My friend Marina posted on Facebook yesterday, “August is like Sunday.” I love that line; it’s like grouchy poetry. And it’s true – July flies so quickly, and suddenly it’s August, and the first day of school is pretty much tomorrow. But I’m pumped. I’ve spent July working with the New York City Writing Project’s Summer Invitational, 16 intense days with 24 incredible, dedicated, brilliant educators, all delving into ourselves as teachers and students and writers and people. Yesterday, as we wrapped up, I couldn’t believe how quickly the month had gone, but I find myself touching down into August with excitement. I’ll be at a new school in September, which means planning new curriculum, learning new routines and spaces, and most importantly, meeting new students. This summer with the Writing Project, I have been reminded of the wonderful things that are possible when you form a community, based on trust and honesty and support. I am so excited to teach, so excited for my students and I to share with one another and build a community that will support our success. Sharing can be scary – I know many teachers who refuse to share their own lives in their classrooms, citing boundaries and the need to stay focused on the pacing calendar or the standards. These things are important, particularly boundaries; overshare absolutely exists. But I think sharing myself and my world with students, even the scary parts, is one of the most important things I can do as a teacher.
Some of the scary stuff is hard to share because of how emotional it makes us, how close it is to our hearts. Often, when something makes us sad, or scared, or angry, our impulse is to shut it out of our classrooms. But sometimes, I think we need to bring those issues inside and share with our students what we are dealing with or reacting to, and why.
Earlier this week, I read Alden Wicker’s excellent post on EcoCult about verbal harassment, and it struck so many chords. I felt validated, and angry at the men who have harassed me and the people who have tried to justify that behavior, and so proud of Wicker for writing about an issue that I feel compelled to ignore. I read the article after walking home through Washington Square Park, icing out double takes and lechy murmurs with the practiced ease that years of enduring these verbal and visual assaults have allowed me to perfect. Under my feet were messages from Hollaback! reminding me that the abuse I experience almost every day – comments on my body, catcalls, ogling, being followed, demands that range from irritating to vulgar – is actually abuse, and is not my fault. These messages and Wicker’s article provided the cold comfort of knowing that I’m not alone in experiencing street harassment. But the amount of company I have in this is overwhelming to consider. Wicker’s beautiful article ends on a heart-breaking note, heavy with the familiar sense of futility that creeps over me when I think about the harassment I, and so many others, deal with every day.
Wicker’s article brought to mind a deluge of memories of harassment and verbal assualt, recent and old, the moments so egregious or unsettling or frightening that they penetrated the bubble of indifference I wear when I’m outside. There was being groped as I threaded through a crowd on St. Mark’s, the man I was with dragging me away from a confrontation as I glared and cursed at my smiling assailant, and my face was as hot and my hands shook as violently as they had six years ago. There was the man who followed me for blocks, down streets that were not even deserted, alternating between calling for me to stop and talk to him, and loudly describing to a silent audience the many things he wanted to do to me. And when I finally whirled and told that man just where he could go and what he could do to himself, he still followed, to the end of the block, announcing how fat and ugly I am, anyway. I thought of walking through Hell’s Kitchen with my boyfriend, cutting stank eyes at the men who ogle him and comment on his body. When we grew tomatoes on his fire escape, I took the weekend evening watering shifts so he could avoid the catcalls from the gay bar behind his building. What makes this ok? I wondered, thinking of the man who cornered him on an empty subway platform and attempted to talk him out of his sexuality, the man in Starbucks who saw me wave to my boyfriend through the window and told me as I left that I really needed to ditch that white boy and be with a man who could get it done. Why is this a way for people to treat one another? And I thought of Mikey.
By April, Mikey’s sweetness was wearing off, replaced by the faux-manliness boys often try on toward the end of their 15th year. One afternoon, while 8th period worked steadily but tiredly on a practice exam, a former student came to visit me. Rachel, on her second try at senior year, was coming to check up on her sister, whose chronic class-cutting was worrisome to us both. As we chatted in hushed tones, I heard a quiet, “Damn,” like ice down my spine. I snapped my head up, my heightened teacher senses pinpointing the sound to Mikey’s seat. When my eyes cut to him, his mouth was slack for a moment as he stared at Rachel, the hungry, distant gaze sending a familiar crawl over my skin. Then he felt my eyes, met them, and closed his mouth with a sheepish click. “Did you need something?” I asked, in a tone my students all knew meant, “Back to work, now.”
