It's election day, and not just any kind of election: it's midterms.
Which means that we've had president Trump in office for two years now, and this election can serve as a referendum on his white house.
So far, more people are voting than they did four years ago by a landslide. I guess this election is serving to light a fire under everyone's ass, now that we all know what we are up against. Not only that, but more people of color and young people are voting this year.
My, have times changed.
See, when I was in school, I didn't pay attention in government class.
My teacher was tall, old and boring. I don't even remember getting excited about his assignments since I had the worst case of senioritis ever, along with a classmate who enjoyed farting in class but not telling anyone about it so we all suffered in silence any time he felt like releasing his gases into our atmosphere. It was also the first period and no senior student's brain functioned properly for the first hour of the school day. So, it goes without saying that I wasn't particularly passionate about government and activism. I was more interested in balancing between my sancho and my boyfriend at the time, keeping my head firmly on my neck as I strove to escape my existence as a parentified child, and maintining my image as one of Norwalk's best, brightest, and most talented. Honestly, my existence, apart from doing amazingly academically, was pretty small-time. Had I any real passions for making a difference outside of mentoring my assigned elementary school student and keeping my family afloat, I probably would be farther along in my career.
And now, as if it were some form of bad karma, I am serving a long-term subbing assignment at San Pedro high and teaching both American History and Government. And this isn't my first rodeo. Last year at Banning High my first long-term subbing assignment of the year was a suicidal combination of English and Social Science: a 9th grade English class, two 10th grade English classes, a 12th grade Contemporary Composition class, and two Government classes.
Of course, I decide to teach it on my terms, and I’m doing the same today at San Pedro High.
I'm just gonna come right out and say it. I am not a Trump supporter, and I am not scared to let others know it, either.
Nevertheless, no matter how people decide to vote, the most important thing for students to do is JUST VOTE.
So, today, I took it upon myself to inspire my kiddos to get out there and vote via the Democracy Now channel on Youtube.
We watched today's headlines which included information about changing voter demographics including a significant rise in young people and people of color voting for this election. Additionally, early voting went up by a landslide this year compared to four years ago. I also told my kids about the national Walkout to Vote which began this morning at 10 AM, and encouraged them to participate, even offering them extra credit in return for bringing back their "I Voted" sticker as proof.
What I didn’t anticipate was for some of my students to actually participate.
I have only been in this classroom for two weeks now, but the last time I was serving a long-term assignment at San Pedro High’s main campus was two years ago during the presidential election. I remember how after school I took my daughter to the Laundromat with me and we watched as the votes were counted between Hillary and Trump. We took a break as our laundry was drying to head over to the Coast Guard headquarters and I casted my own vote. When we came back, we waited patiently for the results as I folded laundry and Camille befriended some other children who had accompanied their mothers to get their weekly laundry done.
I watched, in horror, as CNN confirmed that Donald Trump had won the race.
Then, in class on a subsequent morning, I played his inauguration live and we all silently witnessed this confirmation of our fears.
At first, I tried to introduce humor by making fun of his Ooompa Loompa complexion with hands to match, his ridiculous bleached hair, and his eternally sour, squinty expression, but the fact was that the majority had decided that this man would become our nation’s president for the next four years, and there was little that we could do about it at this point without truly sacrificing our time and our energy to create change.
So this year, I really hit my kids hard with the “PLEASE VOTE” lecture.
I told them that by next year, they would be the largest voting population, which means that they would have a significant amount of power in their hands IF they decided to show up and claim it.
We watched as Democracy Now! covered racist anti-immigrant commercials funded by Donald Trump, white supremacist groups generating racist robo-calls to the residents of Florida, African monuments defaced by graffiti with the n-word, and innocent Jews massacred while peacefully worshipping in their synagogues, including a Holocaust survivor.
We talked about immigration reform, racist remarks, police brutality and the power of the young vote.
Unfortunately, many of my students didn’t take this news very seriously.
One of my students told me, “Ms. Cervantes, the n word is just a joke. Everybody says it.”
I explained, “Yes, especially in the Urban community, the n-word is not taken seriously and is instead re-appropriated as slang, but this doesn’t make it ok for anyone to say it, including members of the population whom are not black or African-American. In LA, we are living in a bubble, guys. You don’t understand what it really is like outside of California, which is a very liberal state.
One of the students offered, “Well, that’s because in our state, we have lots of different groups living here and everybody is used to it.”
I answered, “You’re absolutely right. Our state is filled with different groups of people, including many different kinds of immigrants. So, it’s in the states that don’t have a lot of variety that ignorance and prejudice exist. It is in those states where the n-word is used to hurt people, instead of as a slang word. I know it’s hard to believe, but imagine that you were black and a new kid living in Texas. In Texas, kids would call you racist names. They would harass you privately and publicly. They would even go as far as making it hard for you to get a job. Haven’t you seen the videos where black people are beat up and shot by cops for simply being out in public? Have you heard of Trayvon Martin? It’s also uncommon in certain states for gays to be out holding hands or simply being out of the closet, because they would be subjected to harassment and violence. Not everyone is as tolerant as we are, guys. This is why it’s so important for you to vote.
This is where my co-teacher, Ms. Sebastian, volunteered her story. She shared that she was a gay woman and that in Afghanistan, it is illegal to be openly gay and therefore she would have to live in secrecy or be stoned to death. This is why one of her friends sought asylum in the United States. She shared with us that in the United States, anyone can apply for asylum, meaning protection within our borders from their home country, because living in their home country has become a threat to their life.
She further explained that Trump wishes to block passage to a caravan of asylum seekers from South America who are interested in legally entering the United States via Mexico, and he is intending to deny them this right on the grounds that he doesn’t want to let in drug dealers, murderers and other criminals into our country, thereby lumping all immigrants into the category of dangerous undesirables and accusing them of seeking to commit the very same behaviors that they had sought to flee from in their home country.
Many of my students were completely unaware of the things we were discussing in my class and some were even Trump supporters who felt that what Trump was saying and doing wasn’t wrong.
It took me a while to explain to them that while immigration reform is necessary and important for both immigrants and citizens, the way that Trump has decided to address immigration reform including the immigrants he chooses to specifically target in his discussions is racist and only serves to perpetuate further racist behaviors among his followers, which makes American unsafe for all minorities, whether citizens or not.
One of my students, a black student named Tyler, was astounded. He said, “Ms. Cervantes, I’m so confused. I thought Trump was a good president. Why would a president say all of these things about people?”
I explained, “Trump is saying these things to these people because he wants to push his anti-immigration agenda on the people and he knows exactly what his supporters want to hear, so he feeds that to them. I want you to think about the dumbest person you know. Now, this is hard to believe, but the average American is dumber than THAT. And people like Trump as taking advantage of others’ ignorance in order to run the country in the way that they see fit.”
Of course, there were still some students who just weren’t buying it or simply didn’t care, so I decided to play an article that talked about why so many young people weren’t interested in voting.
The article shared that many young people didn’t feel it was a priority to vote because they felt that it wouldn’t make a difference, and they also felt that it was inconvenient and it would be much better if they could vote using their phones or other mobile electronic devices like laptops and iPads instead of going to the polls.
I brought out these questions to my students. Some of them agreed that electronic, mobile voting would make it more accessible, but others claimed that this type of voting may be an easy target for corruption and sabotage. As far as making a difference, some kids agreed with this idea.
That’s when I got up and made a pie chart.
I explained, “Next year, this will be you guys as the biggest demographic of voters.” I split the pie in unequal thirds with millenials as the biggest population compared to the other voting age groups.
“Now, here’s how many of you currently show up to vote,”
At this, I shaded a tiny portion of their slice of the pie, so small that the other voting groups held an advantage.
I said, “Look. If only this many of you show up, the older generations have the advantage over you, simply because you decided not to show up.”
At this, one of my students, completely out of breath, came in and presented me wit his “I Voted” sticker.
“Coach, award this student with his promised extra credit. How did it go?”
He beamed at me and told me that he had walked out and no one told him anything as soon as he said he was leaving to go vote. He said that he took his bike to the polls, cast his vote and came back right afterwards and no one put him in trouble for it.
I told him, “I’m proud of you!”
Coach Erica later told me, “Girl, that extra credit you offered him really bumped up his grade!”
I laughed, glad that I had found a way to create a win-win situation between myself and my students.
Because at the end of it, I can teach a government class and they can learn all about the constitution and their rights, but if they don’t feel motivated to exercise the right to vote or to raise their voice to make a difference in their communities, I have not fulfilled my purpose in their lives.
I didn’t develop this passion for activism until I was in college and then shortly thereafter when I interned for Ms. Magazine and the Feminist Majority Foundation after graduation. It took me forever to really care about my community and my country because I took it for granted that I lived here and I didn’t even realize how privileged I was until I went to college and learned about all of my fellow students who were immigrants, veterans and very young, impoverished parents who had very little opportunities for advancement and had to make the most for themselves. I also needed to come to terms with the fact that my parents were both immigrants and for the most part, had done their very best to advance themselves but who had been severely affected by their immigrant status and their lack of education. As a college graduate with a career both in education and music, I have a greater opportunity not only to further their own dreams and my own, but to inspire young minds to also become aware of how privileged they really are, especially as people of color, and to reach for the stars as well.
Students, find out where you come from and who you are, and let that knowledge humble you and help you develop an appreciation for where you are, which is one of the richest countries in the world, and also a nation where you can use your voice and your vote to change things for the better. There are bigger things out there than your “High School Problems.” There is a beautiful world out there waiting for you to influence it with your unique talents and abilities, including your unique voice. Don’t be a sleepwalker: find out what’s going on in your community and in your world and find ways to make it a better place!
As a teacher, I have found many ways to make my world better, simply by taking the time to be compassionate towards my students and to help them find out what they wanna be in their world. I have taken the time to listen to them, to discipline them, to validate their feelings and to help them become better citizens of their community and our country.
As a singer, my purpose has been to bring joy to my audience and to also inspire other artists to reach for their goals, particularly young artists or young mothers like myself. How do you plan to make a difference using your voice? What decisions do you plan to be a part of so that your life isn’t the result of things that happen TO you, but rather the outcome of you going out and making things happen?