This afternoon, I walked a mile around the kitchen island. I was on the phone with a student, having a one-on-one discussion after a tough “public” discussion at the end of class. I wanted to really listen to the student, to hear the thoughts behind their words, because I had the sense that I was missing their deeper truth.
During those last minutes of class, I heard this young person complaining about “too much emphasis” on “Black issues” and “victims” in our English class. I heard their desire to stop talking about Black Lives Matter and to get politics out of the classroom. I heard this, but I had trouble hearing these things. Their concerns were hard for me.
As we talked – me with my camera on, the student with their camera off; me in my house, the student in theirs; each of us deeply and personally involved – other students came back into the main room and started listening. People stayed long after class had officially ended. This conversation mattered.
What does a teacher do when a student is questioning her? More importantly for this blog, what do I do? I was trying to listen, but I was aware that I was feeling defensive. Online teaching is exhausting. Online teaching when I had planned to be face-to-face is worse. Online teaching that I wasn’t expecting that is offered a different number of hours and days than I had planned for is nearly killing me. I am doing the best that I can, and it’s pretty good, but even pretty good is taking every bit of me. I believe that my students should ask me hard questions about what and how I teach, but I realized that it’s hard for me to listen well when I am tamping down emotions.
My students this term are largely 17 or 18 years old. They are thoughtful and well-spoken. They are reflective and desire to do good things in the world. Most of them are reasonably well-versed in current events. Ten days ago, we spent the full class period discussing the attack on the US Capitol. It was easy for my students to condemn the attack, but I was left wondering how many truly understood that the problem wasn’t solely with the individual people who attacked but also with the rhetoric that brought them to that point. If we believe that rhetoric and systems were the problem in addition to individuals, then we have to acknowledge that we, too, might fall prey to ill-considered ideas.
At any rate, as our class was ending today, the student who was questioning our studies was struggling for words. I know them to be an excellent student, an deep reader, an eloquent writer. I know they hold strong religious beliefs and they feel somewhat isolated from peers for that reason. I tried to keep all of this in my heart as I listened, but I struggled. How do I listen deeply to this student and honour others who are listening, some of whom have experienced racism first-hand?
I thought about Matthew Kay’s book Not Light, But Fire and its lessons for leading meaningful race conversations in the classroom. I thought about holding space and about helping white people recognize their own racialized existence. I knew I needed to be clear about what is fact and what is my opinion; I knew I needed to be humble; I knew I needed to be involved.
But y’all, I was tired. 20 minutes after class had officially ended, after what had stretched into two hours and fifteen minutes (yikes), I called it – I ended the discussion and closed the room. Had I been even-handed? Had I prevented others from casting one student as the villain? Had I heard the student’s beliefs? Had I been forthright in my own beliefs? I wasn’t sure.
And then the student’s parent called.
Before I called back, I ate some lunch and talked to a wonderful colleague who helped me find some words and work through some reactions. When I called I was able to speak honestly. The parent was curious, I was clear; I am not sure that we came to agreement, but we certainly were not at odds. I suggested that I could speak to the child at the end of the school day.
The student and I spoke for a long time. I walked. And I listened. I listened to understand, not respond. I sat in my discomfort. I asked, curious, “Can you explain what you mean?” and “Can you tell me more?” My student, ever interested in learning, asked me similar questions, trying to understand what I meant. I am not sure yet that I know the students’ deeper concerns, but I am closer, just as they are closer to articulating their thinking. I suspect there may be more uncomfortable conversations. And that’s ok. Because learning is about asking and thinking, asking and thinking. As long as the dialogue continues, we are learning.
Later, another colleague checked in. She offered some sage advice: it’s ok to tell your class that you need time to think about how to respond to this. It’s ok to go back and tell them your “why” again. I suspect I will do both of these things tomorrow. I will remind them that reading text – any text – critically may leave us with unanswered questions, and that’s ok, too.
I can’t say I walked a mile in anyone else’s shoes today, but I can say I walked a mile in mine. I walked and I walked around the kitchen island, listening, speaking and reflecting. This, I think, is the work of anti-racism. This, I think, is the work of learning. This, I think, is the work.