Ten teenage girls gathered around a blue-painted piano in the school foyer, surrounded by trophy cases and a wall decorated with portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Frida Kahlo and Tupac Shakur. Their choir teacher sat at the keys while the girls sang.
“Do y’all know ‘Hallelujah?’” she asked.
Some did, and those who didn’t looked up the lyrics on their phones. A few adults joined in. Others stood against the wall, beneath Abe and Frida and Tupac, and choked back tears.
Maybe there’s a God above / But all I’ve ever learned from love / Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya / And it’s not a cry you hear at night / It’s not somebody who’s seen the light / It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah / Hallelujah / Hallelujah / Hallelujah / Hallelujah
The girls were members of the Montbellas, a choir group at Denver’s Noel Community Arts School, a middle and high school where more than 80 percent of the students are low-income and more than 90 percent are students of color, the majority of them Latino.
Principal Debbi Blair-Minter said many showed up to school Wednesday emotional and scared in the wake of billionaire real estate developer Donald Trump winning the presidency.
“We were spreading joy because of the election,” explained ninth-grader Khalisha Jackson, one of the singers. She said students were upset because of “the way (Trump) acts, the way he treats women, how he wants to send immigrants back to their places and build a wall.”
To help them cope, the school held an impromptu 8 a.m. assembly. Kids were encouraged share their feelings and express their fears, Blair-Minter said. District officials later called the local media, inviting journalists to what they described as “a school in crisis.”
Reporters and their TV cameras were ushered into a conference room where 16 students stood with their hands clasped in front of them. Two of them read a prepared statement:
“We are feeling shocked and astonished at the results of this year’s election. We do not understand how anyone could vote for a man who has shown such disrespect to all the members of our community.”
The students promised to respond with faith and peace, a message they repeated in one-on-one interviews. We spoke with five students. Here is what they said:
Amayas Gonzales, 15 years old and in 10th grade, said he cried when he heard Trump won.
“I’m frustrated,” he said. “I also feel betrayed by multiple communities in America. As a Hispanic LGBTQ person, it’s difficult because of the different laws he wants to pass.”
Gonzales said he’s afraid Trump will abolish marriage equality, deport undocumented immigrants like his friends, and discriminate against people because of their religion.
“But we realize it’s not the end,” he said. “It’s four years, and we’ll get through it together.”
Senior class president Peter Lubembela, 17, is a Congolese refugee who was born in Tanzania and came to the United States when he was 7. The TV at his house is broken, he said, so he kept up with election results by messaging his friends, who fed him updates.
This morning, Lubembela said he was ready. “We have to empower ourselves and work harder than before and prove all these stereotypes wrong,” he said.
He said Noel Community Arts School is a melting pot, like the country, and that students’ voices matter. “I’m not going to let the man in charge of the United States dictate my life,” he said.
“This is only going to make us better.”
Eleventh-grader Luis Cuevas, 16, stayed up to watch Trump’s victory speech. Cuevas said he’s saddened by what he see as Trump’s disrespect for Latinos and zeal for deportation.
“Having undocumented parents, it’s scary because it’s your family,” he said. Cuevas said his parents came here to give him a better life and he’s worried about what could happen.
But he said hating Trump isn’t the answer. Like Lubembela, he wants to prove him wrong: “I wanted to join the military, but I’m not sure now. I want to go to college and graduate.”
Consuelo Davalos, 15, said she’s doesn’t usually like speaking in front of a group because she gets nervous. But at Wednesday morning’s assembly, the tenth-grader found her voice.
“I went up and I said, ‘We need to have faith in each other and we can unite. There might be many Trump supporters, but there are many other people, too,’” Davalos said.
Davalos, whose father is an immigrant and whose aunt has struggled to become documented, expressed concern that the kind of racism she’s read about in her history books but never experienced under President Obama, the only president she remembers, could return.
“People who are (Trump) supporters and are racist have more privileges to be racist,” she said. “I’ve never been through it because the country has become more united. … Now that it’s happening, it’s hard to believe. It’s hard to go back to something like that.”
After the TV cameras left, a school staff member said there was one more student who wanted to talk. She’d need to translate for him, she said, because his primary language is Spanish.
Fifteen-year-old Christopher, a 10th-grader who’d been at Noel Community Arts School for a year, sat in a hard plastic chair, nervously hugging his backpack to his chest.
He said he’d been watching the election closely and with growing concern as Trump gained ground. There were some nights, he said, when he couldn’t sleep very well. Christopher said his family is from Mexico and many of his family members are undocumented.
“I feel sad,” he said. “I feel disappointed. I feel that if he deports undocumented people, that the United States would fall. I feel that’s not right because there are many people that end up leaving everything, selling everything back home to reach the American Dream. A lot of people risk their lives when they come here — and risk it by crossing the desert.”
He said talking with his peers at Wednesday’s school assembly helped. “By coming together, it’s a way of demonstrating we are not terrorists, we are not criminals,” he said.
Christopher said he plans to “try not to get deported throughout the next four years” so he can continue his education at a university. “If Donald Trump is intelligent, he would reconsider deportation measures because the United States needs Hispanics,” he said.
Asked what he wants to do after he graduates, Christopher answered in English: “Doctor.”