Find a comfortable cushion: Dissonance is hard and necessary

 

“Everything we do is pedagogic” Dr. Sabina Vaught

“Young people are learning from us constantly. They are always watching and learning.” Dr. Susan Wilcox

 

 

In 1992, Malcolm X, the 3hour, 22 minute film directed by Spike Lee was released. In 1993, Walter Dean Myer’s biography, written for youth, By Any Mean Necessary, was released.

At the time, I was teaching in Las Vegas, at a middle school that was a classic public school in a low property value area: not many resources and not chockfull of parents who did not had the economic and cultural capital to influence the school’s practices. At that time, while Vegas was booming, the city was a service-driven one, and transiency was a consistent reality for working, often working poor families there. In fact, when I asked my next-door teacher, a white woman in her 60s who had taught at the school for decades and was dedicated, if not dogmatic, about phonics-based approaches to reading, what kept her there, she responded: “I can do what I want here. The parents aren’t an issue.” Years later, I would come to understand the complicated consequences of occupying the space of in loco parentis, a partial and deficit approach to the magic of literacy,  and the not-so-underlying complicity, even gratitude, in a racist economic system that barred so many working poor parents of color to be on a school committee, show up to school events, and even more baseline, simply advocate for their child. In Vegas, there were cocktails to be delivered, cars to be valeted, and cards to be dealt.

A few years later, that middle school became a magnet school to, on paper, alter the demographics of the school. However intentionally or not, this move also operationalized a stratified gentrification within the school. Some students were there for the arts magnet program and were their own cohort. Students who were there because it was the school in their neighborhood, continued to be taught by dedicated teachers, new and peripheral teachers who were dabbling in education, and lots in between. Like so many streets that physically and spatially shift from generational wealth to generational vulnerability to accelerated suffering and death (Gilmore, 2008) at the turn of a single corner, it was a school within a school. Rarely did the paths cross, and the resources did not change for the neighborhood students.

As a figuring it out day-by-day early career language arts teacher, my 7th graders and I collectively read few books in common. I learned quickly that text sets would be how we would could engage collectively in what these young people wanted to talk about, and not everyone needed to, or should read, the same text.

However in 1993, the impact the previous year’s film about Malcolm X was echoing through many communities. Although the school had a no-headwear clothing policy, malcolm x capwhen students were on the cusp of the school’s doors, they donned the then baseball cap of the day: all black with a bold white “X” on the front. So we all read Walter Dean Myers’ brilliant biography of Malcolm X. My students were enlivened, particularly by the many lives, they said, that Malcolm X seemed to live. That book made us grapple with what freedom meant, how to be with people who regarded all of us, at first glance, as servers or cleaners because of the tones of our skin, and if solidarity was possible, what would it look like. My students, of course, wanted to go, as a whole, to see the movie. I, naively asked for permission instead of forgiveness, and told my students we could not go together because of the film’s rating of R – The  Motion Picture Association of America had already decided that they were too young to see the film. My students lived in many precarious situations on a daily basis, but this agency had decided, based on reductive ideas of age/stage norms, that they would not be able to handle the content of the film.

My students taught me. They went on strike. They made signs and walked out of my and my other 7th grade team members’ classes for impromptu marches and chanting in our shared open air hallway. They flash mobbed before it was even a thing, and no one was taking video of it. They weren’t engaging in protest for ‘”likes” or attention beyond the school. They were demanding they be allowed to see a movie made about a historical figure that had brought up more questions for them chapter by chapter.

And they politicized me to think smarter and harder with them about their needs. Looking back, how dare I dishonor their exhilaration at reading about a luminary figure’s variegated life pathway and literally contain their will to make further textual connections. However, not all of the students were experiencing exhilaration. Some were quietly having to let go of the sweeping whitewashing of Malcolm X as the radical vs. the more peaceful Martin Luther King Jr.  They had been miseducated to see MLK as peaceful and collaborative with everyone and Malcolm X as combative and extremist. This whitewashing does disservices to both of these civil rights icons and echoes into the ways that so many children are subjected to truncated, simplistic ideas of civics, not to mention freedom.

In that group of 7th graders, and in many university courses, I have watched, almost visibly, a person’s world order turn upside down. Sometimes, it is the invigorating, cautious excitement, and imposter syndrome worry when, amidst a sea of young white female teachers, a BIPoC student sees someone who looks kinda like them stand up to teach and shape the collective space. Sometimes, there’s a destabilization of a different sort for white students who had never had a teacher of color, and they had to reckon with the societal messages of racialized inadequacy that had become part of how they equated some people as simply lacking will, intelligence, and probably grit

I have seen that look of dissonance become visible on a student’s face, through their embodied reactions, or expressed through an email, or through the (thankfully) few occasions when students have shut down emotionally and psychically as a form of refusal to talk about domination, subjugation, and the ongoing struggle for freedom. [1]

 

When I see this happening, I say, through different modes: “find a comfortable cushion. You might be feeling this way for awhile.” As is often quipped, we cannot undo what we’ve come to know. This is not always pleasant, polite, measurable through a rubric, or even subject to knowing what makes someone step into the dissonance and someone else shut down. Nether is it always a pleasant experience. Learning is often uncomfortable dissonance.

 

However, stepping into dissonance is truly one of the most grace-ful moments in our lives. No one asks to have their entire world order and how they narrate it turned upside down. In fact, we have example after example (the Tulsa massacre, the churches burnt down right after President Obama’s election, the ban on travelers from countries who have some Muslim residents, the proliferation of cages and entire economies built to profit from accumulated containment) that when alteration to raced, gendered, sexed and abled social ordering of power seems imminent, coloniality intervenes to protects its interests, even if it has to give up a few conciliatory gestures (Bell, 1983). For people who have known nothing but the mythological narratives (Thanksgiving, Columbus Day) that pastiche over the ongoing quest of domination and property ownership for a few at the literal expense, erasure and containment of millions of others, learning the reality of history and present contradictions can, and should, upend their world order. I have had many conversations with students, of many different racialized, gendered, abled, sexed, and classed experiences, as they’ve bravely let one hand go of a bar that used to be truth for them, and reach with another hand for yet-to-be-know social order and how to be themselves in it. They are quite literally re-ordering how they are with themselves and others, in essence, sociogeny.

 

As an educator, it is my grounding purpose to speak out loud the truths of anti-Blackness, anti-migrant (esp. targeting those from the Global South), transphobia, heteronormativity, ableism, and attempts to erase Indigeneity. Particularly how they are manifested, cordoned, and surveilled in schools. It is also my responsibility to work with others to create collective spaces where we can be destabilized enough so that we can dream freedom.

 

In this work, it helps to have comfortable cushions. Re-ordering how we are with ourselves and others is transformative and unpredictable. The next time you feel a nerve hit (you lean back, shut down, react defensively), find a comfortable cushion. You just received one of the most gracious openings in your life….if you hang around long enough to learn in and from it.

 

[1] Adults, particularly academics who have been taught that they are experts, perform their resistance  in wholly different ways. but that is for another essay.

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