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.
At eleven p.m. on October 1, Meredith and I crouched behind a four-inch-wide metal partition in a boutique in the Aria, a casino-hotel just under a mile north of the Mandalay Bay Casino where, evidently, tens of people had just been shot by a mass murderer.
We had learned this news in a women’s bathroom in the Monte Carlo from two panicked cleaning women who had been instructed by security to tell no one, but who felt it was their duty to tell everyone who would listen. For a while, Meredith and I hid in the bathroom with others, and rumors flew: there were multiple shooters; the shooter was heading this way; people were dead everywhere on the Strip; there was a car with a bomb.
Meredith shakily told one of the cleaning women, whose name tag read “Julia,” that we just wanted to get back to our hotel room in the Vdara. Julia nodded firmly and led us through the casino, where she pointed the way to our hotel through the tall glass walls of the Aria. Flashing red and blue lights illuminated the world, and security guards stood at all doors barring our exit. They couldn’t tell us when it would be safe, they said. The area had not been secured yet. No one knew where the shooter was, and they’d heard twenty people had been killed, fifty injured.
From our hiding place in the boutique, we watched as people rushed in all directions toward safety, though no one—even the authorities—knew where safety was.
I whispered to Meredith that we needed to be wary of every lone white male.
A white man in a bulky jacket strode into the boutique, and I pulled Meredith to the floor with me just as he called to a woman behind him, “They have champagne. We might as well drink while we wait.”
Two women in black sparkly dresses hurried into our corner carrying their strappy shoes. Their faces were streaked with tears, their long hair tangled and wild. “Do you sell mascara?” one woman asked me, pleading. “I need some.” She peered more closely at me. “Oh. You don’t work here, do you?”
Meredith kept the Las Vegas Police Department’s Twitter feed open on her phone, but we learned only that a mass shooting had indeed occurred at Mandalay Bay, where we had wandered a couple of hours before, searching for the best place to celebrate Meredith’s birthday.
I planned. If the shooter appeared on the floor above us, we could pull this partition down on top of us as a shield. If the shooter broke through the line of blue-coated security guards at the Aria’s front doors, we could dive for the cleaning closet just behind us. If…
The adrenaline that pulsed in my blood made me nauseated. I tried to close my eyes and imagine a golden bubble surrounding me and Meredith; I prayed, pleading that Mitike still needs her two moms.
At two a.m., when the LVPD lifted the lockdown in our area, we scurried with others across the street to the Vdara, where we rode the elevator to our room and locked our door behind us.
But still, days later, we are not safe.
None of us are safe, not yet. Six hundred people are either dead or injured today because they wanted to attend a country music concert. One hundred people were either killed or injured at the Pulse in Orlando in 2016 because they wanted to go out and dance. Nine people were killed in their own church in Charleston in 2015 because they wanted to pray. Twenty first graders were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 because they wanted to learn.
These Americans just wanted to go to school, or attend a concert, or gather for Bible study, or dance with their friends, or eat at a restaurant, or walk in a park. They believed they lived not in a wartorn country but in the golden bubble of America. But they died.
They died, and many more of us will die until enough of us rise to resist the NRA and its myths about guns in America. Many brilliant writers are waxing eloquent about this right now, including Adam Gopnick for the New Yorker and James Fallows for The Atlantic. Late-night talk show hosts, major newspapers, bloggers, and country music singers are all shouting the now too-familiar refrain: When will this stop? When will America finally control its guns? When will we feel truly safe in this nation again?
Gopnick wrote on October 2, “Gun control acts on gun violence the way antibiotics act on infections—imperfectly but with massive efficacy.” Columbine, Aurora, Orlando, Charlotte, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas—and every day in 2017 so far, someone with a gun has fired at four or more people.
However, there are those who insist—their fingers on the triggers of .44 Magnums or Glock 19s or AR-15 rifles—that this American sickness, this propensity for crowds of people to suddenly fall dead to the ground, is definitely, definitely, definitely not caused by guns. Let’s name this.
These people nod at the Second Amendment, at that claim for a “well-regulated militia” written by men who never imagined semiautomatic weapons made automatic by bump stocks—because they do not want to give up their guns.
These people point to our need for more mental health service providers, for better diagnoses, and for more mental health care facilities—because they do not want to give up their guns. They shrug, shaking their heads sadly, offering prayers, noting that Stephen Paddock must have been deranged—because they do not want to give up their guns.
They insist that gun control takes the guns from the good guys and puts them in the hands of the bad guys, though Stephen Paddock was, according to his clean record and his successful passing of background checks in gun shops, a “good guy” until he fired at a country music concert from a thirty-second-story window—because they do not want to give up their guns.
They argue for travel bans and crackdowns on inner-city crime, though the worst mass shootings in contemporary American history have been committed by white male Americans named Eric, James, Dylann, and Stephen—because they do not want to give up their guns.
