“The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy”
bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.
Many of my students have never felt safe at school. I know because I ask. Early in my career, this thread of inquiry was prompted by students’ guardedness and/or surprise that I encourage dialogue, including debate and dissent. I insist that we all listen and endeavor to appreciate our distinct voices. I demonstrate that personal experience is as valuable as ‘book knowledge’ when both are subjected to criticality. This is distinct from the conventional objectiveness and alleged neutrality that we now know as universalising whiteness, maleness, bourgeois values (e.g. hooks, 1994: 16). If they hadn’t known, my students quickly learn what it means to bring the whole self into the classroom.
Many fellow educators have never known a classroom where teachers build a community of “mutual engagement,” through what bell hooks calls “radical openness” (1994: 205). I am frustrated that rather than transform, they opt to re-instantiate the dominance/subordination of conventional pedagogy. This dynamic “often creates a context where the student is present in the classroom to serve the will of the professor, meeting his or her needs, whether it be the need for an audience… or the need to assert dominance over subordinated students” (hooks, 2003: 91). This is intellectual sadomasochism (hooks, 2000: 165).
Unsurprisingly, that conventional banking’ model “where students are regarded merely as passive consumers” still receives credence in bureaucratic institutions worldwide (hooks, 1994: 40). Like abused children, many are eager to uphold that status quo due to “their cathected feelings for those adults” who were otherwise meant to care (hooks, 2000: 49).
Safe(r) in school
I have always liked school. From the memories I (now) select to represent the institution to me, it has always been a safe space of ‘radical openness’. The irony, of course, is that to love a place with integrity, one must know its opposite: I have experienced both love and terror within the classroom. I knew both by the time I was 6.
I continue to teach because I earnestly believe the classroom is the most radical space on the planet. It is the one space where there seems universal agreement that humans must grow. There is universal agreement that classrooms SHOULD be safe, though clearly there is no agreement on how that safety should be met. For example, I first realised I was gay inside a classroom, accepted it in another, and understood both its potential destructive and transformative implications in yet others.
In first grade, I had a crush on a guy named Freddie and a girl named Renée. In retrospect, I realised I wanted Freddie to like me the way that all the boys seemed to like Renée – the lightest-skinned black girl with the longest, bone-straight hair. Gay, right?
In 7th grade, when I was 12, I had two clear epiphanies during two separate chorus classes. First, an older classmate mocked my speech pattern as ‘gay’ to which I retorted: “Just because I talk proper doesn’t mean I’m gay.” He was one of the star basketballers on our school’s team; everyone looked up to him and laughed at his jokes. At that moment, it was hurtful and confusing. Crucially, however, that same classmate seamlessly continued to treat me like a little brother, and we grew even closer over the years. Teasing was his only means of discussing alternate masculinities. Typical jock, right?
Shortly thereafter, when our beloved chorus teacher went on maternity leave, her replacement was an effeminate Black man – what Brits call ‘camp’. Unlike our other teachers, he never said anything about his life outside the classroom – this was the Bible Belt in the 80’s. Yet, there was an immediate cathartic sense of identification that still warms me. I distinctly recall working out in my 12-year-old head that not only my school, but my state’s school system had to have approved of this individual. I was for the first time seeing someone like me ‘in the world’. Years later when I bumped into him at ‘the club’ I thanked him for his service. Representation matters!
That summer I participated in an enrichment program on the university campus where my parents and godparents all met one another. During one class, the guest speaker concluded his motivational talk by mocking an effeminate man who’d come to meet him after another talk. It was unclear why campiness had suddenly become the topic, so I asked a question to quickly change the subject. As the speaker began his response, another student muttered loudly “you’re talking to one right now”. No one came to my defense, including me. I couldn’t believe that a room full of kids and adults had allowed such a hateful slur. I felt terrified, yet held my tears for the bus ride home.
Such incidents at 12 years old convinced me of two things: 1) The classroom is the safest space for radical openness, and 2) I had to leave Kentucky, as George Michael sang in Flawless: “You know you’re wasted here, wasted here/And there ain’t no miracles happening any time soon.”
I am an exile, yet at home everywhere else in the world where there is a classroom. Students generally appreciate my honesty and willing openness about my life’s journey. As educators, we tend to forget that unless challenged, students somehow believe that we were born like this – as fully formed teachers. Share your journey; it allows them to map their own.
For more inFormation
– (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.
– (2000) All About Love: New Visions. New York: William Marrow and Co.
– (2003) Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge.