Smoke: Rising Above the Ashes

The first one comes in crying. Not merely crying; weeping, red-eyed, shaken. Dramatic, yes, but this kid’s nineteen years old, maybe eighteen, and a first time voter. The next kid into my classroom slams his books on the table, an unusual act for this soft-spoken, contemplative student.

Clearly we need to talk, and not about our classwork. We’re reading Crito, Plato’s depiction of Socrates’ argument for, among other things, whether it’s right to do “wrong” when one is wronged. Three times a week, all semester, my college freshmen and I have been trying to pry open our understanding of what’s right and who, at least through the lens of classic literature, gets to say so.

On the first day of the semester, I tell them, “history is written by the winners.”  This statement rattled me when I was their age. It never fails to disturb smart college freshmen, which is, of course, the idea.

What’s right and who gets to say so shudders before me in the face of the weeping girl, the silent, thoughtful boy, and the anxious kid who asks guardedly what I mean when I say we will put our class plan aside today to talk about the election, “without hate speech, without rhetoric.”

I tell him I don’t want to hear any bumper sticker slogans.

He relaxes.

Forest fires have been burning for days in North Georgia. Overnight, the smoke has drifted southward. The stink permeates our campus. The metaphor does not escape me, but I am too tired–too burned out, I would say if I had the energy–to create a jokey metaphor for my students.    

I’m operating on less than three hours of fitful sleep. I am wearing what I wore yesterday, first to a bar with friends to watch the returns, then in my living room, then discarded at my bedside, now worn again because I cannot think. This can not be happening, I said to my husband beside me in bed, watching the returns. Florida will turn it, I said unable to sleep, but Florida did not. Neither did historically Democratic Pennsylvania, where in 1948 my grandparents hosted the poet Langston Hughes in their home because the hotels were segregated, where during a college summer I served meals in a resort hotel to the retired rank and file–the laborers–of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.  

I must have slept, because I woke to the radio announcer telling me that Vladimir Putin had sent a congratulatory telegram to President-Elect Trump. The snooze button was too far away, and I heard the whole terrible sentence.

President-elect Trump.

This can not, I said again to my husband, be happening.

But it is, he said, and held me close.

Not two weeks earlier, we had left a friend’s house disbelieving the not-very veiled anti-Semitic remarks directed toward us by her  boyfriend. She, long one of my dearest friends, he until that moment unremarkable. We are Jews, and we are afraid of what may happen under Trump, I had said over a glass of wine, referring to a nearby yard sign.

My friend unpacked the glittery bangles and the tube of henna she had bought for me in India.

Minorities, the boyfriend advised us, would do well to prove to those they believe would oppress them that they are well-meaning and present no harm.   

“Do you know,” my husband asked, “the story of the ‘Good German’?”

The boyfriend inquired if we wanted to be the ones responsible for civil war.

Ill at ease, we tried to alight on other topics; a mutual friend’s health, an upcoming art show, but our friendship crumbled at that table. Sickened by the boyfriend’s attempt to shame us and my friend’s disinclination to intervene, I have not spoken to her since that night. On this post-election morning I fear how her boyfriend voted. I fear that she chose not to vote at all.  

In my classroom, I open my briefcase and extract what my students expect; my copy of The Last Days of Socrates, my markers, a pen and pad. I pass around the sign-in sheet, a page torn from the pad on which I have written today’s date across the top. November 9, 2016. In one of my other classes, a student always writes a funny message for me beside her name. I wonder if she will today.

Maybe today is not so different than yesterday, I tell myself. I know that I am lying.

“We’re going to talk this morning about how you feel,” I said, wishing for more muscular words at my disposal than “talk,” and “feel.”

How many of you are first-time voters, I ask. Almost all the hands go up. Did the others not vote, I wonder. Are they under eighteen, or perhaps misunderstood my question? I don’t press it.  

My students tell me about the “Harambe Factor,” how thousands of voters chose to write on their ballots the name of the mountain gorilla shot to death when he apparently attempted to save a child who had fallen into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. One kid thinks it’s funny, but the majority is repulsed.

“What does it say about our society that we think so little of ourselves that we’d waste a vote on a dead gorilla?” asks a reliably penetrating thinker in the front row.

That we don’t believe we have a voice that can be heard. That voting is a bottomless hole into which we throw our beliefs without recognition. That the winning candidate had it all worked out from the beginning, and we were taken for a ride.

