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Write to Be
why our bodies and emotions matter in the classroom
Ain’t I a Person?
On a recent cloudy afternoon in the faculty lounge while waiting for his coffee to percolate, a teacher recounted the conversation he’d had moments before with students about Doja Cat at the Met Gala. The rapper, in show-stopping feline prosthetics and head-to-toe beads and feathers, had thought she might score a quick vape out of sight, surrounded by cameras, on the red carpet. She’d been caught in about five different directions.The debate was: will she ever be invited back after breaking Anna Wintour’s cardinal rule of no smoking on the red carpet?
But the teacher’s mortification came not from the wisp of smoke on cat lips, but rather his students’ shock that he knew anything about it. Ain’t I a person?1 he asked.
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When a 12th grader announced the other day, Teachers will eat anything, I laughed outright. At the idea of us as goats. What teacher hadn’t told her of the gassy bloat that follows pizza day? Of the first trimester aversion to beets? Of his doctor’s advice to avoid red meat?
Most of us hadn't. We hold our cards so close we play the collective goat.
For a long time, I didn’t share much of myself with my students. I toiled away for hours on weekends giving feedback on papers, arrived before 6am to ready my classroom, volunteered to sponsor every club a student asked me to. By all appearances, I was a devoted high school teacher.
In “Teaching to Transgress”, bell hooks writes of the “split between the body and the mind” that happens to a teacher in the classroom, and the message that this sent to her students. “The world of institutional learning was a site where the body had to be erased, go unnoticed.” What teacher do you remember ever even saying “I need to go to the bathroom”?
With her melodic rage, hooks implores us to “enter the classroom whole and not as a disembodied spirit” and “to restore passion to the classroom or to excite it in classrooms where it has never been,” to restore the place of eros within ourselves.
Right now, I’m thinking of the self-abnegation that is the five-paragraph essay. The demand to strip away the I entirely and lead with a commanding disembodied voice that directs without noticing, alleges without risk, concludes without insight. An essay with a colorless and uniform body that erases the writer’s body. What a dreary way to approach the page. And what a devastating way to live.
My work as a teacher, I believe, is contingent on opening the door to eros; in being more than a repository of information and a dispensary of feedback. More than Gulliver’s detached Laputan. Instead, I must show up as a full body with needs, desires and specific longings. Without emotional honesty, my work with students has little impact in the moment and no lasting impact – two qualities that are oxygen to learning.
Let’s be honest: the threshold of a classroom is a gothic circus of a place. The dozen decisions to be made as a teacher are secondary to the whiff of cherry chapstick that drags me back to age 17 like a netted tuna. The caught smirk across the room is one I made about a gorilla once upon a time. And I smile, even as I realize I’m the gorilla now.
Your teenage self is beside you, always, as a teacher. For a long time I didn’t tell my students this, at least not with any passion that legitimized their experiences.
Old Enough to Share
At some point in my thirties, I felt safely at a distance from them agewise, to share myself with them. Perhaps it was my body pregnant and more obtrusive on the classroom landscape that freed me to talk about it and therefore talk about me. Perhaps it was some teacher mentors that appeared in my life like stardust. Teachers who named it when they needed to use the john.
I can say this with certainty: writing alongside my students has been my ticket to humanity. Theirs and mine.
I’ve written and shared about break ups, miscarriage, momentarily wishing my child was kidnapped, obsessions, losing my father-in-law, perimenopause, wedding fears, childbirth, breaking it off with and reuniting with my best friend. I’m destigmatizing things that have happened to me, that might happen to them.
I’m asking them to know me, and they, in turn, have told me more deeply about themselves. One student began an essay about “The Handmaid’s Tale” recounting when she first learned shame: My mother didn’t describe shame as a symptom, but it bleeds out of me, mingled with streaks of red.
Another, looking critically at classic fairytales, wrote about her inherited fixation on appearance: There is no way to avoid the fate of the oblong mirror or the passive sales attendant. The insecurity that berated the mother and created the child.
And, in response to Kim Moore’s poetry, one explored being exploited: Hurt people hurt people. My hurt person hurt me sometime before 4th grade. This all happened many years ago. You put it in your pocket. You carry it with you.
Their stories are the center of every essay I want to read. They care about their essays because they’re in the essay, alongside and in conversation with all that great literature we’re reading. And this all reminds me that the honesty I show my students is what I remember desiring most. In this way, teaching is an assessment in how to love myself.
And so, we write together everyday, usually at the beginning and end of each class. A few things you should know about our practice: first we write privately, only for ourselves, to get whatever we need out of our bodies and onto the page (today’s schedule, a rant, a lament, a joke, a shopping list); following private writing, we write to share, sometimes it’s doggerel and sometimes it’s divine; finally, we must keep the pen moving across the page, even if it’s writing the word “blue” over and over again until something comes, the chorus of our pens, an ASMR dreamscape.
And in encroaching times of fear and censorship, our sharing feels like a radical act.
In a letter to his brother, Anton Chekhov wrote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of lights on broken glass.” Like all good adages, the music has been stripped out, but “show don’t tell” is one I think about a lot. Less in writing, more in being. In our 75 minutes together, I try to show them all of me: gorilla, godmother, goat, teenager, mother, friendly dolphin.
And their child selves and future desired and feared selves usher in. The room fills with people, it is loud and outrageous like toucans flying into hospice, and by class’s end, parts of them and parts of me are in the air, all around us, like so much confetti.
I write alongside my students not because I always have something to say, not because I really want to after kindergarten drop off or after beef curry cafeteria lunch. But I do it because I need to. I need to because they need to see me, there, in the red notebook trenches with them. In picking up the pen, I am saying to them, I will not leave you. We are here together, you and I, sharing in this enterprise of finding thoughts on the page we didn’t know we had five minutes ago. Of finding ourselves in communion.
And, I think, what I’m really saying is I love you.
recalling Sojourner Truth’s trans-century dialogue with us in her speech “Ain’t I a Woman?
In gratitude to Phoebe Krumich—friend more than colleague, sister more than friend— who placed bell hooks’ “Teaching to Transgress” in my hands like a basketful of muffins; Jeff Berger White, master teacher and human, who reminded me that vulnerability is a kind of magic; Amy Hunt and Sandra Stoneman, who are the stardust and more named above; my students—past present future—who commune with me daily.