Each One, Teach One
What I learned as a truant student agitator about the limits of radical education.
TedTalkers and nonprofiteers would have us believe that the problems facing marginalized students could be fixed with some simple and superficial reforms. They might highlight some of the hindrances to a positive learning environment as overcrowded classrooms, standardized testing, under-funding, cops with metal detectors that terrorize black and brown kids to and from school. Optimistic researchers with university fellowship money might pose that every school in America should have oval tables and that the kids should call teachers by their first names. But the truth is that schools have always been sites of state violence, in which young people are held against their will, and taught to obey, to conform, to be governed, to be citizens of The Nation. If, as anti-authoritarians of many traditions, we understand calls to save our schools as actually upholding fundamental power and stratification, we might also agree with what Rihanna claimed when she filed the trademark for her pending fashion company: $chool Kills.
Marxist theorists like Paulo Freire put forth the idea that educating is a political act that can’t be divorced from pedagogy, and that with the right kind of pedagogue liberatory moments can take place inside the school. One of my lovely and patient friends always reminds me that these guys are pretty paternalistic. Moreover, many anarchists might wrinkle that most education is both hierarchical and authoritarian, that there might not be a “kinder, gentler” school.
The music swells and RiRi’s husky voice sings: “I don’t blame you much for wanting to be free I just wanted you to know …”
So, if there’s no blueprint for tearing apart the school as the lynchpin of the society we despise, we might find solace and inspiration in the multitude of ways that young people slack off, travel in packs, sabotage lessons, smoke in bathrooms, talk back, and everything else that violates the day to day monotony of fucked up institutions like school and work. As Tyler told me last night, the experience of being ungovernable will change your life forever.
The summer of 2006 were those two months after my freshman year in high school and the first time I ever went further south than DC, let alone as far as the gulf coast. It was a year after Hurricane Katrina, I was fourteen going on fifteen and me, my best friend and my steel toed boots signed up to join 30-some students traveling to New Orleans. It was sweltering and swampy, like nothing I’d ever experienced. We all slept on military cots in the home of Curtis Muhammad, the headquarters of the New Orleans Survivors’ Council. Muhammad was a former member of SNCC who had been a part the establishment of freedom schools in Mississippi during the early years of the civil rights movement. His house was painted grayish-purple with a big porch and a dog named Biko, and many sons who were often seen smoking on the stoop.
On our first night in the city, I piled into a school bus with my classmates. I was definitely the youngest person on the trip. We drove from the newly rebuilt, 12-foot tall Industrial Canal levee in the Lower Ninth Ward, the poor black neighborhood most devastated by Katrina, to the French Quarter, home to Bourbon Street, hundreds-of-dollar-a-night hotels, and a levee system disguised as a beautiful park. You’d never even know it.
“Imagine that you truly believed in your heart that your government wanted to kill you,” Curtis croaked, standing in front of the levee in the Lower Ninth. He went on to describe three instances of dynamiting levee systems in poor neighborhoods of New Orleans to relieve pressure on commercial districts of the city: the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, during Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and once more in August of 2005 during Hurricane Katrina. Older residents of the neighborhood recalled hearing the levee break twice in their lifetimes, and still swear that it was caused by explosives.
Every morning, me and all the other volunteers spent hours gutting a home in the Lower Ninth. We waded through and removed the raw material of clothes; the contents of fridges that had been sitting unopened for 12 months; moving out moldy couches; breaking through the crumbling drywall; ripping out asbestos covered fiberglass that would curdle and crumble as you grabbed it with gardening gloves; stripping down the interior of the house until it was nothing but bare wooden beams some of which were warped from sitting in murking water in the heat for weeks and weeks, some of which were swarming with angry termites and were not structurally sound at all. Around lunchtime we took smoke breaks and ate PB&Js. We stood around in rolled-down Tyvek suits and gas masks like the ones people wear in the streets during riots. In the afternoon, we were split up into pairs and sent down various streets to knock on doors. We spoke to folks about their experience during the storm, and what they thought needed to happen to get their neighbors back in their homes from wherever they might have been displaced to: some to Mississippi, others to Texas, Alabama, New York, or even fucking Alaska.