Mikey shook his head, glancing back down at his test. But the second I turned back to Rachel, I saw him do the same from the corner of my eye. I tried to ignore the vague nausea blooming under the surface of my teacher exterior. I tried to rationalize: Mikey’s just a 15-year-old boy being a 15-year-old boy. But then the sick feeling was overwhelming, because hadn’t I been told the exact same thing my first year of teaching, when the administrator I was told to approach with any incidents of sexual harassment gave me a lingering once over and a condescending smile? Isn’t this what people (women and men) have said about the verbal assaults hurled at me whenever I walk around? Wasn’t this how my parents tried to explain away the years of sexual abuse I endured at the hands of my own brother? Most importantly, this “boys will be boys” attitude was one of the first ideologies I set about interrogating and deconstructing when I began teaching. It has never sat right with me, but it was unbearable once I found myself the teacher of an almost all-male population in a trades school.
“Don’t let anyone insult you by making an excuse like that!” I wanted to scream to my students. “You are not just ‘boys,’ who can do whatever silly or inappropriate thing because you’re only boys and you don’t know any better. You are thoughtful, intelligent, insightful young people. You make your siblings feel safe and your parents proud. You amaze me on a daily basis, because your minds are changing and expanding right in front of me, and you, and that’s incredible. You can change the world around you by deciding to do something differently than it has always been done. You are not stuck in the roles handed to you, you are not bound by someone else’s perception of you. You can define you.”
This is why identity units are so important to me. This is why I keep reading and writing memoirs with students, even if I know they’ve done memoir work before. I need my students to know, and believe, that who they are matters. Who they are makes a difference. Who they are affects all of us. And we have control over who we are; we are not passive, we are not empty vessels. Classrooms with strong communities, with people comfortable being who they are, they take work, and they demand risk. I have shared so much of my life, myself in the classroom, to make it safe for my students to dip their toes into the idea of sharing themselves. Every year, every day, I am less and less afraid to share – my joys, my failures, my weaknesses, my triumphs, my fears. But I’m still holding onto fear, or it’s holding onto me. The things I don’t talk about scare me too much, because I worry that I don’t know what to say, that I can’t structure or control those conversations.
That day in June with Mikey and Rachel, he spoke again as Rachel left. Her often multi-colored hair was a fading pink and blue and as she thanked me and walked out, Mikey shouted, “I like your hair!” Classmates sucked their teeth in the shattered quiet. Some of the boys snickered at Mikey’s attempt at grabbing attention. Rachel just breezed out, wearing the same placid, deaf expression I use when I pass by cat callers and attempts at conversation. Mikey huffed, slouching back in his seat. “See, it don’t even matter if you say something nice, girls still gon’ act like that,” he fumed, so angry that I couldn’t ignore or redirect it.
“Why was that nice?”
“What was nice about you yelling at her as she’s leaving a quiet room, quietly? Why was it nice for you to call attention to her like that?”
Most of my students just looked at me, including Mikey. Some of the girls nodded, their mouths twisted in sideways smiles that showed no joy.
“I’m really asking. What did you want to happen?”
It was a hard question. Mikey said he was being nice because he said he liked her hair, and he wanted her to maybe talk to him. One girl spoke up to point out that it can be embarrassing when someone puts all eyes on you, as Mikey had done to Rachel. A few boys maintained that he didn’t say anything nasty and only nasty boys got attention so girls must like when boys are nasty. All the girls spoke up that time, with a resounding hell no.
It was tough for Mikey, and for me, too. I was uncomfortable all over. I could hardly hold still, darting around the room as they discussed “hollering.” The other day, a friend mentioned an article stating that a study had found LGBT teachers were less likely to address LGBT-related bullying in their classrooms. She seemed incredulous, but I thought, ‘Well, yeah.’ When you have had to survive through something by ignoring or rationalizing, it’s difficult, and scary, to try to face that issue head on in a classroom. Part of me wanted to just scrap the conversation, forget the incident, and move on without ever bringing it up again. I found myself repeating in my mind that I liked Mikey, I knew him. I didn’t want to associate him with the creeps I encountered on the street. Part of me wanted anything but to host this conversation. I felt bare and so fragile, knowing that I had no solutions to offer. Except this one; except facing the fear.
