Day one and I wonder if it’s okay not to write about this.
I go to school and tear up for a few minutes with coworkers. I wonder what to read for devotions and whether I’ll be able to pray anything useful. I settle on the end of Romans 8 simply because the phrase “neither the present nor the future nor any powers” keeps jumping to mind, and I don’t know, maybe God put it there. I open my Bible to that passage and it turns out verse 31 reads “what then, shall we say in response to all of these things?” I start there when the kids come in because yes, I know “these things” are the things Paul was talking about in earlier verses and not the things I’m thinking about, but it’s just so damn poetic to start that way and a good English major never turns down a moment of literary drama. I make it through the passage with only one voice crack. I don’t remember what I prayed.
It’s somehow worked out that I need to finish teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me today. My lesson plan is to ask students to brainstorm what we’ve done in our country recently to heal the divide of racism. It feels like a moot point, now. I do it anyway and then I ask them for more ideas of how we, right here, in our city and school, can help heal the divide. No one mentions The Elephant. It has never felt more like a literal elephant.
I go home and it’s Wednesday, so I log on to Crisis Text Line and start talking with panicked people. There are dozens of them. The queue of people waiting to talk never hits zero. It feels good to be doing something useful, so I talk to three or four of them at a time. Many of them say they’re feeling better after we talk. I bake. Gabe comes over and we grade papers. The mood lifts now and then.
Day two and I wonder if it’s okay not to write about this.
I go to school and block schedule means I’m teaching the same lesson as yesterday. It’s fine. One class today is half white, half everything else. They also don’t talk about The Elephant. One kid is wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat as we discuss what Coates ultimately wants his son (to whom he addresses the book) to know: that slavery will always taint our nation, that its repercussions are still ringing today, and that he needs to “be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.” Someone asks me quietly, out of the blue, whom I voted for. I surprise myself and tell her. She says “me, too” and I remember that some seniors are eighteen. What a time to be alive.
In the evening, I attend a lecture at Calvin with Austin Channing Brown. Her words about being black in a world where white is normal and better are more powerful than anything I’ve heard this week. She cries through several portions. People are nodding and murmuring their assent and we stand up to clap. About a dozen of my students are in the crowd because I promised them extra credit, and I’m so glad I did. I figured the lecture would relate to what we’d been reading in class, but I couldn’t have imagined that it would go hand-in-hand like it does. Austin talks about her black body just like Coates talks about his. She references Coates as one of her inspirations. She has his book on the table in front of her. She says lots of things that I can’t say as a white girl teaching rooms full of mostly white students, and I’m so glad that at least these kids got to hear it.
Afterward in the lobby, they’re excited. They felt smart as they listened, because they knew where she was coming from. They made connections. “That exceeded my expectations,” one says. “I’m so glad I came,” says another. “Will you email me if there are more talks like this? I don’t even want extra credit, I just liked it,” a third says. It’s one of my great triumphs as a teacher so far. I’m on cloud nine as I drive home.
Once there, I go online before bed. I click “Day One in Trump’s America.” I crash land back on earth. I proofread the final version of the post calvin anthology. It’s gorgeous and I feel a surge of love for you all. Leonard Cohen dies. I listen to his gravelly growl. “Ring the bells that still can ring / forget your perfect offering / there is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.” What if the crack is more like a pothole that will break your wheel off? A fissure that’s growing? A fault line so big it could swallow us whole?
Day three and I wonder if it’s okay not to write about this.
I go to school and there are no hats. My eleventh and twelfth graders are starting a research paper about a problem they see with our world, and they choose great things. They’re concerned about mental health awareness and climate change. They want to write about the disproportionate number of men of color who are killed by police or put in jail. I’m encouraged. Then I talk to one who wants to write about reverse racism. The problem she chooses is “we put too much emphasis on race in our country.” I briefly consider going home for the day. Or quitting.
I watch my students perform in Guys and Dolls that night. It’s joyful and silly and I don’t think about anything else for most of the next three hours. My plan was to write when I got home, but I decide to wait until morning. It’s got to be better by then.
Day four and I wonder if it’s okay not to write about this.
I sleep in. I put on my coziest sweatshirt and look out the window for a bit at the first big frost. I make coffee and rummage in the cupboard for my favorite mug. It’s one I bought in England on the day I remember becoming friends with Josh. I open a Snapchat from last night, and his name appears, and I have a little laugh over a funny picture of Ben and Jerry’s flavored beer. I’m feeling good and I’m thinking that maybe it’s okay not to write about it because it’s been three days and the sun is out. But then after Snapchat I tap on that cursed blue F. Every other story is still sad or scared or angry or aching, and I guess I have to write about it. I write this. I write 1,268 words, which is way too many. I wonder how to end. I look for a quote I’ve been remembering scraps of lately. From Steinbeck’s 1938 journal, included in the introduction to Of Mice and Men:
In every bit of honest writing in the world…there is a base theme. Try to understand men. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.
Keep writing, friends. Keep trying to understand.
Abby Zwart (’13) teaches high school English in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spends her free time making lists of books she should read, cooking, and managing the post calvin.