By canvassing, we tried to get folks out to meetings of neighbors to plan a poor and black-led recovery process. One of Curtis’ sons gave us an orientation and trained us in the traditions of community organizing that came out of the south in the late 50s and early 60s. They told us that poor Black residents of the Ninth Ward were way more likely to speak to us, let alone open their door, if we made sure that the students of color, particularly dark-skinned black students in our group, spoke first and significantly more often than white kids, like me. It was the first time most of the white kids, including myself, had ever been told we couldn’t just speak whenever we wanted. Being shy and having never liked speaking to strangers, I was so relieved.
This model of black leadership extended beyond the hours of afternoon canvassing, and into the evenings sessions, where all the summer volunteers and staff of the Survivors’ Council, sometimes over 75 people, would sit in a circle in his backyard after dinner and debrief the day. Every person in the meeting would have one minute to speak about their day, no more, no less. I distinctly remember being absolutely terrified when it was my turn to speak. My heart pounded. My hands were sweaty. I almost always opted to pass on my turn – I didn't think I had anything to say. These debriefs often went on for several hours, and included a cross-talk portion where people were given the opportunity to respond to something somebody said during their one minute. Before the Occupy-era ‘progressive stack,’ social justice Twitter, and the term ‘anti-black racism’ appearing on major platforms like CNN, the praxis of ‘black people speak first’ existed almost soley in anti-racist spaces, usually in excruciatingly long conversations sitting in a circle. Freedom is an endless meeting-status.
I listened, and soaked it all in like a sponge. I had never been in an environment where I learned so much and never got bored.
I didn’t have a Facebook until 2007, so there’s no Life Event to cross-check all this with, but I remember coming home from New Orleans totally upside-down enraged. I couldn’t speak to my mother, or anybody who hadn’t gone through that experience with me. I clung to my best friend all summer. We smoked pot, slunk around depressed and without purpose. We made out in my room in the middle of the night. We went to all-ages punk shows at ABC No Rio. We moved around the city together, stealing all the lollipops from all the banks, and got lice. We told one another we liked boys and girls. At one point I got “grounded” after my mom found some paraphernalia in my room. I cried because I missed a bunch of times I could have been meeting up with him in Tompkins Square on the nicest days of summer.
I sat with my chin on the table, I was wearing purple pants, I only vaguely heard the mumbling of somebody in the distance, the scratching of chalk on the wipe off board. In a daze, I lifted my head to see whatever or whoever was interrupting my daydream about pizza, and my eyes met a tall black man sporting a plaid shirt, some utilitarian tan pants, and a tongue ring. Moving quickly and without a breath, the teacher, Mr. Warner (who everybody just called “Warner”) grabbed one of those chairs with the built in armrest-table-thing, and placed it at the front of the room and asked all of us to tell him about it.
What’s going on here? What’s this all about?
He shook his fingers vigorously at the chair, and called on the kids whose hands went up first.
Tell me about it. What does this chair tell us about society?
I had no idea what he was talking about, and shrunk back in my seat. He scribbled on the board, and some front-seaters called out answers: made of wood, sit up straight, face the board, look at the teacher, don’t put your feet up, “Yep! Yep!” He called on another kid, she chimed in: where learning happens. “Hmm! Interesting ...” He chirped. More scribbling with chalk.
He walked over to me, I tried to avert my eyes, but felt like he could see directly into me to my desperate desire to go unseen, my depression and daydreams of lunchtime with my best friend. ”What do you think?” He asked, crouching down next to my chair.
“I guess … I don’t know … that learning doesn’t happen in groups or outside like, yeah, learning just happens in the classroom, that’s what the chair is all about I guess.” What the fuck did this have to do with history? He scratched his head patronizingly, tossing the chalk in the air and catching it, “Uh-huh, uh-huh, say more ...”
