At a school, one block south of 8 mile, I teach theater to 6th and 7th graders. With five minutes left in class, a group of six girls enact a scene wherein a guide, amidst a terrible sandstorm, gives a young woman a tour of the pyramids only to be found and chased to their assumed death by four mummies wrapped in brown paper towels.
It got a big laugh. But the bigger laugh came when they ran into a pole in the classroom at the end of the scene. Huge laugh. The pole was actually a casing for wires so that there could be an outlet in the middle of the room. So now there’s a pile of middle school girls near a mess of live electrical wires dangling from the ceiling in the middle of the class, but as I’m moving everyone away from the threat of electrocution, I begin to sense a distinct lack of urgency around me.
“Don’t worry. It happens all the time”.
As the kids saunter back to their desks, the bell rings. Well, the bell would ring if there was a bell, or if the clocks worked, or if the clocks were accurate when they did work. Instead of a bell the office plays a recording of classical musical to notify the change over. At least they play the music “when they remember”, my classroom teacher says. There wasn’t any music today, just kids casually walking toward the door waiting to be excused.
Meanwhile, I start stuffing the black, white, and copper wires back into a 3 inch by 3 inch square casing that runs from the floor to ceiling, hoping to not die.
Towards the beginning of the next class I noticed the students were taking a long time to open their books and pick a city or country in the continent of Africa as a setting for our next scene. When I asked them how I could help to answer any questions they may have about this project, or about writing and theater in general, I began to hear a question beneath their questions...
“Why are you here?”
They understood we were going to be making a play together, and we had bonded, but my presence wasn’t fully understood. Most kids don't like coming to school, but these kids were confused as to why I would come to their school.
I told them that I cared for their individual growth and the development of their minds because I believed in them. The class that two minutes before couldn’t seem to focus were beginning to open their books.
For the record, I am not a teacher. Teachers show up everyday. Teachers grade papers, and design rubrics, and go to professional development meetings, and shed their time for kids on a daily basis.
They wrestle against the loss of our children. Knowing everyday that there is such a thing as OUR children and that our children are who we will be.
At a 99% black school, the teacher of this class tries to incorporate black history into her social studies and history curriculum, not just in February, but also in each lesson block. I find that so deeply moving. What were my ancestors doing while the important things of history were happening? Answer: Something important. They were making me and my wife and my kids and my neighbors.
I repeat the word “important” because it is easy to forget that you are when the clocks don’t work, and the stories of your ancestors aren’t included in your education, and the wires are dangling around you, and the classical music plays, sometimes, and your parents were surrounded by or caught up in the crack epidemic, and you’re a 7th grader reading at a 3rd grade level, and they have built a jail down the street and the computers are from the 90’s, and the TV in the room is from the 90’s, and the desks in your class are literally the same desks that your homeroom teacher sat in the 60’s when she attended your school as a girl, back when she heard her mom and dad referred to as "Boy" and "Girl" when they would head north of 8 mile. It’s hard to remember you are important. Even though saying the word over and over is an admission of the pain’s effect on your mind, you try to remember to say it anyway, like your teacher when she was a girl, because you know, just like she knew, that your Dad isn’t a Boy and your Mom isn't a Girl. You know that they, like you, are important.
Why are you here?
What does that 7th grader see from her desk? What does she see when she looks at the state-of-the-art school across 8 mile? What does she see in the face of her teacher? Does that 7th grader see the dynamics of the school’s administration? Does she see the school board? Does she see politics? Does she the budget? Does she see the hearts of people in power?
We tell her to get out of her seat and line up at the door. We tell her to wait because the music isn’t playing (but we don’t know if it will). We tell her to stay away from the wires. We tell her to pick a setting in Africa.
What does she see?