The really important parts of teaching are the human parts. There are these daily reminders if we keep ourselves ready for them, that force us out of whatever routine we try to manage and into an improvisation that we hope turns into something good. We hope it is watchable. The whole content of this blog could go on for hundreds of pages trying to sensibly engage with this often unspoken humanity in the classroom. Entire post-graduate programs in education go on without any real reminders that your job is teaching people. People who, like each of us, are made up of very dense and impacted layers that define the human experience. Some of these are really joyful and happy. There are the interwoven tapestries of family and community in so many of our stories, loved ones who share blood or experiences or both, who give meaning and laughter to so much. But then, there are the really tough parts of humanity that we know our students experience. I’m reminded of these good and bad parts of humanity every day when I teach.
I’m also reminded of this humanity when I read a really good book. And, if you're looking for one, Heavy by Kiese Laymon is a really good book.
It is a book in which, according to the flap inside the front cover that has doubled as my bookmark, “invites us to consider the consequences of living in a country wholly obsessed with progress yet wholly disinterested in the messy work of reckoning with where we’ve been.” I started reading the book because of our school librarian, who seems to usher into her library a never-ending supply of really life-changing reads that I have never heard of because I am too busy trying to figure out how to not make a fool of myself as a teacher, a husband, and a dad. Usually, I’m messing that up on at least a few fronts.
I was reading the book to try to figure out if I could teach it to an AP Language group that has grown weary of shorter articles centering around a revolving door of justice issues and enduring philosophical questions. They have been kind of literally begging for something that we may all be looking for on a deeper level; a longer and more cohesive narrative. I’m embarrassed to admit that for the first 113 pages I was pretty sure I couldn’t teach the book. It all felt too raw. It was intense and honest in a way that I assume we all are in the corners of our own minds and the depths of our own experiences. It felt like it got personal. It made trauma our own instead of an academic issue. It made self-hate and the way we view ourselves more about me and less about others. It brought white supremacy a lot closer to this “progressive” 35-year-old white guy and forced me to deal with it in real life instead of keeping it in clips of racist rallies in Charlottesville. But most adults I know aren’t ready to deal with those depths, and I have my fears about my own ability to discuss those things with a room full of 17-year-olds. I ’ve always been the teacher who is good at honest and authenticity, but I recognize, and Lamon’s book forced this recognition, that I am much more comfortable discussing systems than I am talking about our own failures. Whether it be race, self-image, trauma, or eviction, it is much easier if we make those things “other.”
Then, on page 114, Laymon kind of cut through whatever bullshit I was trying to maintain. And I probably work hard to maintain a lot of bullshit.
“(...)my teachers maybe did the best they could, but they just needed a lot of help making their best better. There were so many things we needed in those classrooms, in our city, in our state, in our country that our teachers could have provided if the would have gone home and really done their homework. They never once said the words: “economic inequality,” “housing discrimination,” “sexual violence,” “mass incarceration,” “homophobia,” “empire,” “mass eviction,” “post-traumatic stress disorder,” “white supremacy,” “patriarchy,” “neo-confederacy,” “mental health,” or “parental abuse,” yet every student and teacher at that school lived in a world shaped by those words. I loved all my teachers, and I wanted all my teachers to love us. I knew they weren’t being paid right. I knew they were expected to do work they were unprepared to start or finish. But I felt like we spent much of our time teaching them how to respect where we’d been, and they spent much of their punishing us for teaching them how we deserved to be treated.”
Of course, I had to wade through my own pride with the first part of the quote above and avoid the temptation to explain that he is talking about some “other” teacher somewhere else and that my class allows for all kinds of important and difficult conversations. I’m not the guy in pleated khakis, a short sleeve button down, and an argyle tie standing in front of a boring powerpoint. I’m the guy jumping over desks and talking about Baldwin. But immediately, I had to recognize that until that moment I had been convincing myself of why I shouldn’t read Heavy with my class. Reasons that were at least partly because I didn’t feel I had the energy, or the ability, to discuss some of the topics above.
However, there is something that felt much deeper about the quote above. Something that digs at the very problem with education, especially when it attempts, and often fails, to reach across cultural and societal divisions. And something that has to inform the way a kind of skinny, 35 year old white man who have never lived in the south teaches a memoir about a black southern man who talks a lot about his weight and, as he describes it, “our families’ relationships to simple carbohydrates, deep-fried meats, and high fructose corn syrup.” My PA Dutch roots know nothing about deep-fried meats, but we certainly had more than our fair share of butter, carbs in most any form, and various iterations of pan-fried pork. Laymon is black, I am white. Laymon was raised by a black intellectual in a poor household, I was raised by some Mennonites with a middle-class income and no college education. I share some of Laymon’s insecurities, but this book, more than most, feels like it is peeling back the cover of a world that is foreign to my own. Yet, it gives me a stinging reminder that oppression is connected to all of us, and there is no way to seperate central Pennsylvania from Jackson, Mississippi entirely. This book does the hard work of bringing us all closer, and I want it to use it to do that in my classroom.
So with Laymon’s book, a group of AP students, and an awkward 35-year-old teacher, we’re going to try something really different for a required text. We will do all the teacher-led stuff about literary analysis, rhetorical methods, style, and tone, but this teacher will also be asking his students to help him through some of the messier stuff that shapes all of our worlds. I imagine that certain students will lead in conversations on mental health, while others will lead on race. Some students will be able to talk about abuse, while others will want to discuss trauma and the systems of poverty. We will bring in experts on some issues to establish better analytical skills, and we will ask one of our own to be the “expert” on other days. We’ll walk over some tender and scarred skin with a daily effort to listen with kindness and sensitivity.In short, I want to be better at the last part of Laymon’s quote above. I want to use this text as a way to allow students to teach us how to respect where they have been. Then, honor that in our class instead of leaving certain things in hiding.
It’s true, I don’t have the ability. But many of my students do and it’s time that this particular teacher starts leaning on them a little bit more and on myself a little bit less. It’s time we create spaces for our students to teach us “how to respect where (they’d) been.” And with the help of a really good book, at least for a moment, we will listen more and understand each other better.