They shake their heads sadly and say, “Gun control just won’t work. It can’t prevent these kinds of tragedies. That’s what the data says”—because they do not want to give up their guns. They elect and support senators and representatives who have shut down gun violence research at the CDC for twenty years—because they do not want to give up their guns.
When some of us point to Australia or Scotland, and how those nations responded swiftly to mass shootings, they shudder, saying mandatory buy-backs, twenty-eight-day waiting periods, extensive background checks, and tight regulation would never work in America—because they do not want to give up their guns.
The solutions are not simple, but this is true, gun lovers, NRA supporters, “super owners”: guns caused these deaths. Stop telling me that now is not the time to talk about gun control. Now is the only time to talk about gun control. Now is the only time to see you lay out your collection on your living room floor and tell us all exactly why you should not be licensed, registered, and policed with these deadly weapons just as we are all required to be licensed, registered, and policed to drive a car.
I do not necessarily want you to give up your guns. I want you to admit that it is a problem that we do not know who has them, or who has a hundred, or who has a bump stock on their semiautomatic and plans to fire it tomorrow into a crowd.
The members of Congress who refuse to protect us, who pocket thousands from the NRA, walk through metal detectors into the Capitol Building each day. Every day, I walk into a large public high school in Colorado that, in spite of Columbine and Aurora, lacks metal detectors and stations only one police officer at a front table. Every day, my wife walks into an unprotected office to provide mental health treatment to her patients. Every day, millions of Americans walk vulnerable, exposed, in public spaces of all kinds.
The unwillingness to talk about gun control is criminal. And the unwillingness of many of our lawmakers to act—even to ban semiautomatic weapons, high-capacity magazines, silencers, or bump stocks, all of which a shooter only requires if he has ill intent—reveals those lawmakers are choosing money over the lives of the people they claim to represent.
For the hours my wife and I took shelter in the cosmetics section of the Aria boutique, I mostly worried about how to protect us. I did not think about universal background checks or waiting periods or bans on semiautomatic weapons. I just wanted us both to live. But today, alive, I’m livid again. Enough!
Just after the June 2014 shooting at an Oregon high school, President Obama noted in a press conference, “If public opinion does not demand change in Congress, it will not change.”
It is not time to throw up our hands, again, and say we can do nothing to prevent the next inevitable public shooting. It is time to demand that Congress choose our lives over their pockets. It is time to insist that each of us has an inalienable right to live our lives in this country in pursuit of happiness, free from fear that a white man with a gun will kill us. It is time for a great wave of us to say to Congress: “Enough.”
You’ve seen me before. I boarded your bus last week, in the afternoon.
I was the one wearing round black headphones around my neck like a DJ; I was the one in the slouchy red shorts and the too-large white Nike tennis shoes. I was the black one. My two friends and I crowded into the back of the bus, laughing, loud, because school had ended for the day and we are fourteen and it was only 3 p.m. You glanced back at me, annoyed, because you wanted to read the day’s headlines about Charlottesville in peace, and I was singing Beyonce in falsetto, my two friends in hysterics.
When the white man, age fifty-one, shouted from his seat in front of you, “Shut up, N____!” you bowed your head.
When my friends shouted back to defend me, when the white man lunged for us, when the white man threw his first punch at my black face, you closed your eyes and faced forward.
You’ve talked to me before. Last night in Starbucks, you sat waiting for a friend to meet you for mochas and an hour or two of catching up, and you noticed me at the next table bent over a thick biology textbook, a pen in my hand. Maybe ordinarily you would not have interrupted me, but I looked so young and earnest, and — well — I had brown skin and long glossy black hair. As a student, I surprised you. You wondered if I had been adopted.
“What are you studying?” you wanted to know, though the front cover of my textbook told you clearly.
“I’m in the pre-med program at UCD,” I told you, and then I bowed my head to return to mitosis and osmosis.
“Where are you from?”
“Here,” I said, because I have lived in Denver since my parents brought me here at age five. We waded across the slow-moving Rio Grande on a night so dark I could not see my mother, though I held her hand tightly. My father lifted me up and over a fence that tore at my clothes, and for long minutes I stood in Los Estados Unidos all alone while he helped my mother, who was pregnant with my baby brother. The crickets sounded the same in America as they had in Mexico, and the dusty road my family walked into the outskirts of El Paso, where my uncle waited for us, could have been a road anywhere, too.
“But where are you really from?”
I could have told you I have DACA status, that I emerged from the shadows with hope that I could study thick textbooks in coffee shops like any other American. I could have pointed to today’s headline about Trump ending the DACA program; I could have told you that, if I get deported to Mexico, I will walk into a country I do not know except in dreams and into a language I speak, pero mis sueños son en ingles.
Instead, I said, “I’m from here,” and I turned back to my studying.
