I wish I could say that every student who ever took a class with me felt completely seen, heard, and appreciated. But that would mean that as an English teacher I prioritized things differently than I did, and much as I would like to, I still can’t rewrite history. What I can say is that every student who ever took a class with me read critically — and in doing so, on their own and together and with me, they intimately belonged to what they read, and it to them.
For years I taught a world literature class to 10th-grade students. We read some great stories in that class — stories about a man who woke up one morning to find he had become a roach (Gregor); a rebel daughter in Ancient Greece (Antigone); a part-time Indian (Arnold Spirit Jr); a warrior who became a footnote in colonialist history (Okonkwo); a child of the Iranian Revolution (Marjane); an artist who put his passion for a girl with a pearl earring into a famous painting (Vermeer).
Through these stories, through asking every question we could think of — to ourselves, to each other in small groups, to each other as a whole class — through looking up every word and sharing definitions and writing about the thoughts, feelings, and memories these stories brought to our minds and hearts, we spun a web of temporary belonging.
Temporary belonging is actually most of what school offers us. Each class we are in, each year we are in school, we are given new opportunities to belong. As time moves forward, the ties that bind us inevitably loosen and shift until we leave that time and place for good, taking what we can of those silken threads.
This got me thinking about today’s challenge: staying emotionally tethered to each other because sustained physical proximity isn’t possible. How can we feel a sense of belonging when we are, mostly, alone?
I need to believe — I do believe — that we can always belong to other words and people, and they can always belong to us. The medium doesn’t matter. Belonging is in the collective experience, and in the exchange. It starts with an invitation. We can ask someone to read something we are reading so we can talk about it together. For example, a friend in another state asked me to read James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk because she was reading it and didn’t want to read it alone. I asked my Facebook feed to read Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House with me, and 12 people actually did. We met for an hour over Zoom to talk it through and were energized by hearing each other’s words, seeing each other’s unmasked faces, and being in community together at a time when we were all feeling a little bit — or a lot — lonely.
As John Dewey said, school is life. It’s not something we go and do — it’s what we wake up into every morning and put on pause when we sleep. I like to think that if he were living now, he would not bury his head in his hands, but would find new ways to weave webs of learning and belonging with the tools at his disposal, and experience some joy in the spinning.