“The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.”
– bell hooks
TW/CW: discussions of sexual violence
Teaching is not for the faint of heart. Even in my limited experience as a student teacher, I’m often stunned by the things I hear and see in the classroom. Whatever illusions anyone reading this may have about teaching – i.e. “you get summers off!” – should be dispensed with, and fast. Teaching is emotionally, spiritually and physically draining. It is chaotic, depressing and difficult. And it is, more than you might expect, truly amazing.
My host school this year invited me to their annual Music Retreat. It was a two-day overnight trip, to an outdoor learning facility near Toronto. Each day was filled with sectionals, workshops and leadership development (LD) sessions. They split the students into semi-randomized groups for LD, as well as the many outdoor activities on offer. The sense of community was palpable. Everyone seemed relaxed, excited and carefree. I honestly hadn’t been in an environment like this in years, and soon enough, I was excited too! My morning percussion sectionals, which were supposed to be with groups of four, ended up being with one student each. This was great in its own way, because they each got a private lesson! I got to know them a little, and we worked deeply into their repertoire. I went to our pre-lunch “mass choir” session feeling refreshed and reflective. As we left for lunch, however, I overheard two boys making jokes about men beating their wives. The other foot, it seemed, had dropped.
Considering a similar incident just this past week at school, I decided not to address the comments directly. I would take some time to raise the issues with all 120 students that evening. This decision caused me some agony, but as you’ll see, I think I made the right choice. We all went to our separate sessions after lunch, and I promptly forgot about the comments. I was busy working my way through some very challenging flute music – and as any musician knows, these things have a way of taking over your brain! Around 5:00, we reunited for another mass choir session, followed by dinner. After dinner, the students played “Capture the Flag” outside. Here, I once again overheard some truly disturbing “jokes” about rape. I was reminded immediately of the comments I’d heard earlier, and stifled the urge to respond in the heat of the moment. I knew that my mentor teacher (MT) would give me the space to address the issues, and was confident that I could do so constructively.
After their talent show (which was truly impressive), my MT gave me the green light to speak to the students. With 130 students, teachers and chaperones staring back at me, I began. I introduced myself, for the benefit of the many students who don’t know me. I gave them a little background on my teaching style, which is generally easygoing and non-judgmental. Why would I do this? To set the stage for what I said next. “It’s clearly not easy to get under my skin. But some of the comments I’ve heard today have done just that. They are absolutely unacceptable.” Many students looked confused, and I continued. I told them I didn’t want to single anyone out, or repeat anything they said. It definitely wouldn’t have been helpful, but most importantly, I had no intention of repeating comments that were sure to upset many of the girls in the room.
“I overheard a joke this afternoon between two boys about men beating their wives. And in the evening, I overheard three boys making rape jokes. These jokes are not funny, and they have no place in any community.” Several girls were nodding along as I continued. I told them that I have enjoyed working with every young man in that room (true), and that I have learned so much from each of them (also true). I told them that I, personally, have said much worse than the things I’d heard that day. I had no right or desire to get on my high horse and cast judgement. I asked the crowd if they were on social media. There was, of course, lots of nodding and yeses. “So, we’re all familiar with #MeToo, then?” More nodding and more yeses. At this point, I noticed that one of my Vocal students was crying. If you know me at all, dear reader, you know that I’m a crybaby. I had to look way from her to say what I had to say.
“I have been so humbled by the stories I’ve read and heard from women and girls. I know some of them, but many more I’ve never met. I know I’m not the only one who feels sad and angry reading these stories. And I suspect that there are many young women in this room, sadly, who have their own #MeToo tales to tell. When I hear young men who I like and respect, and who have taught me so much, make jokes like this…it tells me that maybe I’m wrong about you. Maybe you don’t care as much as I thought you did, and I don’t want to think that. I want you to think very critically and very carefully about the words you use. Words hurt, but they also help create an atmosphere where bad things can happen. None of us wants that.”
At this point, I knew I had to switch gears. It was late, I didn’t have much energy left, and the students didn’t need to hear me ramble at the end of the day. I told them how impressed I was by their hard work, talent and sense of community. I decided, in that moment, to open myself up to them. I told them that I was never a student who felt terribly comfortable in school. I was pushed around and called names. And now, to wake up every Monday and feel lucky to be going to school? These students have given me a very special gift, and I wanted to let them know that I appreciate it. They had every opportunity, and frankly every right, to see me as just another student teacher. I have no vocal experience, and this is my first high school placement. If I were a student in that class, I likely would have not been so kind. They invited me into their community and let me feel like I finally had a place in school. Remember how I said I’m a crybaby? Well, this is when the waterworks finally started. My voice began to catch, and I knew that if I spoke one more word of praise, I would break down. I thanked them and headed to the back of the room. My mentor teacher welcomed me with open arms.
My hands were shaking as I went to grab some water. Another teacher began filling the students in on the bedtime procedure, and I texted my brother for support. As the students filed out, two grade nine girls (one of whom I’ve worked with) came up and thanked me for speaking out. I told them that I was happy to do so, and that I appreciated their kind words. They told me to keep it up, and I intend to do just that.
Later that night, my MT called me from the girls’ dorm as she was doing room checks. She wanted to let me know that several of the girls had shared with her that they were glad I’d said something. She said that she hoped at least some of the young men in attendance would take my words to heart; I told her that I thought they would. After I finally settled in for bed (some boys had clogged their toilet), I listened to some music and promptly fell asleep.
The next day, I attended an outdoor activity session with one of the LD groups. Once again, the atmosphere was light and friendly. I decided, at the last minute, to do a sort of ‘debrief’ with the boys in the group. Since I only knew one of them, I thought it might be interesting to see how they responded to a man they A) didn’t know and B) had been introduced to through my ‘speech’ the previous night. As the campground staff began the walk back, I told the students that I wanted to walk with just the boys. “I’m not mad, and no one’s in trouble. Relax!” Famous last words, right? I asked them if anyone had any sort of response – positive or negative – to what I had spoken to them about. One young man told me that I was very brave for saying what I said. At the time, I cynically thought he might be saying this to placate me. But knowing teenage boys, this is never an easy thing to be public about. The culture of silence and shame runs so deep with male social groups that I know he was being real with me. No one else had anything to share (I wouldn’t either, in their position) and we made our way back to the main building.
So why am I writing all this, and why so publicly? I’m worried that this entire post will come across as me painting myself as an “ideal male feminist” or some such. I don’t have the space or energy to detail all the ways that is not true, but let me say that I have about as many personal failings as the boys I work with at school. Instead, I intend this post as a sort of “proof of concept” around hope in the classroom. It’s not terribly difficult for a critic like me to lose sight of the very real learning and connecting that happens in all sorts of classrooms. We cannot ever forget that this profession calls us to deal with actual, live, human beings. Human beings are not perfect. In fact, even the best of us are quite ugly at times. But I know, from having many teachers believe in me, that we must push our students to be the best that we know they can be. Why else would we teach?