Common Space

A different kind of post today, responding to the injustices faced by Christian Cooper and George Floyd.

Last year, I started teaching with Baltimore Bridges, a program for students in the city. Starting in sixth grade, kids are paired with mentors and get extracurricular support with academics, gearing toward applying for college in senior year. The high schoolers also have once-a-month full days in which they work on application and interview skills, and take electives. I teach the creative writing elective.

This past fall, when I arrived for my first day, my first class was with a group of three young black men: Jason, Adrian, and Jerard, all high school juniors. In the moment of meeting them, I had two realizations. One: as a white woman, if I’d met any one of these young men or all three together while walking down the street, I’d have crossed to the other side. Two: I was afraid (and pretty sure) I was about to have a big teaching fail. In teaching writing especially, sharing stories, the sense of connection and safety is important. I didn’t know if I could get past my prejudice enough to create the right kind of classroom space.

We went into the classroom and spent an hour and a half writing and sharing work. Adrian was smart and motivated, eager to work for positive change in his community. Jason was quiet and thoughtful, creative with his writing. Jerard was also thoughtful and creative. His work went into dark places that he explored candidly and openly.

My “white woman prejudice” was called out that day, again, with these young men I’d have been afraid to pass on the street. In that class, as in every class I’ve taught with Bridges, I’ve seen how it is in fact possible for us to find connections with each other. It happens when we agree that no stories are wrong, they all deserve to be told and shared, and we will listen to one another with openness and acceptance.

In the classroom, that starts with the teacher. In society, it starts with those of us, like me, who are used to taking our right to share our stories for granted. We have to close our mouths, open our ears and minds, and listen to the voices we have drowned out before.

It’s so easy to look for differences and reasons to turn away from “the other.” I do it all the time. I want to do better.