I play a game with my middle school students called “Make it Worse.” It’s meant to teach them about how making a good story is all about raising the stakes. I teach theater, and I use the game to try to counteract the kids’ urge to create awesome characters with awesome lives who are good at everything. This particular class, at an after-school program in the Bronx, is made up of mostly bilingual Spanish and English speaking kids, with a few English language learners, and the kids translate for each other and for me as we go.
In February, we stood in a circle and took turns suggesting imaginary problems and piling onto them. “The problem is: El Chapo is at the park,” said one of the kids in Spanish. All the others burst out laughing.
“That’s a big problem,” I said. “What else could happen that’s even worse?”
“Donald Trump is also there,” said the next kid. Everyone laughed even harder.
“What’s even worse than that?” We continued in Spanish and English, with me, the only monolingual English speaker in the room, laughing on a delay.
“Donald Trump and El Chapo decide to work together to make it harder for immigrants to come into the country.” I told them they are very good at this game.
Most of my students are either immigrants or children of immigrants. The majority are Latin American, some are Muslims, some from the Middle East, and some from West Africa. The youngest are kindergarteners and the oldest are eighth graders. And all year, they’ve been talking about Trump.
The first time I heard a kid mention him was in the first or second week of school. I was with a class of second graders playing a “get to know you” activity, and a girl said that her favorite food was tacos.
“Tacos are Mexican food,” said the little boy next to me. A stream-of-consciousness monologue—classic seven-year-old style—followed. “I don’t like Mexican food. It’s from Mexico. I don’t want Donald Trump to win. I don’t want to have to go back to Santo Domingo.”
The word association couldn’t have been clearer: Mexican, Trump, deportation. Back then, in September, the mainstream consensus was still optimistically stuck on “Trump’s bid for presidency is a funny joke that’s going on a little too long.” This was the moment I realized it wasn’t a joke.
Children are, of course, political beings. They are humans who live in the world, and politics affect them. They observe, they watch, they listen, they pick up on more than we think they do, and they echo. The amount of people under the age of ten who’ve complained about taxes to me is surprisingly high. But I’ve never before had the experience of watching kids between the ages of five and fourteen engage so deeply not only with a politician, but with his proposed policies. It’s not that they know about him—they knew Romney was running against Obama in 2012, but that was basically where the conversation started and stopped—but that they know exactly what he’s saying.
They know what he’s saying because Donald Trump doesn’t speak in policy proposals. He speaks in threats that a seven-year-old can understand. Trump has the twelve-year-olds in my classroom joking about immigration policy. And while my students’ jokes come from a shared perspective, Trump’s hateful language can also be levied against kids from the same marginalized groups Trump is targeting. New York City education officials are afraid to hold mock elections in schools because it could lead to bullying. “Unless this is done right, this could be something else that is going to create more contention,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in March.
Fariña didn’t explicitly say whether it’s Trump’s xenophobic language or his general inter-personal cruelty that she’s worried will inspire bullying. But if it’s the former, her fears aren’t unfounded. White students across the country have parroted Trump to harass kids of color. In Indiana, high schoolers at a basketball game held up a giant photo of Trump and chanted “Build a Wall” at the opposing team, whose students are majority Latino. At another high school basketball game in Iowa, students at a mostly white school chanted “Trump” during a game against a school that is about half kids of color, according to their coach, but whose team didn’t even have any Latinos. And a Facebook post from the mother of a third grader in Virginia went viral after she described how the children were quoting Trump to bully one another:
I just got a call from my son’s teacher giving me a heads up that two of his classmates decided to point out the “immigrants” in the class who would be sent “home” when Trump becomes president. They singled him out and were pointing and laughing at him as one who would have to leave because of the color of his skin. In third grade . . . in Fairfax County . . . in 2016!
Meanwhile much of the commentary about Trump’s effect on children has focused on his childish bullying tactics instead of his racism. Writing in the Atlantic former teacher Cynthia Leonor Garza argued: “Trump is an uncomfortable reminder that bullying isn’t something people leave behind after high school.” The author wondered what kind of example Trump’s name-calling and physical threats send to her six-year-old daughter.
Garza is right to question the conventional characterization of bullying as a “kid problem,” that originates in childhood and sometimes lingers a little too long into the grown-up world. But she downplays Trump’s viciousness by focusing on his immature taunts. In fact it’s Trump’s bigotry that is the most blatant and dangerous form of bullying. Garza lumps together Trump’s name-calling with his racism and xenophobia: “He calls [his opponents] stupid, losers, and rapists, belittles them with names like ‘Little Marco,’ and says he wishes he could punch them in the face.” But if bullying often manifests in the interpersonal—calling Rubio names—it is the structural—calling Mexican immigrants rapists—that shows where the roots of all bullying really come from.
Attacking people for their perceived weaknesses is the name of the game in a capitalist system built on the illusion of meritocracy. Bullies of all ages target people who are too feminine or too masculine, too big or too small, too gay or too black or too poor or too different. They target those who aren’t properly conformed to white supremacy, to capitalism, to patriarchy.
The disconnect in how adults talk about bullying is perfectly embodied in Trump. While adults are worried about how his calling Rubio “Little Marco” sets a bad example for the children, kids across the country are pointing to their classmates in headscarves and their classmates speaking Spanish and saying, “Donald Trump will send you away.”
At the middle school, the kids are writing a play together that they’ll perform for their parents at the end of the year. It’s about what they would do if there was a zombie apocalypse, and the first scene takes place at Starbucks, because one boy said that you need caffeine to fight zombies. I asked them to decide who else is in line at Starbucks, and they suggested Donald Trump (these same kids have a running joke that Starbucks is where white people go).
As a theater teacher, I’ve seen kids make plays about police violence, robbery, homelessness, overworked parents, subway dancers, pop stars, superheroes, vampires, and zombies. They act out their realities and their fantasies, their anxieties and their aspirations.
This year, they’re making a play where they sacrifice Donald Trump to the zombie apocalypse. In the final line of that scene, all the kids scream, “Bye, Trump!”
Molly Knefel is a journalist, writer, and co-host of the political podcast Radio Dispatch. She is also an after-school drama teacher.