22 (using mostly language from Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which explains the reasons for which a president can be impeached) from district superintendent’s office:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Trump,
He may be entitled,
he had a choice: stay eligible? Or endure removal?
I love storing the Christmas decorations and the tree downstairs in their respective boxes. I love rifling through all of our drawers and shelves and closets to find all that we no longer use: this year, we donated seven boxes full of toys and clothes to Goodwill. I even love beginning my new classes the second Monday of January. In the cold air, January is new. Clean. Spare. Ready.
Even last January, after a December of sulking and bargaining about Trump’s unprecedented win, I straightened my shoulders and started painting signs for the Women’s March. At night, I madly crocheted Pepto-Bismol-colored hats. December had been darker than usual, but January reminded us that light always returns.
That’s why I’ve begun this January reading two essential books for this time: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I read the former in those dark early hours before I head to school; the latter, I am reading to Mitike (she no longer needs me to read to her, but she tolerates it, for my sake). Both books have become like holy texts to me in these first days of January.
First, The Handmaid’s Tale, which Atwood published in 1985. The award-winning eponymous Hulu show has revitalized interest in the science fiction story, which details a near future in which the United States becomes a strict theocracy after a supposed terrorist attack that kills the president and the Congress. This theocracy, desperate to provide children for the increasingly infertile upper class, forces fertile women to serve as “handmaids” for the highest-ranking men. It sounds far-fetched in summary, but Offred, the protagonist, constantly reminds us in her storytelling that her loss of her job and daughter and husband and independence happened so rapidly—and so smoothly, orchestrated as it was by people in great power—that her disbelief could barely keep pace with her new reality. The breathless truth of The Handmaid’s Tale is the warning: this could happen, maybe not exactly like this, but with this rapidity, with this blindsiding sharpness.
In the clean light of this January 2018, in the second year of Trump’s presidency, Offred’s tale reminds me to take my current freedoms seriously, and to guard myself and those around me by writing words like these and by fighting to elect leaders who will preserve and nurture true democracy. It reminds me to stay awake. Atwood describes a world in which, suddenly, “people were scared. And when it was known that the police, or the army, or whoever they were, would open fire almost as soon as any of the marches even started, the marches stopped” (233). I would like to insist that The Handmaid’s Tale, which Atwood says she was inspired to write partly because she was living in West Berlin at the time, could never happen here. Certainly, I want to say, such a conservative, authoritarian regime could never seize power so fast. As Offred notes, “I would like to be ignorant. Then I would not know how ignorant I was” (340). But I know our nation is not immune at all to this kind of shuddering change. Especially not now, a year into a Trump presidency defined by policies that support xenophobia, racism, homophobia, sexism, and classism. Recently, Atwood, now 78, endured criticism for her insistence that men accused of sexual misconduct in the #MeToo movement receive due process in the court system. Still seeking to warn us of how quickly our society could devolve into one like her fictional one, Atwood said in an interview with The Guardian, “If the legal system is bypassed because it is seen as ineffectual, what will take its place? Who will be the new power brokers?” Her message, still: stay awake, stay awake, stay awake. It could happen here. It could.
This brings me to A Wrinkle in Time. Those unfamiliar with the 1962 book might sigh happily that I am about to discuss a “children’s book,” but Madeleine L’Engle’s fantasy novel (set to be released as a film in March!) takes us almost immediately, in chapter four, to face The Dark Thing, the Shadow over the universe, the origin of love’s opposite, which is not hatred, but indifference. Meg Murray, that awkward, brainy, girl protagonist that so many of us grew up loving precisely because she was awkward and brainy and a girl, finds herself swept along on a quest to find her father, who, in his experimentation with space and time travel, has been pulled onto the “dark planet” of Camazotz, a planet that has “given up.” When the three celestial beings Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which help Meg, her younger brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin “wrinkle” to Camazotz, the children find a planet that looks quite a bit like earth—sunshine, neighborhoods, flowers, trees—except all the people have been frightened into behaving and speaking in identical ways. When the children reach IT, the brain at Central Central Intelligence, they are informed that “our decisions will be one, yours and mine. Don’t you see how much better, how much easier for you that is?” (135). Again, as in The Handmaid’s Tale, an authoritarian force has decided what is best for the whole; the individual must be terrified into total submission so that power can reign.
In A Wrinkle in Time, the shadowy Thing wants, above all, for the universe to submit, in fear, to a regimented sameness unmistakably reminiscent of the fascist governments that rose and fell in L’Engle’s youth. Those who fight against that consuming shadow, in L’Engle’s telling, can only fight successfully with light and love. As in the Star Wars stories, the dark side only grows stronger when the warrior (Luke or Rey or here, Meg) throws hate and fear at it; it is love, that very human possibility, that mystery that is both individual and wildly collective, that blares light into the dark spaces.
But how does that philosophical truth help someone like Offred, trapped as she is in her tightly controlled world, where even suicide’s escape is denied her? How does it help all the people in both books who have already been defeated, or tortured, or killed? How does the “fight darkness with love” argument help young African American males targeted by police brutality and by an unjust prison system? How does it help immigrants terrified that they will be deported and separated from their families? How does it comfort LGBTQ+ people afraid to kiss their partners in public, or to come out to their families or in their places of work? How does it help us all, in this January, with this president and his supporters?
I think of how that message has evolved for my daughter. When Mitike was younger, she was satisfied with the reassurance, emphasized by her favorite children’s books, that love will always triumph. Now, one week away from age eleven, she holds a more nuanced opinion. She still believes that, eventually, love will triumph, but she understands this is a long view, a dream, a vision for a world we have not yet reached. This MLK Day, we read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” together, because I wanted her to hear more of the details of what Civil Rights activists faced and of what kinds of direct action they were willing to take in order to force negotiation and change. I’ve begun to think that we will be defeated by a constant message of love and hope if we do not also develop tools we can use to build our way there.
Ultimately, that’s the message of both The Handmaid’s Tale and A Wrinkle in Time: the journey through the darkest times will be difficult, sometimes unbearable, but the tools of resistance will maintain our hope for a better world. Consider: Offred writes her story in a diary she hopes others will find someday (and, because the book exists, we know someone did find it). Consider: though the Shadow threatens the whole Universe, Meg and Calvin and Charles Wallace fight it with their own specific story of love, and though they cannot defeat the Dark Thing, they push it out of their own tiny corner. Consider Star Wars, or superhero movies like Wonder Woman or The Avengers: evil exists, but it will not triumph while there are people—even just a few people—willing to insist on light, their teeth gritted, their bodies straining, their hearts full to breaking.
Every time seems fraught. This one, with an impulsive, racist, unstable president, presents its own new glimpses of the Darkness. We must search for guides. Margaret Atwood and Madeleine L’Engle are two of mine.