Coming of Age in the Era of Donald Trump: My Experiences as a Mexican-American Middle School Teacher

Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

My students are sitting in desks in a sloppy semi-circle before me. I’ve asked them to gather, because there’s something difficult I need to talk to them about. I’m not sure I have the right words for it, even now as their eyes begin to burn holes in me. The clock is ticking.

“During our activity yesterday,” I begin, “I mentioned that the only rules were appropriate language use and respect. But after I dismissed you for the day, I realized we need to reexamine exactly what that means.”

The activity in question was supposed to be innocent fun – a drawing game that involved each student drawing on a blank piece of paper for thirty seconds, passing it on when the time was up, and continuing this pattern until the silly artwork made it into each student’s hands. Except one such masterpiece, which began as a sketch of a My Little Pony, emerged from the rotation as “Trump Pony”—complete with a speech bubble that said “BAN THE MEXICANS!”

When it came time to share their art, this bit of imagined pony dialogue drew uproars of laughter from my students, and a sad look of disapproval from me.

“I left school yesterday feeling weird,” I tell them.

I explain that when they joke about people like Donald Trump, it’s important to think about what it is they’re laughing at. This is a man, I say, who has built a large following of adults on a rhetoric of hate. His words have very real effects for the people he expresses hate for. I should have handled this better yesterday, but I wasn’t sure what to say. I tell them that as a Mexican-American woman, it made me sad to read what they wrote.

My students speak feverishly about Trump every single day.

The students take turns denying blame, but they apologize. Then I move on to something else.

Rare are the days I go to work and feel like I know what I’m doing. I have no clue what the formula is for how to be a “good” educator. I just try not to be a bad one. Every day, there are things I don’t know and answers to questions I don’t have and my admission of this fact is the only key I do have to growing alongside my students into someone they can look up to. I treat every opportunity to model understanding and love with immediacy.

My students are strange, amazing people. I teach many exceptional learners, and their capacity to dissect complex math or science concepts is impressive. Lately though, their fascination with figures like Donald Trump has me puzzled.

They speak feverishly about Trump every single day. They’ll rush into a classroom and compare notes from debates, recount parodies, repeat things they’ve heard, argue about his business savvy versus actual leadership abilities. His sound bites make for endless conversation. Who does Trump hate today? What awful belief is he imparting on the American people? To them, it’s the stuff of wild fantasy: too juicy not to joke about.

To them, Trump is the stuff of wild fantasy: too juicy not to joke about.

This past October, my little brother, a high schooler, went to a Halloween party. A couple of white teens from a nearby school showed up dressed as Border Patrol and “a Mexican.” Border Patrol boy wore combat boots, sunglasses, and an army green shirt with the bright yellow words BORDER PATROL across his chest. The girl, blonde with bright red lipstick, wore a cheap-looking serape and shorts with a sombrero hanging around her neck. The girl soon posted a photo of their costume to her Instagram account: her posed with hands behind her back, smirking, while he stood behind and handcuffed her. The caption read, “He’s pretty good at bp (border patrolling),” accompanied by a Halloween pumpkin and a winky face emoji.

My brother first told me about this at a high point of frustration. He commented on the girl’s Instagram photo asking, “How is this funny? I don’t understand how making fun of immigration and stereotyping Mexicans is funny or in any way okay.”

His comments were deleted and he was blocked from viewing her account. He took to Twitter, posting screenshots of the photos with his comment.

Overnight and for the next few days, we watched together as his social media accounts blew up with responses from his peers and surrounding area teens.

“Quit being a bitch,” one tweeted, also noting that he himself was a “non-citizen Mexican immigrant” who thought the costumes were “very funny.” This same boy wrote, “Tell me how this is oppressing you or harming you in any way. Stop trying to find every little thing to get upset at.” And later, “What makes me sad is that you’re literally the biggest pussy I’ve ever met.” Another kid said he felt bad for my brother’s lack of knowledge.

Soon dozens of my brother’s peers were in on the joke, going so far as to create a Twitter poll to see if the costume was indeed racist or not. (The options were “Fuck No” or “Sensitive/Soft Yes.”) Sometimes he received support, but often only in the form of private messages. I read along as the girl thanked people who stood by her decision. She wasn’t a racist, it was just a funny costume.

