To My Son,
As I watched you sleep that November morning, my eyes traced the delicate outline of your perfect upturned nose. I watched your chest rise and fall rhythmically with each peaceful breath. I paused to take this in because I wanted to cherish who you were in that exact moment, before you realized how dramatically the world had changed. I wanted to remember the sweet innocence of the little boy that you were yesterday, the one who was certain that, fundamentally, the world was good and that decency would prevail.
I knew that the news I was about to share would be a lot for you to absorb. But more than that, when you awoke that day, November 9, 2016, you would awaken to a reality that you wouldn’t recognize. Our world would turn upside down.
But not yet. In that brief precious moment, on the cusp of change, your innocence endured.
I leaned over your bed and wrapped my arms around you. I hugged you tightly, a little more than normal, because my heart was filled with such a heavy burden. I took comfort when you reached around to hug me back. Even before you opened your eyes your arms locked around my neck and you asked, “Did Hillary win?”
I squeezed you a little harder and, unable to speak and afraid to look you in the eye, I shook my head from side-to-side in the crook of your neck. I couldn’t stand to look at your face as you took in the answer. “What? Did she win?” you asked again with a concern I hardly ever hear in your voice. I finally said “no” as my chin quivered and I found the courage to look into your eyes. I’ll never forget the expression on your sweet little face as your eyes filled with tears. I wondered how you could know, at eight years old, that the impossible had happened.
I’m sure that when I sent you to bed the night before, when the results were being announced and things seemed to be going awry, you didn’t understand the worldwide implications of the election. But that morning, you knew, even as a small child, that the implications were enormous.
You knew that the same vitriol the next president bellows from podiums would get you in trouble at your elementary school. You knew that he talks to and about women in a way in which you would never want your sister or me to be treated. You knew that the venom he espouses about people from other countries and of different religions is aimed at your immigrant father. You knew that things should have been different.
That morning, as I looked you in the eyes, I was terrified for our country. I was frightened for my immigrant students who weren’t sure if their parents would be deported, tearing their families apart. I worried about my sick friends, family, and neighbors who rely on health care through the Affordable Care Act. I worried about you and your sister’s classmates who fear for their safety and their rights because they’re gay or transsexual. I was concerned about the protections for our local waterways in which you play, so happily, all summer long.
There was so much that terrified me that morning; much more than I can express here. But the fear that I couldn’t seem to assuage, is that you, my sweet, sweet boy, were going to have this man as an example of masculinity during some of your most formative years. How will you and other boys across the country reconcile the ideas of manhood that he perpetuates with what you know in your hearts to be right? The thought of this was eating away at me. I knew you deserved better.
It is now early August, about nine months since that morning. Since then, the absurd displays of power are almost too much to recount.
We’ve seen Muslims banned from entering our country, then judges blocking unconstitutional executive orders, only to have partial bans reinstated by the Supreme Court. There have been close-calls on healthcare, threatening access of millions to medical care. There’s been mudslinging within the President’s own cabinet, where he seems to relish pitting people against one another as if watching gladiators fight to the death. Liberties have been stripped of those in the LGBTQ community. Women have been made a mockery of as he’s once again demonstrated his total disregard for our humanity as he threatens reproductive health services across the country. He disparaged his predecessors and political opponents at the National Boy Scout Jamboree as tens of thousands of boys listened eagerly as he went off the rails, in something reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. We’ve seen an increase in hate crimes and an emboldening of racism disguised as “diversity of thought.”
While the president makes a joke of the United States, what I’ve seen in you was unexpected. You protested, even when I suggested you stay home. For better or worse, you shouted, “Not my president!” as loud as you could. Even when I urged you to find another mantra, this was the one that resonated with you the most. You passed out safety pins to your teachers, even when you were told that it was better if you just wore one yourself and didn’t mention it. You donned your knitted pink hat in solidarity as your sister and I marched in protest in Washington, D.C. You had begged to go, but with a broken leg, stayed home and watched longingly as history was made. You asked me, with a tremble in your voice, if your Papi would be allowed back in the country after a visit to family overseas. And then you thought pensively and stoically about what that would mean for our family. Your sensitivity and empathy at each ridiculous turn has warmed my heart and renewed my hope for your future and our country’s future.
You discovered that we all have a voice and that our voices matter. You saw that each of us has a responsibility to those around us and that a community takes care of those who are vulnerable; we do this even more when things on the periphery look scary. You’ve seen that even when your rights are safe, that it matters to defend the rights of everyone. You’ve understood that being a man isn’t about being in power, rather that being a human is doing the right thing even when it’s hard.
I had worried that this president would negatively impact your idea of manhood. Indeed, whether I like it not, he has an effect on children across the country. What I’ve realized, though, is that this example doesn’t define who you are. The examples around you in your family, your school, and your community are far stronger than the one on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Now, when I watch you sleep, I don’t worry as much about the type of man you’ll be. I’m certain that as you grow, you’ll remember these tumultuous times and know that he was never your president.
Tema Encarnacion works supporting the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program as the ESOL Specialist near Baltimore, Maryland. Previously, she worked as an ESOL teacher and in various other capacities in another local ESOL program. Tema has dedicated her career to working with immigrant students and their families. She has been honored as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow by National Geographic Education for her commitment to geographic literacy through environmental advocacy, by PBS Learning Media as a digital innovator for integrating technology in the classroom and by Maryland Public Television as an American Graduate Champion. She currently lives with her husband and two children, Nina and Jonas, outside of Annapolis, MD. You can follow Tema on Twitter @temabell.