the museum of americana

a literary review

Beyond the Glass Wall–Nonfiction by Matt Muilenburg

For two days, officials for the 2016 election lingered outside my classroom, verifying identities and teaching early voters how to darken white ovals. Faces foreign to campus peeked through the thick glass that walled off my twelve Saudi students and I from the wide corridor to which the electors had migrated. The invaders stole glances at the verbiage I scrawled on the whiteboard and peered at the Muslims seated in a horseshoe around my podium at the front. Most of the Saudis had been in America for just a year, learning both American culture and American English. This, however, was the Saudis’ first taste of election season: Clinton vs. Trump, the latter of whom, months later, would enact a Muslim ban that kept people from countries that bordered my students’ homeland from entering the United States.

On Day One of early voting, the line extended well past our lines of sight. Teens voting for the first time stood behind farmers still shucking their cornfield sunburns. Professors, janitors, and administrators from the university took their place next to John Deeres, Harley Davidsons, and Kentucky Fried Chickens. Docs, jocks, off-the-clocks, waiters and traders, each of them killed the time they spent waiting to exercise their constitutional right by gawking at the Saudis and me. We had become accustomed to this, to the peeping of too many passers-by, our classroom located in what is ostensibly a student union, the glass wall behind the Saudis, and me offering my lessons probono. But the voters were, in one specific way, different from our usual onlookers: they lingered, loitering like hanging chads, with nothing to arrest their attention but us: me, and a dozen Muslims. The early voters expressing their democratic rights remained on our doorstep like colonists throughout the entirety of the class.

On Day Two, this line stretched all the way to the convenience store located near the building’s entrance. The four election officials seated at a set of banquet tables quickly ran out of space at their makeshift polling station, a twelve-foot table on which they’d set blinders to keep voters’ eyes from wandering. As I walked past the line on my way to the classroom, one of the officials leapt from his seat, holding me up like an immigration officer. The official informed me that he had too many voters and had sent his overflow into my classroom. I looked over his shoulder at my students, who lingered just beyond the voting station, whispering in Arabic to one another and eyeing the strangers sitting in their chairs, unsure if they should enter and retake their usual seats from unusual asses.

“I can ask them to leave,” the election official told me, his voice thick with pretense. He knew I wasn’t about to subvert democracy for the sake of compare-contrast essays. “If that’s what you want.”

I told the official we could wait, and informed my students we’d start once the room was ours again.

“No problem, teacher.”

The pencil-scratching of three middle-aged women darkening their ballots welcomed me to the classroom, the Salam! to which I’d grown accustom substituted with one woman’s “Sorry!” The apologist put her head down, embarrassed as she hurried her No. 2 across the columns of candidates. The other women agreed.

“Take your time. It’s fine,” I lied, practicing Midwestern nice as my Middle Eastern students stood outside.

I set my bag down, planting my flag, and logged on to the computer at the front of the room. Outside, confined between the Americans behind them and the Americans occupying their room and their class time, the Saudis looked in, their reflections barely visible in the glass wall, staring at the seats that for so long had been theirs, witnessing the democratic process at work.

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Matt Muilenburg teaches at the University of Dubuque. His creative nonfiction has been featured or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Southern Humanities Review, Superstition Review, Barrelhouse Online, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, and elsewhere. Matt is an associate editor of fiction for Southern Indiana Review and lives near the Field of Dreams movie site.