The offenders are popular members of their school communities. Cheerleaders and football players, conventionally not-ugly enough to have gathered a large amount of followers on social media. They share everything with these internet followers. A few tweets before she begins blasting my brother for speaking up about her costume, the young girl who dressed as a Mexican tweeted a photo of her acceptance letter to Texas Tech University.

I took screenshots of everything. I wanted records.

When my brother went to his mostly-white, mostly-wealthy school the next day, he texted me furiously about the looks and whispers he got from peers who ignored or excluded him. “I don’t get it. No one thinks I’m right,” he told me.

I don’t know if Trump himself influenced this kind of behavior, but why shouldn’t it seem likely that these students are exposed to his ramblings on repeat at home? Maybe their parents said it first. If it wasn’t Trump himself, it was because no one affirmed anything different.

I felt what bell hooks means by a killing rage.

My brother called into the online world for validation that this ugly display of hate against his gente was wrong, and the answer he got would have made a weaker heart shatter. It broke mine. I wanted to save him. I wanted to write to administration of the offenders’ high schools, their future colleges, to send all the evidence I’d collected to local chapters of Latinx organizations and news media. I felt what bell hooks means by a killing rage. I wanted so badly to destroy these racist kids to prove to my brother that a big world of people who vehemently agreed with him existed. I wanted to do these things, but I couldn’t fix it all myself.

On the phone that week, my mother begged me not to say anything. “You think they’re going to be nice to him then?” she asked. “You think anything bad is going to happen to those white kids?”

I knew this would not be a one-time occurrence for my brother. Like many youth of color, this would be the precursor to the ignorance he’ll continue to see as he grows older into consciousness. I did what I could: I ordered my brother books on critical race theory as affirmations of power and strength – bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, the whole gang. If the best I could do was to console and support my brother, these books would be his armor for battles to come. Here were some tools for leading the world toward something better.

My Catholic school held a mock presidential election once when I was in first or second grade. That year it was George W. Bush or Al Gore, and I’m embarrassed to describe how saddened I was when my pick, “W”, didn’t win our school election. I knew my dad was all in for Bush. We had the signs in the yard and the stickers on the car to prove it. (Yuck.) But that’s the extent of it—that’s all I knew.

These are the kids who grow up and might just place a vote for people like Donald Trump.

I won’t speak for my brother’s bullies, but my students are smarter than I was when I was their age, and I’m still not sure they know what they’re getting from this year’s destructive Republican candidate. What do young people actually see in Trump? From what I can tell, it’s crazed politics wrapped up in dangerous spectacle. They see what they’re bombarded with on television and the reports their parents consume daily, and analyze it with whatever tools they know. If no one tells them differently, that’s all there is. So Trump is hatred as hilarity. He’s a talking head so far from affecting the world they know, what else could they do but laugh?

The same high schoolers who dress up as “Border Patrol and a Mexican” for Halloween—to whom hatred of Mexicans and Muslims and others is only regular news fodder—go to college and have racist theme parties. They rehash the rhetoric of racism and sexism and classism with an easy air because it doesn’t mean anything to them. These are the kids who grow up and might just place a vote for people like Donald Trump.

The immigrants who Trump and racist America hate so much struggle endlessly toward a life here they hope is better than the one they’ve left behind. The country I desperately want to live in is the place that answers that call with understanding and love. That’s the same place I want for my students. The least we can do is give enough of a shit to not let hate and indifference poison future generations of leaders.

There are regular moments in my job where I could easily choose to disconnect and ignore potentially challenging teaching opportunities. Many do.

Last week, two students began a discussion about how if they even mention someone’s race, they’re labeled a racist. If they engage in conversations about sexism, people will call them sexist. It’s a lose-lose situation for them, they explained. I interrupted to ask which was worse: to freak out more about being labeled a racist or sexist or to harmfully engage in conversations where we don’t ask questions about things we don’t understand. How can we do better?

It’s one of the only things I can assuredly model for my students. There’s no time to waste.