Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Art of Silence

On the day our school was observing the Day of Silence in support of LBGT people, I happened to be away at a conference. I had thought of the perfect lesson plan for Humanities – the kids would listen to 4’33” by John Cage. For those who may not know it, this is the composition wherein the performer makes absolutely no sound with her or his instrument. Silence, as it were – only not exactly, because listeners still experience whatever sounds may happen to exist in the performance space. The name comes from the total length of the piece.

I found a Death Metal performance of the piece that I really wanted to use, especially because of the humorous introduction the drummer gave, but unfortunately he took it a little fast and the piece only took 2’40”. So I settled on a ukulele performance. Tod (our IT person) had agreed to cover the class, so I emailed him and the kids the link, and asked each student to email me a poem in reaction once the piece had concluded.

The final general session of the conference (which was, overall, excellent) was on Workman’s Comp and oriented only to Business Managers, so I skipped out, found a couch, and checked in with my students. Most of their poems echoed this theme:

4 minutes.
37 seconds.
All wasted.
No movement.
No sound
What is the point? (…)

One student was definitely on to something:

(…) But this might be more than lack of music
It might be silence
You do not see his face
You do not hear him play
You do not know why it was like that
You might not even care
But to him it could have meant something to him (…)

And these students caused me to gasp out loud:

he plays
his favorite melody
his fingers know
every inch of the string and the songs
after years of practice
he is a master
and brave enough to show it
to the world
we listen
but we hear nothing
there is no sweet tune that fills our ears
so we shrug
“oh well, it isn’t important”
but to him,
to the ukulele man,
it is the most important thing
and he hears the music

The power of silence
More than just any noise
Blanketing everything until it sounds like a
crisp sheet of paper
Never written on
Never erased
Only on the perfect moments
Peeking from behind the banging and clanging
of whatever is called music
Strong, hard

I suspect there is enough there that, had I been present to help facilitate a discussion (and had it not been the Day of Silence!), they would have come to some really interesting conclusions in putting their ideas together and building on them. However, given that I couldn’t be there, the next best thing was to email them as soon as possible. I told them that if they were curious, they should look up the composer John Cage. I noted that 4’33” is actually one of Cage’s most famous compositions, and let them know that he once did a workshop at Middlebury with music majors during my sophomore year and the next day I would tell them all about it and what I learned. And I wrote a poem back to them:

Lost Opportunity. Or not.
Sound surrounds us
And there is music around us always
You listen
Focus on one voice
And you miss the chorus.
Silence is not for everyone
For some
Silence never is.

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, School Happenings, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective

Breaking the Silence

Tires screech as a car full of teenage boys swings around to get a closer look, barely decipherable bellowed comments ringing across the parking lot. I clutch my small bag of groceries a little more tightly, willing myself to maintain a blank face and an even pace, wishing for the first time in a number of years that I didn’t enjoy parking far away from the store entrance so I could get in a bit of a walk. My stomach clenches with the familiar tension, and I wait for the usual relaxation. It doesn’t come. And suddenly I know why.

It had been many years since I had been mistaken for a woman and subjected to random drive-by harassment. The last time it happened, I had been reasonably confident that once they realized I wasn’t female, they would drive off, perhaps getting in one last parting shot, and leave me alone to think on the notion that actual women don’t have that comforting expectation. This time, however, I had a new awareness of both the numbers of transgender people and the constant danger they are in. If these kids were to decide that their having mistaken me for a woman meant I had crossed some gender line and deserved to be beaten up or worse, there wasn’t going to be much I could do about it.

The whole incident didn’t last more than half a minute but has stuck with me. No group of people is at more risk for being subjected to hate crimes and violence than transgender people, as the litany of a spreadsheet on the Transgender Day of Remembrance website attests: Strangled. Shot and dragged. Stoned, beaten and burned. Stabbed. Shot to death by her brother. Shot. Shot. Shot… For many years, I have had something of a sense of what it’s like to be a woman and subjected to drive-by harassment. Now I have also something of a sense of what it’s like to be transgender and live with the awareness that at any moment, without warning, life as you know it could end.

The other day, one of my Humanities 7 students did a brilliant presentation on the blink effect. In the time it takes to blink, she told us, you form your first impression of people and make your first judgment. Very often, students and classes wrestling with this concept will use the information to affirm the need to be aware of the blink effect and work hard to get past that moment and genuinely get to know people as they really are. This student took it one level deeper. She had found a plastic surgeon’s site that attempted to convince people that the best way to combat the blink effect was to do everything possible to ensure that your own personal body and face led to positive judgments the split second people meet you. She was, quite properly, outraged. The best way to combat the blink effect, she stated, was to stop caring what other people think of how you look and just feel good the way you are. The class was completely in agreement.

How much better our world would be if more people would work not only to overcome their own tendency to make quick judgments but also to strengthen themselves against the quick judgments of others.

Yet, as I make that statement, and even though I believe deeply in its truth, I have the uncomfortable sense that it’s still not enough. Far too many voices have been permanently silenced simply because of who those people are and the snap judgments people have made about them – and not just transgender people, of course. Far too many additional voices are effectively silenced as people hide their true selves. And we are living in times when legislation has actually been proposed permitting harassing, hateful speech as long as the speaker can claim a religious basis to their statements. I know there are people whose religious beliefs are that LGBT people will not go to heaven, and of course I accept and even support their right to those beliefs. But I cannot support that (fortunately much smaller) subset of people who use religion as an excuse to deny people their fundamental human right to respect.

All that being said, we are also living in times when gay marriage has become acceptable to the majority of Americans, where the visibility of transgender people is on the rise, where gay people (if not yet transgender people) can both serve their country and be open about who they are. And we are living in times when young people are growing up more aware than ever of the rich diversity of people around them, more inclined to respect that diversity, and more inclined to affirm themselves in the face of those who are less respectful. So on this year’s Day of Silence, I give thanks for progress being made and for my students’ part in that progress, and I recommit to working toward a day when the Day of Silence is no longer needed and only exists in history books.

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Filed under Gender, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective

Hungering for a Better World

For those unfamiliar with it, The Hunger Games is a book by Suzanne Collins that describes a dystopian future wherein children representing their geographical district, known as Tributes, fight to the death for the (sarcasm on) entertainment (sarcasm off) value. There are three books to the series, and of course the eagerly anticipated movie “The Hunger Games” was just released. As a middle school teacher who follows members of the #nerdybookclub on Twitter, I couldn’t have missed the release date if I tried as many of my friends were braving the masses at midnight showings as crowded as they were festive.

But as the release date drew near, an unexpected and disturbing dynamic arose. “I was pumped about the Hunger Games. Until I learned a black girl was playing Rue.” “And for the record im still pissed that rue is black…” “EWW Rue is black? I’m not watching.” (tweets quoted in “Racist Morons React to The Hunger Games: Rue is Black“)

Yes, Rue is Black. The 12-year-old Tribute is so described in The Hunger Games on page 45: “She has dark brown skin and eyes…” (Collins) That so many people missed that altogether might be perceived as a hopeful sign we are nearing a truly post-racial era were some of their subsequent reactions a little less, well, racist. But even in a positive context, it would seem to suggest that assuming white skin as a default is such a strong instinct for some people that even when evidence to the contrary is presented, they still miss it. That in itself reveals a certain systemic racism and privilege even among some of those people of good will who are sincerely committed to being anti-racist.

And so, on discussion boards, blogs, Tumblrs and other sites, the Internet has become populated with comments left by people who were infuriated by the racism… of people pointing out instances of racism. “there are more blacks that are racist than white because they have the feeling everyone owes them something.” wrote Kay in commenting on a blog José Vilson wrote for CNN, “My View: Are we doing enough to make sure our kids aren’t racist?” Later on, WCT wrote “People who complain about racism are the ones who are only going to perpetuate it. As long as somebody is going to continue to complain about racism it is going to continue to exist. If you want racism to stop just shut up about it…”

Right. Because historically, ignoring prejudice has worked so well.

In point of fact, I would argue, the most positive changes have been made by people willing (and/or forced) to face up to reality. It is easy to decide you are or want to be anti-racist. It is much harder work to act in a truly anti-racist fashion. You have to acknowledge that you see race, examine the assumptions you make so quickly you might not even notice them if you weren’t looking, and then work both to excise those assumptions from your thinking and to, very deliberately, avoid acting on them. One of the most moving comments on Mr. Vilson’s blog came from a 15-year-old named John, who wrote: “i am a 15 year old boy and i have struggled with racism for a while. im white and was grownup with a fine family. but my dad being racist rubbed off on me. same with his brother my uncle who is around. it has taken me nearly a year now to fix my racism problem… now that im way less racist i hate people who are open about it. i hate my old self…” As much courage as it took to write that, it was probably less than it took for him to face up to the problem in the first place.

Therein lies my hope that one day we can, as Mr. Vilson put it in a companion blog to his CNN piece, “The Dreamer, The Believer [The Race-Man Cometh],” “create new [realities] where we can simultaneously love one another and recognize that we’re the same and different at once.” My hope grows as I see my Humanities 7 class sharing knowledge about and a deep sense of sadness tinged with anger at the death of Trayvon Martin, as MOCA agrees to propose dedicating a day in support of Trayvon Martin, and for that matter as MOCA discusses the upcoming Day of Silence in support of LGBT people.

Those new realities of which Mr. Vilson and I and most, if not all, of our students dream won’t just happen by themselves, though. You have to build them slowly, moment by moment.

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Filed under Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized