By Jared Alan Smith
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I repeat the “Trump Catharsis Bellwork” in my 3rd period and the clarity and hope of my students’ insights are no less heartening or heart-stopping. A young LatinX who struggles at the structure level hands me three pages, front and back. She got a late start, as she has to have her girlfriend help her to and from each class since she rolled her ankle in a pothole a few weeks ago. She finishes almost every assignment early, so we make edits on the spot wherever we can. The student I saw raising the flag this morning hands me his own paper, less than a paragraph, and says I should “trust in God, and do ya own thing.” I smile at him to signal my peaceful disagreement and he pats me on the shoulder.
“Mr. Smith, you gotta lighten up man,” he says. “What’re we reading today?”
I already know the answer, but a thousand more flood my mind. Graham Greene’s “Lost Childhood?” Huxley’s “Double Crisis?” In “What I Believe,” E.M. Forster wrote that he hated “the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friends, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” What if I’ve betrayed both? Frank Sullivan and “The Night the Old Nostalgia Burned Down” fits the satirical mode I can’t seem to escape, but what about Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” or “No Name in the South?”
South of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Marmon-Silko’s “Border Patrol State” continues to this day, and the essay might be short enough that the kids won’t be intimidated. Sklar’s “Imagine a Country” matches their fondness for irony, and they are already familiar with Meredith’s “DWB,” even if they’ve never seen the actual scholarship on the subject. “The Color of Privilege” seems too obvious, and Hurtado’s no-nonsense style might not translate. I stuff the possibilities swimming through my head into my invisible knapsack when I realize that my students are waiting for an answer. I remember that “experiment” and “experience” are derived of the same word and decide to stay the course.
“We’re going to keep moving with The Crucible,” I say. “We’re almost to the end. Act four is even shorter than act three, so we might be able to finish it off by Friday.” We have an alternating block schedule at this school, which means I see my kids for ninety minutes every other day. It allows my lessons to take similar shape to those of a college-level course.
“It’s Veteran’s Day Friday,” the flag-raiser says.
“Oh . . . yeah,” I say. He responds by telling me he would like to reserve the parts of both reverends for the remainder of our readings. I offer him no guarantees and hand out the rest of the roles, reserving John Proctor and the stage directions for myself. We need to get through this quickly if we are going to stay on track.
The production is only interrupted three times: twice by tardy students and once by a serial napper who raises his head and his hand to ask if I’ve finished his resume’ yet. The Proctors fail in listing their commandments to an honest inquisitor, the wife is accused of witchcrafted voodoo and hauled away, and I do my best to sell out on my last line:
“Make your peace with it! Now Hell and Heaven grapple on our backs, and all our old pretense is ripped away—make your peace! Peace. It is a providence, and no great change; we are only what we always were, but naked now. Aye, naked! And the wind, God’s icy wind will blow!”
The proverbial curtain falls and we all clap politely for each other. The coming seasons might not actually be icy or naked, but I will be constantly reminded of my own fleecing. Over a quarter of the electorate bought what he was selling; in this new, post-purchase environment, we don’t know what we’ve bought and have been charged a truly terrible price. Only a hustler makes out on that deal. I am sure someone’s going to try to sell my fleecing back to me as something else (maybe a holiday sweater).
“So what do ya’ll think is going to happen now?” I ask.
“T.H.O.T. gonna get hers!” one offers.
“Proctor’s going to kill everybody,” the flag-raiser says.
“Nah, but they all gonna die anyways,” another replies.
I tell them that none of these answers are completely correct, though they all have some truth in them. One of my students, the delicate facets of her eyes reduced to rhinestones by the spectacle-reflected glow of her cell phone screen, asks if they can all be released early for lunch.
“Sure,” I say. The lines for a meal here are almost as horrendous as the meals themselves. These kids are going to rock the house either way. I spend my lunch and 4th period planning time eating my feelings and a tuna sandwich while I read more of their papers.
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Walking to the gate, Ghandi tells me to be the change I want to see in the world, right before Lennon chimes in saying that if the world wanted peace instead of television sets, we’d have peace. Eugene Debs (my favorite author’s favorite politician) retorts that we have to unite and act together on Election Day, to develop the power of the one class that can and will bring supreme peace to the world. I am happy to say that the walls and halls of my institution are quite well decorated. This is a nationally-ranked S.T.E.M. school, which means the collage of arts and sciences presented daily is potentially impeccable.
My way home is fraught with images of Texas frackers in their pirate jets, alighting on runways from Tallahassee to Miami, ready to perpetuate heavy federal mandates on Florida’s brand new fracking ban. Imagining what authority is going to trickle down Reagonomically from this disaster makes me want to puke. I open the door to my home and my cats follow me inside, their Dracula fangs bared in meowing until I fill their bowls again.
I walk outside to check my mailbox, and my neighbor across the street waves. He has made himself my barber, and recently shaved my face so close I couldn’t feel the damn thing. Count yourself lucky if you know a Latin beauty professional, doubly so if they’re gay. Pulse happened less than six months ago, and our vice-president elect believes that gayness can be shocked out of people. I don’t need to have read The Shock Doctrine to know that’s complete bullshit. Homophobia is a weapon of sexism.
“I hope that motherfucker gets shot!” the neighbor-barber yells across the street.
“What?” I ask.
He repeats himself, and I begin to shake my head. He asks to buy a cigarette and I decline his offer, handing him one from the pack I bought on the way home.
“I mean, can you fucking believe this, bro?” he says.
“Nope. Trump’s gotta stay in office, though.” The neighbor-barber’s disbelief registers clearly on his face. “If Trump dies, Mike Pence is our president,” I say. “No fucking way.” I explain who I believe Mike Pence to be and my neighbor agrees with me. He tells me he’s going to start registering voters out of his barber’s chair before retreating back to his house for dinner. I am going to tend to my garden. I am going to binge on peace and quiet.
The garden isn’t much, just a modular setup I tied together out of some repurposed plastics I bought from the gas station proprietor two blocks west of my house. My basil and chilis have caught a fungus from the trees above and are struggling, and it’s been a little wet for the mature rosemary I bought at the USF botanical garden to really thrive. My German thyme is in good shape, as is my oregano. They are technically weeds, so this makes sense. There is also an unidentified bitter green I’ve been planning to pesto that already needs to be moved to a bigger pot. My Everglades Cherries died last week when the garden superstructure collapsed on them against some heavy winds, so now I just get to wait and see if it will grow back.
I don’t know what’s going to grow back elsewhere. I am saving my worst cut for tomorrow, when I’ll tell my freshman 8th period that I am a coward, an overgrown baby on the scale of a Trump voter, if marginally less ignorant. We’ve just finished reading MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail;” when the kids find out that I’ve derelicted my duty and failed to lodge a vote, they’ll know the score. They have scored well on the Citizen bellwork we do on some occasions; pages seven, nine, eleven, thirteen, and eighteen have really gotten them thinking. I keep telling them we haven’t even gotten to the really good part yet. I will not be surprised if they don’t trust a word I say after tomorrow. One of them will tell me that fifteen thousand Americans voted for a dead gorilla to be their next president.
My mail-in ballot from Volusia County was returned with a “nay” on Amendment 1, a “yay” (for real) on Amendment 2, and a write-in for a certain Bernard Sanders. I followed my mother’s bleeding heart down the rest of the ticket. I tried to rock the boat, but all that ended up rocking was my goddamn echo-chambered cradle. It came back saying it had only been a sample ballot, and by then it was too late. I vote with my dollar, feet, hands, mouth, heart, and mind every day, but when it came time to actually vote and make it count, I acted like a spurned child, allowing for the continued purloin of my friends’ civil rights over nothing more than my own wounded pride. I am a conscientious objector, not a faithless elector. What violence will be perpetrated now that I’ve gotten my perverted way? Tonight is the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Is there any way for me to get my students to the last line of Woods’ “What I Learned About Jews,” a way around the hate that surrounds them, more pervasive now than ever before in their young lives? What is going to happen?
