I was probably something like 20 years old the first time a theater company sent me into a public school classroom to teach a theater class. It was in conjunction with the Boys and Girls Club, a national nonprofit organization with local chapters that attach to schools and keep kids around after classes are over, usually so their parents can work.
I'll later come to fully realize that there is a small army of people exactly like me, idealistic and progressive and skilled in some kind of arts, whether it be drawing or dance or yoga or theater. Down to the skin and hair color, I am not the only small-framed brunette white girl who really truly feels that the world's problems can be solved through the power of the empathy training you get when playing pretend. I might not even be the first one they've met. I was only half aware of this at the time, and certainly not analytical of all that this implied.
It's like 2008. I am energetic and ready to play and I don't talk to kids like they're idiots, which I think a lot of them appreciate. I am easily side-tracked into conversations about video games and I listen when they tell me about themselves. I "don't yell at them when they fall down" (an observation made my an 8 year old some years later - apparently a unique aspect of my teaching style.) My students fully understand my intentions and see me as a whole person. Some of them are ready to play. We have some seriously delightful moments when the whole classroom is on board and we get to play something together - those small chunks of time when we're all doing the same thing at the same time are what I call successful days. But my presence does not change the fact that they do not want to be at school after everyone else has gone home.
I start the same way. "Let's all get in a circle." They start the same way. They groan in response. Getting into a circle is first herding cats and then pulling teeth. Every day it's like that - before we can get to the point where we are really working well together, there is so much resistance. "WHY?" I say with a smile. "You KNOW it'll be fun. We leave class every time with at least SOME of you having fun. Why can't we start there? Why don't you just trust me?" No response. They are tired. They've heard this before. They trust me just fine. That's not the problem. "We like you, Miz Grace, we're just tired."
"Because," this 12-year-old says to me, "I had to get my little sister up and feed her breakfast and get on a bus at 5:00am this morning."
"Woah! 5:00? No joke?" The rest of the class nods. We go around the room and say how much sleep we got last night. None of their responses are what I would call "sufficient", and some of them go into lengthy descriptions of their frustrating mornings. Mornings like I have never had. Or, maybe mornings like mine, but once I was an adult, not when I was their age.
This is now how I start every class. "How are you today?" And I wait for each student to answer me. Most of the time I limit it to one word. "How are you today in the form of... a color?" "How are you feeling if you were a type of weather?" "If you were a pokemon today, which would you be?"
My first class ever, I had no idea how to "meet kids where they're at", but I think I'm getting better at it.
I am still a piece of a wider oppressive system that makes my students - especially young ones - simply unable to concentrate in my classroom. I have never been where they're at, except in our classroom crossroads, and often times not even then. I live entirely differently than they do.
I grew up in a world where there were public institutions in support of my lifestyle and implemented for my benefit. Policemen were out of sight unless they were on children's programming, waving and being friendly to their neighbors. Healthcare was not a thing I even thought about until I was 20-something and kicked off my dad's insurance - if I was sick, I went to the doctor and got medicine. 911 was never a number I had to call, but if I had to call it, I imagined a force of people waiting and ready to risk their lives to help me. My mom was around because she didn't have to work. We did not have active shooter drills at school. There were hardships and dangers and terrible, awful things - but those things were contained in a system that was supposed to work if I needed it. My life has always mattered.
I was 22 when I sat across from a District Attourney and told her I had witnessed my friend get stabbed with a large kitchen knife, and she told me there was nothing they could do about it. No blood. No proof of intent. Nothing but witnesses. And our stories didn't line up, because there were 6 of us in various degrees of inebriation and sleep, and our stories came straight out of the recent trauma of the event. I shook with rage. I had never been shaken with rage before. I wasn't mad at her. I was just mad. Something life-threatening and illegal had happened to me, to people I care about, and the system wasn't there to magically make it okay for us. For me, specifically. I told the truth and no one cared.
I listen to Lauryn Hill and I read Ta-nehisi Coates and Patrisse Khan-Cullors and I watch Chris Edmin's pedagogy TedX talks, and I think... how can I meet my students where there at when I simply don't live there? I have tasted it from time to time and it comes at me in pieces, through stories, through body-cam footage, through articles in The Atlantic, through statistics.
Half of Wisconsin's black neighborhoods are jails.
Wisconsin's prisons incarcerate more black men than anywhere else in the U.S.
The U.S. locks up more people than any other country.
I don't think I can save anybody from the system. I don't have illusions that theater will keep kids out of prison. I got a wake-up call when a past student posted on social media how afraid he was of existing as gay, even in gay spaces, because someone had just shot up a night club in Orlando. My Shakespeare class may have helped that kid realize his self-worth and identify as gay, but it did nothing to stop that shooter, and didn't help my kid be less afraid of becoming a future victim. My white, straight, cis-gender guilt has been left behind as much as I can leave it behind, and now I'm simply faced with this: how do I create a safe space for kids who have never known safety? They come from instability and enter my classroom, which I cannot promise them is barred from nuts with assault rifles who hate them, and they leave my classroom to the world that will not even try to understand them like I try. I ask about them, individually. I have private conversations. I hear things before their parents or friends do. I meet them where they're at as much as humanly possible.
When they haven't slept. When they haven't eaten. When they haven't been cared for. When they're sick with no support. When they're poisoned by my city's lead water pipes. When they're outright unsupported and rejected and oppressed and physically harmed, threatened, terrorized, or killed by the systems and structures that are supposed to help them. When they can't concentrate. When they don't want to play. When they're hungry. When their ability to trust is broken. When they need the kind of attention I often times just can't give them.
Where do I even begin?
I start and I end with them. And a lot of the time, the young ones, the ones who don't have the time to get to know me, who didn't sign up for my class, who are stuck with me, don't let me in. I get why - I'm not mad. But then what am I doing? What am I "supposed" to be doing? Who thought this was a good idea? Where is our support?