It was the first time I had ever brought this issue into a classroom, despite its effect on everyone in the room. We had all experienced it in some capacity, from so many different sides. We were all hearing or seeing or feeling this harassment, and the excuses made for it, and being around that without questioning it, pushing back against it, stopping to think about what and why and how, it will sink into us. It will be there in the backs of our minds, where we won’t see it until it darts out as we witness someone harassed as they walk by and we think, ‘Oh, just boys being boys,’ or ‘What does she expect (wearing that, or walking here, or being a woman)?’
In our classroom, my students have shared how frustrating and hurtful it is to be identified by only one aspect of yourself, to have the rest of your personality and identity cut away. They have spoken and written about the helpless, enraged, wounded feelings of being reduced to no more than their skin color, their weight, their worst moment. Did Mikey, and his classmates, realize how reductive verbal harassment was for everyone involved? Did they see the victim reduced only to his or her physical appearance, sometimes no more than a piece of a body? Did they see the harasser boiled down to a creep, a pervert, someone to be avoided or ignored, even feared? I don’t think that is who Mikey wants to be, and I doubt he had considered the effects of the harassing behavior he was observing.
The discussion did not turn the Earth. Mikey was not a changed man by the time the bell rang, and I didn’t even hope he would be. My seven years in the classroom have yielded few Freedom Writer’s moments. But these years have taught me something about ripples. I have had the indescribable experience of seeing former students years after they have left our classroom, who tell me how clearly they remember this particular moment, or assignment, or speech about behavior and choices, and how much that meant to them. How that always stayed with them. It bowls me over, every time. And most often they are moments like this, these spontaneous discussions or quick deviations from our over-scheduled 180 days, that resonate for years, that sink deep and take root in some small, significant way. My point is that these moments matter, and this moment mattered. Wicker points out in her article that Hollaback!, while an amazing movement of support, is only reaching people who are already upset by street harassment. Are the men who harass me, and the people who tell me to be flattered, looking at Hollaback! and having their eyes opened? I doubt it. But the young people I see every day are always engaging in the process of examining who they are, always opening their eyes. So it’s worth it, to take the risk of bringing something scary and uncomfortable and real into our classrooms. It’s worth it to remind my students that just because they see something happening around them, doesn’t mean they have to participate in it. It’s worth it to remind them that they deserve to be proud of who they are, and who they become.
Towards the end of 8th period, as the discussion moved, and looped, and reshaped, and we were talking about gender, and maturity, and respect, Dashawn asked, “Why we talking about this? Is this English class or what?”
“We’re talking about this because there is a world outside of this classroom and this school, and we all have to live in it. Who we are matters, in here and out there.” I said that, and I believe it. It’s why risk is important, and worth it. Talking about issues like this is risky for many reasons, not least of which is the uncertainty. Not being able to provide answers, and allowing students, and yourself, to grapple with the angles of the issue without jumping in and preaching absolutes, is hard. It can be uncomfortable for everyone – teachers and students and administrators – and that may seem like it flies in the face of establishing and maintaining community. But I think it’s actually a very important part of strengthening the safe space of a classroom, because it shows students that they have a place where it is ok not to know the answers. I think this is how learning happens – the real, lasting, independent kind of learning that comes from digging your hands into the dirt, or feeling in the dark, and turning over in your hands whatever strange things you find as you start to figure them out.
In a recent article for English Journal, Heather E. Bruce writes about “teaching English so that people stop hurting and killing each other.” I think it’s easy to forget the power of a classroom, especially with the pressures of standards and testing and evaluations. It is easy to lose sight of the opportunity we have at our fingertips, the way education can dovetail into social change. So this is a reminder to myself, to not let my fear stand in my way. I won’t say it’s a reminder not to be afraid. But I can share that fear, I can use it to teach.