Chalk Talk: What if our world was a classroom?

  • Susan Connell Biggs. SUBMITTED PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 9/17/2020 12:50:33 PM

“We should seek out all the doors which still remain ajar, however slight the opening might be.” —Angela Davis

This was my summer of bears.

It’s not unusual for me to experience close encounters with animals. There was the moose I came face to face with in Alaska. More like my face, to her thigh, but I could feel her breath, she was so close. There was the grizzly in Tahoe who suddenly appeared 50 yards below my hillside trail and kept pace with me all five miles back to the trailhead. And there was the rattlesnake that rose up off the red mesa of Shiprock hissing and shaking inches from my shin. 

This summer, it was the black bear. 

Something told me we would meet as I set out that morning. I questioned my choice of trails. But everything inside me told me I would be fine — if I met that bear with reverence. When the bear emerged from the thick woods onto the trail 20 yards ahead of me, she paused and stared. She bowed her head, and I bowed mine. And we both moved on.

I was never afraid, though. Not like I am now. In an unstable school system, in an unstable country.

There’s something there, in that message of bowing in reverence to the bear’s majesty, something that can see me through — see us through.

I like to think I bring this reverence to all my students. It is not always easy, but I am grateful for this opportunity. To see all my students in their unique humanity, in their truest versions of their selves. Because then, fear falls away and learning happens. Theirs and mine.

More than ever, I wish my administrators saw me this way — as a student in their classroom. I wish the leaders of my country did. But then I think about what I say to my students when I fail in meeting their needs and expectations: How might you become your own best teacher? 

How could we all?

This was the summer of the bear. More importantly, it was the summer of coronavirus. Most importantly, it was the summer our country woke up, willing to witness the senseless killings of Black people in this country that have been happening for centuries. And we acknowledged the need to take responsibility to dismantle our systems of racism and oppression. We have shut too many doors.

To open them, we might become our own best teachers. 

If this country was a classroom and you were its teacher … 

You would welcome everyone with an open heart. 

You would get to know them deeply.

You would acknowledge and honor their home language, their culture, racial, religious, gender, and sexual identity.

You would do no harm, and when by chance you did, you would apologize: I’m sorry. I take responsibility. I’ll educate myself and do better. 

You would create a space where everyone feels safe, supported and seen. Where everyone can be curious, take risks and be vulnerable.

You would feed those who are hungry and clothe those who are without. You would protect those in danger. You would provide health care for those in need. You would watch over those who need a safe place to sleep. You would close your door to no one.

You would cultivate a community of trust and transparency and connection.

You would give people a voice and listen. Really listen.

You would empower people with information and skills of critical thinking and opportunities to engage their agency.

And together you would seek to interrupt and dismantle our racist systems. And hold each other accountable.

I have to believe that the instability we face, the unknown, is the very edge of things where great learning and growth happen. And we can find ways to support each other in these times of discomfort. We can create these classrooms. Until we find the door ajar.

But still, that bear and her majesty. Perhaps, first, we must meet ourselves this way. Bow down with reverence to our own majesty. That’s what they must mean by the radical act of love.

It’s the only way I know to reclaim my classroom, my country, myself. 

Susan Connell Biggs teaches high school English in the Massachusetts public school system. She is a teacher consultant for the Western Massachusetts Writing Project and a middle-grade and YA author represented by Hen & Ink Literary.

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