“Like,” I mumbled, “When you’re sitting in the chair … you uh don’t learn by doing, um, you learn by being told?”
Over the semester, I spent more and more time hanging out in the hallway by his classroom, asking for more readings. One day, he gave me a couple pages of Discipline and Punish, those vivid accounts of public humiliation, somebody getting their skin sliced off their body like cheese. I had literally never read anything for school before then, and couldn’t even string together sentences for a five-paragraph essay, but I read that piece over and over again. I wanted to get it so bad. I wanted him to think I was smart. In his class, I started to feel like a different person, one that could speak my mind or push back against fucked up ideas.
Slowly but surely, my old best friend and I began to grow apart. He got increasingly interested in blonde girls and wearing white shirts with jeans, blending in. I was interested in figuring out how to get away with convincing the librarian that I had multiple free periods a day so I could sleep in the library. The classes I did go to, I started talking back in. I berated my French teacher about his Eurocentricism or threw paper at his back every time he turned around and got sent into the hallway (where I wanted to be anyway). I fought with my math teacher about the fundamental assumptions that mathematics is built on. I had grown out of my shy demeanor and felt confident for the first time, but it was more ass than smart.
Amidst reading photocopied pages from my history class in my bag, just as I started wearing grandpa sweaters, I broke up with my boyfriend. I had fights with my mom on the kitchen counter like, the government tried to kill 100,000 black people during Katrina, I will not just go and clean my room! Bratty, yes, misguided, nah. I was sinking in political quicksand, and didn’t have anything to cling to but my anger, with nothing to directly channel it into.
The following semester, Warner made us watch The Matrix in class. I sat with my head in my hands, transfixed at the Sci-Fi film and the transformation of the main character from Thomas Anderson to Neo to The One, going from knowing Jujitsu to dodging bullets to stopping them in mid-air. I didn’t know it then, but I was going through a transformation of my own.
I lived in the school bathroom, biding my time until the end of the day, pouring over a fucked up photocopy of CrimethInc.’s Fighting for Our Lives, whispering to a girl I would later fall in love with: “but who will take out the trash?” We were hopeful and naïve enough to believe in our hearts that the collapse of Empire was imminent, that it was a necessity for everybody to feel whole and loved, for everybody to have our needs met. We traded clothes and shared a locker. She wrote little comics about how she’d never jump into a suit when she turned 25, the way her parents had. She showed me it was okay to hold hands with a girl at lunch, and that the two of us could make out and fall in love and no one would take us seriously. She texted me “I need you” when her and her boyfriend got into a fight, and I got up and walked out of English class without a hall pass or any fucks.
Mr. Anderson stares out the window at the window washer as his boss’ monotone voice breaks his concentration: “You think you’re special, that somehow the rules do not apply to you.”
That February it was brick nipples outside. I played with my handheld buttonmaker during my “free periods,” and was legitimately contemplating getting my GED. Warner took another group of us on a cross country trip from New York to New Orleans. We were accompanied by a bus driver who, at seventeen had escaped foster care and joined the army, only to be deployed as the driver of a flame-throwing vehicle in Vietnam. Over 50 years later, he was driving a gaggle of rowdy teenagers, in a bus owned by a group that had been doing solidarity work in Central America and Cuba for over 20 years. (Me and her called the bus the Nebakanezer, imagined it as the ship floating through the abandoned sewer systems under the Real World.) The driver was a 70-something-old white guy, the kind of person that many on Twitter today would call so problematic. He was a true outlaw, and had more to teach than anybody else I’d ever met, and had endless patience and respect for young people.
In Alabama, we got a flat tire. A young white guy who worked at a roadside car repair shop with his dad, smiled and nodded as he quietly changed the flat to one just a little too big. Warner and the bus driver exchanged lowkey troubled glances, and quickly ushered us back onto the bus. Warner whispered to me that the guy back at the car repair place had probably never seen a group that looked like ours, with black, brown, and white kids sitting together on a bus before. With all deliberate speed, indeed. Over time, the slightly-too-big tire shifted the weight of the bus and in a next couple days, blew out another tire as we drove through Mississippi.