You’ve needed my help before. At Chicago O’Hare one morning last month, you passed me pulling a wheeled black carry-on behind you, your turquoise faux leather purse slung across your chest. You looked weary: dark circles sagged beneath your eyes, you walked slowly, your mouth hung slack. I stood beside my duffle reading the day’s headlines in The Chicago Tribune.
“Excuse me, sir,” you said, “I don’t mean to bother you. Do you know if there’s a place to get breakfast nearby?”
I folded my newspaper under one arm and surveyed the area. I was on my way home to Iowa from Afghanistan after two years of duty. The moment I’d landed in New York several hours before, I had rushed to the first McDonalds I could find to buy myself a bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit, hash browns, black coffee. Every bite tasted as perfectly greasy and salty as I had remembered. Watching me, people grinned knowingly. The tall slender young man in Army fatigues wolfing down McDonalds deserved this real American food. An old white-haired woman tucked a ten-dollar bill into my pocket. “Thank you for serving us, son,” she said. I used the ten dollars to buy another breakfast.
Now you looked at me with the same mix of respect and awe, the same belief that of all the people in this airport, I was trustworthy because I wore a U.S. Army uniform.
I caught sight of a Caribou Coffee stand. “I’ll walk you there,” I said, and I offered you my arm, because young men in uniform do that for older women. You took it gratefully, leaning on it. You told me as we walked that your mother had just died, that you were so tired.
Would you have leaned on my arm if you had known you leaned on the arm of a man born into a body identified as female? Would you have trusted me so much if you had known that I served for two years in Afghanistan praying my commander would keep my secret for me? Today’s headlines told me Trump will ban transgender soldiers from the military. I am so tired.
“Thank you, young man,” you said in front of Caribou Coffee. I bowed my head to you, and then I turned on my heel. My mother waited in Cedar Rapids to embrace her son.
You’ve watched me on TV before. It was late at night, and you turned on the TV because you couldn’t sleep, and the BBC was running a documentary on North Korea. You decided to watch because your grandfather fought in Korea in the 1950s, and you realized you knew nothing at all about that war. You learned that your grandfather and the other U.S. troops fought to defend South Korea from the Soviet-supported North Korea, that North Korea’s invasion was the first official action of the Cold War. You learned that the UN forces almost lost. You learned that the fighting ended with an armistice and the creation of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, but that technically the two sides are still at war. You wished you had asked your grandfather more questions.
The documentary includes shaky footage of people interviewed on the South Korean side of the DMZ. There I am: a young man with short, well-groomed black hair, a white button-down shirt open at the collar, a shy smile. I surprise you. I speak English well, and I look directly into the camera, telling the BBC reporter that the world must not forget Korea. I do not say “South Korea.” My grandmother and father live in the north still, I say. My great-grandfather fought in the Fatherland Liberation War in the 1950s, I say.
On the bottom of the screen, the day’s headlines scrolled. North Korea has just successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, and the UN is discussing strict sanctions. Trump says he will not rule out a military response. You paused the documentary and stared at a photograph of the DMZ: sky blue buildings, green grass, razor wire looping along a fence edge, a soldier standing guard over a rectangle of empty stone.
Briefly, you wonder if your grandfather ever looked into the eyes of my great-grandfather.
Then you turn off the TV.
I know you. You do not have to read the day’s headlines. You can camp for an entire weekend in the woods, blissfully free from any notifications, and return home rejuvenated. You can do this because they do not attack you or your children on public buses or in the street because of your skin color — you are white. You can avoid the day’s headlines because they do not threaten to deport you to the country in which you were born — your ancestors safely arrived in America, legally or illegally, one hundred and fifty years ago. You can ignore the news because they do not brandish pitchforks outside your door, crying “Monster!” — in your skirts, you safely live as the sex into which you were born. You can refuse to hear today’s latest announcements because they do not cavalierly suggest the annihilation of your homeland — you live in the United States.
And so you imagine you can close your eyes, drink your Starbucks mocha, turn off your phone and the TV and the computer. You imagine today’s headlines, terrible as they are, do not apply to you.
But you’ve seen me. You’ve talked to me. You’ve needed my help. You’ve watched me on TV. And someday, they will come for you.
And in that moment, you will pray that someone else has paid attention, that someone else is brave enough to speak — to act — to stand — for you.
Here’s what you can do today:
read the newspaper, every day (especially papers like The Guardian, which give an outside-U.S. perspective)
donate to an immigrant rights group to support DACA students (I donate to Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition)
donate to the ACLU, LambdaLegal, Human Rights Campaign, and other organizations that support the rights of all people, including transgender people who wish to serve in the military
oppose ANY form of racism and ANY organization that supports or spreads the ideas of white supremacy
call your senator and insist that the U.S. work with the UN on North Korea through careful diplomacy, not military action
refuse to be silent — Trump’s support (even passive) of white supremacists, his discontinuation of DACA, his ban on transgender people in the military, his aggressive stance on North Korea, and many, many other of his actions are wrong — and will hurt us all