“So just screw it and vote for a dead gorilla?” I ask, unnerved.

“That didn’t really happen,” a student interjects. “But it might as well have.”

Twenty minutes of talk calms us before we turn, with some relief, to the devilment of why Socrates won’t escape his jail cell and his death sentence. We concentrate on theory, on why Socrates would rather argue than take real action.  

There are protests on campus by noon, but they are weak. My students don’t yet know what to do or how to do it. Neither do I. Colorful posters are marker-scrawled with slogans about love. Kids in the student center are handing out flowers. Our theater department has recently mounted a production of “Hair,” and the aftereffects are evident.

The smoke from burned acreage sticks to my hair, stings my throat.

As I give a thumbs-up to the poster wavers in front of the student center, I think of myself at nineteen, singing Jimmy Cliff songs in what I remember as a surging crowd outside the Seabrook, New Hampshire nuclear plant. “You can get it if you really want it/ but you must try,” we sang, really wanting it, believing that we were trying.  

“Mutants for Nukes,” read the yellow smiley face Cyclops button on my jacket.  

We did not stop the proliferation of nuclear power; neither did the Chernobyl disaster or the Three Mile Island meltdown. We didn’t abolish apartheid in South Africa, either, although there’s a strong argument to be made that voices for boycotts led to corporate divestiture from South Africa and the release from prison of Nelson Mandela. Advances are more clear from the distance of half a century; the protests of my parents’ generation brought the end of the war in Vietnam, although my next door neighbor will tell you, correctly, that as a G.I. coming home in 1966 he was shunned and misunderstood, and from so many years on, I apologize to him. They were kids, I say. They didn’t fully understand. Those were the same voices that engendered the signing of the Voting Rights Act, the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, the Supreme Court’s affirmation of Roe v. Wade.

At a table in the center the dining hall are about a dozen kids. Is it my imagination, or are they hunkered down, backs to the room, shoulders hunched? An unmistakable, pristine red trucker’s cap perches on a boy’s head. The hat is a raw “fuck you” to the troubled. If these kids look up from their lunch plates, their phones, each other’s nervous faces, will they see the fear that they have perhaps unwittingly helped put into motion?

Not a one in the group, each white, each privileged, will meet my gaze, although I’ve taught two of them in prior semesters. Another is a current student, absent from class this morning. Seeing him among this group disorients me. He is polite and well-read, his comments in class considered and thoughtful. My heart breaks for these students as much as it does for the weeping girl, the book-slamming guy.

A few years ago, I heard Rachel Maddow give a talk in which she suggested that we identify ourselves by our “birth president.” Knowing who was in office the year of our birth engages us in historical context and contributes to a sense of citizenship. On my birthday this year, when my students asked how old I was, I demurred, instead telling them that my birth president was Eisenhower. I could see in their faces that “Eisenhower” registered somewhere between “Lincoln” and “Obama.” Children born after this January will have Donald Trump as their birth president.

Every one of the advances and more of my parents’ generation and of mine will be under fire; every right will be questioned, every effort made to take away from us what is hard won. On Inauguration Day, marches for social justice are planned all over the country. I have volunteered to help out on the route here in Atlanta, the first step of many.

As I write this, election day is nearly a month behind us. In my classroom, a student successfully compares Antigone’s righteous action on behalf of her brother to that of Fred Hampton, the activist and Black Panther killed in 1969. I taught this kid about Antigone, but I’d said nothing about Hampton. Listening to him, optimism washes over me.

Since the election, I find myself in conversations with friends and colleagues about topics we’d perhaps thought about but never discussed: Federal judgeships, Senate confirmation hearings, what those of us who are alarmed – and all of us should be alarmed – can do from here.

What can we do from here?

For the first time in nearly two months, it’s raining. The forest fires are out, and the smell of smoke no longer permeates our clothes. I think of Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Looking into Darkness,” in which she equates the forward motion of history–and activism–to the relentless power of water to wear away stone.

My students, most of them, smelled the smoke; real and figurative. So did my colleagues and so many of us who recognize that our job now is to be the water. From beneath the ash we will pool our resources, and together we will raise what we know is right.


Jessica Handler is the author of Invisible Sisters: A Memoir, and Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss. Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Bitter Southerner, and More Magazine.

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