“Tell me everything.”
“Everything!” My voice might be shrill.
More silence. A breath.
“What do you want to know?”
Rain has soaked through my sneakers and I’m sliding in mud as I walk across the field where I feed three horses each night. In my headphones, Ben’s faint, tired voice falters through trying to describe the impromptu day he spent watching protests at the Democratic National Convention.
He talks about Black Lives Matter protestors, and Bernie protestors, and people angry about other things, and what happened when they all met on the streets. He tells me about anarchists burning flags at night, and how it felt to flee perceived danger while others ran straight into it. He tells me he is overwhelmed, running on two hours of sleep, and still trying to process everything he saw and experienced.
He tells me about a little boy he met who needed a partner for the other side of his seesaw. His voice gets a little stronger.
“But the day was incredible. Incredible,” he says. I can hear him smiling.
— Ben Yankelitis (@ben_yank) July 27, 2016
It’s hard to describe the restlessness and disconnect I’ve felt for the last week.
Each day, I’ve gone to work, where a workshop has been pacing us around questions of diversity, inclusion, and solving cultural challenges at a private school. We sit in a circle, play teambuilding games, and enjoy hour-long catered lunches.
Thirty miles away, the editors with whom I worked closely over the last few years to learn how student journalism works are no longer students. They are reporters, live-tweeting photos and videos from the streets of Philadelphia as something like democracy plays out.
And meanwhile, that thing called Democracy – capital D – is happening, for better or for worse, despite the misgivings and cynicism so many of us are fighting.
— Justice Bennett (@_JusticeBennett) July 28, 2016
I come home from long days of group sharing – more exhausting for an introvert than if we’d done physical labor in the sun – to watch my recent students’ nighttime coverage of protests and flag burnings. Older alumni go inside the convention hall to analyze the speeches and report on delegates’ perspectives. To be clear, I can’t take credit in any way for their motivation or capabilities in this work – in fact, I may have dissuaded them from it along the way. But as I watch, I’m alternately awestruck, terrified, numb, amused, and confused about what is happening.
I’m sneaking peeks at my Twitter alerts during group reflections and journaling exercises. I’m listening to Ben’s account while walking across a bucolic field on a millionaire’s property. At night, panic rises in my chest when I see a video clip that reports on violence from far too close — but I don’t move from watching network coverage on my suburban apartment’s couch.
— Justice Bennett (@_JusticeBennett) July 27, 2016
I’ve known for awhile that teaching is an all-consuming craft. The time commitment of the school day, the unrelenting pressure to evolve pedagogy, the physical labor of the studio, the psychological energy of supporting students — it all does not leave me with much time left to dedicate to other pursuits.
And I have also believed since I started teaching that success in the craft looks like students whose contributions to our world far exceed my own. At mid-career, I’m starting to see this play out. This week, a former student became a full-time ceramics teacher at one of the country’s top art schools. I watched one cover the convention for network news, while another’s smile flashed onscreen in a film trailer. Another is handling a contracting job for a colleague’s home. It feels overwhelming to see their gifts start to spread, like tributaries that turn into their own rivers and seas.
But lately my own restlessness has been bordering on anxiety. I feel like I’m spectating. I am sitting comfortably in a room, settling into polite patterns and breathing conditioned air, while others — now often the students who shared part of their journeys with me — are deep in work that matters.
I’ve circled Malcolm Davis’s 2010 NCECA closing address since I heard it for the first time, in person:
“…My greatest personal struggle has been to come to terms with the fact that I left the active struggle for social justice to make pots and dishes for the privileged, adding more clutter to the cosmic dump. Why do we make pots? Do we serve any useful social function? Is it merely self-indulgence? Are we just fiddling while Rome burns?”
Tough questions. And while Davis eventually reached hope in his speech, I have a long road ahead to figuring out my own conclusion. I do know one thing: If my only reference point for teaching is a career spent teaching, that doesn’t feel like enough for me anymore. If I’m nowhere near the flames, how do I teach people to get close enough to understand how fire feels? Or how it can ignite you forward?
On the last night of the Democratic National Convention, Natalie (once my student, but has taught me far more than I ever taught her since then) posted this video of peaceful protestors outside the convention center.
The protest has eased into a circle of people sitting and singing where they once stood and chanted. pic.twitter.com/IiuqMCSpNA
— Natalie DiBlasio (@ndiblasio) July 29, 2016
“It’s up to us to be the change that we wish to see in the world today.”
The trick, mid-career?
Figuring out how, where, and when to be that change.
Or, maybe like the protesters – and like Ben – I need to improvise.