In my junior year, I found Warner curled up in his office. I think he was crying. The principal, the union reps, his colleagues had been berating him about his “methods” for years, but this time they said he’d gone way too far. He had brought another group of students (myself included) to Cuba in disobedience of the travel ban and economic embargo, against the wishes of the Board of Education. (Imagine: Me – the kid with sweaty palms, who would black-out when I was called on in class and never wanted to talk in the debrief meeting, stuttering to a US Customs officer: “On the advice of my attorney I will not answer your questions…”) As a result, he was under investigation and being threatened with massive fines by the federal government. The story was on the front of a major local newspaper, and reporters were urging parents to keep their kids far away from the crazy gay communist teacher.
He straightened up as I walked through the threshold of his classroom in the corner of the basement in the five floor school building. He looked tired, and somehow, all of a sudden, much older. He had stacks of ungraded papers piling up on his desk, but the walls were covered in art that students had gifted him, trophies from several debate championships that the team he coached had won over the years, and “understandings” from various lessons scribbled in marker on construction paper above the blackboard.
“I don’t know how much longer I can take this.” His eyes were puffy and had dark circles under them like he hadn’t slept in months, the psychosis keeping him awake at night. He didn’t look broken, he looked like he didn’t believe in working on the inside, anymore.
By my senior year, Warner was no longer a teacher, at least not in the school system. After a year of intense ridicule and surveillance, agents following him to and from his apartment, he quit his kushy salaried job to move to New Orleans, once and for all. Under the Louisiana homeschool laws, (which were established during desegregation under the pressure of white parents who would rather pull their children out of the school system them have them in classes with black students,) he began teaching young people who had been displaced during Katrina, and only recently returned to their city, which he’s been doing in one form or another ever since he moved.
I stuck it out in school, nearly failing every class every single semester. I don’t know why I stayed, instead of dropping out like Warner did. I suppose I was more afraid of the instability of what awaited me outside of the school system, the responsibility I was only postponing; hovering around in the tunnels, looking for others like me. Maybe I wasn’t ready for the life of an outlaw.
Ever-more optimistic, without a smartphone or a Twitter account, with every step out of the classroom and into the hallway, I learned to question the things they assigned me in textbooks, that was spouted in lectures with me and my friends sitting sideways in those school-chairs, catching glances and fidgeting until the end of class. As me and my friends grew more angry, more disillusioned with the channels of change we were being pointed to, all the shallow forms of student engagement, or being cool, or partying with “hot” girls, all the shit that was being fed to us … we couldn’t just swallow that blue pill like the school wanted us to. We wanted to rip out the asbestos that was growing in all of our classmates minds, that filth that had them so into the path they were headed down, and instead built a life and a learning space that threatened the idea of school itself.
I didn’t call myself an anarchist, or organizer, or even an “activist” at that age, (which I would later, and then not again). The truth of the matter was that I had found my place in the world, and I knew it had to be around other kids like me. If you couldn’t trust adults whatsoever, you had to do shit together to make shit happen for one another. That had to be the new way of life. The administrators threatened us with expulsion; we didn’t stop; they said they’d have our college acceptance rescinded if we continued agitating; we wouldn’t stop. What was happening was clear: these administrators were agents who were just doing their job, upholding power and hundreds of years of bullshit. Our job would then have to be to kick at the sides of that power at every fucking turn.
This is The Truancy Issue. This month, we navigate the hallways of massive, crumbling institutions, searching for kids to unplug. We’ll explore the relationships we build inside places we hate, that want to put us in boxes, to turn us into widgets. We’ll slip notes into one another’s lockers – meet us in the bathroom – and highlight the lives and traditions of those of us carving I hate Mondays into our desks.
Originally published in the “Truancy” issue on May 1, 2016