My mother is going to call me and say we’ve broken the system. My sister, a refugee case worker at a nonprofit in Kentucky, will say that some of her clients are thinking of returning to Baghdad. The disillusion in her voice will be palpable, even though she will soon be up for promotion. My brother, the civilian drone operator, will thank me for calling him on Veteran’s day and say he’s looking forward to Thanksgiving. President-elect Trump will tell the world he’s going to deport 2-3 million people immediately, an act so openly racist that Rita Chaudry Sethi will be able to smell it. He will get multiple pictures of himself snapped in the White House looking like a lost schoolboy, something that flies right in the face of his socially-constructed gender. He will divest his businesses to his children before appointing them to his transition team, asking that they be given the country’s highest military clearance. I will say that he has the precedent of Donald Rumsfeld to back up these actions. I will go on to remind my audience that while almost every single one of Trump’s policies promises benefits to me in one way or another, I want them even less than I’d want professional advice from Uncle Screwtape. Trump’s tolerance for hate has illegitimated whatever winds up being his ill-gotten “gains.”
The real world is a less fortunate story: I will attend a “Not My President” protest within a week, just to see if the people there understand that their chants are actually conglomerated calls for a civil war. Most of the people in attendance will not make it to the end of the march. When a Palestinian woman at the head of the group calls for the cutting of funding to Israel (the only actionable policy offered on this night in the future), she will be booed and people will desert the rally en masse. They will say in leaving that “this was supposed to be about Trump.” I won’t tell them that it’s really about Pence. I have learned from teaching that baby steps of any kind are almost always accompanied by protest. These protests will be ongoing. Black ants and brown roaches will continues to crawl through cracks in the white painted walls of my house.
I rise off of my knees and replace the pot of thyme on its stand. I get an inordinate kick out of trimming the dead leaves from these organisms with my fingertips, time-consuming as it may be. I think they grow back better that way. Will us Americans respond in an equally multiple fashion to the recent pruning of our moral decency? PLUR, one of the original indie online movements of the eighties, failed hard in the nineties because no one was actually serious about it after they sobered up; can it be remade by us to forge a new plurality? Two devils and their henchmen walk the capitol, that melancholy hill that voted against them 96% to 3%. It is a small consolation to me that they will be forced to actually live there, in the middle of their enemy. They will be living there when I visit DC for AWP 2017. How many will protest then, a mere three weeks after the inauguration?
The buzzing orange glow of the streetlight standing over my back fence washes out the moonlight from above. I chose this house for the back yard more than anything: it’s got room for a full-sized green house, a family-sized picnic table, and an oversized barbecue. There are trees for a hammock and space for a deck if I see fit. This omnipresent orange light really ruins the space at night. It does next to nothing to it during the day.
A brown flash in my peripheral vision startles me, and I look over to see a colorless lump has alit in silence along the privacy fence next to me. It hoots and turns its head almost all the way around to face me. We stare at each other for a moment before it descends to the ground. It is dark brown with a spotted white face, but the orange streetlight renders any color I see artificially illusory. I have been peeing in the corner of my yard and coming up with imaginary headlines for the next issue of The Siberian Sentinel. The leader in my clubhouse right now is “White Men Erect Election.”
“Might wanna stay away from there dude,” I say, zipping my pants. I raise my finger to point at the spot I’ve marked and the bird flaps off into the muted blackness beyond the fence.
“Hasta mañana.” I hope so, at least.
This is the first visit I’ve had from a spirit guide since I moved. I’ve been visited in other parts of Florida by bears, hawks, lizards, snakes and frogs. A visitation isn’t a sighting; it’s when an animal puts themselves directly in your way, an act of visibility that cannot be ignored. The owl, like the hawk, is a harbinger of foresight and acute vision, but is also a messenger to the underworld that straddles an infinite line between life and death. I have just been visited by an owl. Is this a test? It feels like one. I’m going to call it an O.W.L., though our Wizarding Levels will need to far exceed “Ordinary” if we hope to succeed with so many fantastic beasts afoot. At least we know now exactly where to find them.
“Faith, not fear, she said. She’d heard that once and was trying to stamp the phrase on her mind. At the time, she couldn’t speak it aloud. He wouldn’t tolerate it. He was angry. Where were they? Where was anyone? This is a goddamn emergency, he said.”
– Claudia Rankine, Citizen
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Jared Alan Smith was born in Orlando and lives in Tampa, Florida, where he teaches Exceptional Student Education English Language Arts. His nonfiction has appeared in Burrow Press’ Fantastic Floridas series and his fiction in Issue 19 of Hinchas de Poesia. His chapbook Sure Shot: Collected Assays in Pulp is available here. He is easier to find on Facebook than in real life.