Go With Me

I have, for a long time, identified as a teaching writer, not a writing teacher. Because the word “teaching” is an adjective, I put writing in its proper place in my identity, as the noun. Language helps shape who I am, how I feel.   My identity is as a teaching writer, as a literary artist, no matter how poorly I exercise that artistry.  That statement will make more sense by the end of this.  Go with me on this.

In light of the election, how is that helpful? Here’s a true story.

We are gathered in a circle on our wheelie chairs, 12 students, four adults.  These are my students at an arts academy where I am teaching a one-shot short course in playwriting.  We have been together two hours a day, two days a week for six weeks. We have developed characters, we have drafted a script, we are starting to see how it might be produced. I think we like each other.  We adults have asked the students how they are doing on this, the first day after election day.  They seem morose; they seem lost. They seem, as we are, deeply worried.

Susan, our set designer and a sculptor, talks to them about art as a subversive act. That art can be a way for them to come to terms with this; it can be a way to broaden horizons, because art is what they do.  They are quiet.  They are not quite with us.

We become more direct. Niki asks: How are you feeling.

Scared, scared, scared.  Three of them hold hands.  Of the three holding hands, one is Thai international, one is Cherokee in transition (from female to male), one is white, also in transition.  Among the others, one is bi, one is gay, one is trying to figure it out.  They are bright—a few are brilliant. They are all generally kind, generally hard-working, opinionated, funny, eager, quirky, often silly, tousled, sometimes-in-need-of-a-shower secondary students.  Some have pink hair, or maybe blue this week. Some have tattoos and piercings.  Some have creatively decorated their uniforms in such a way that there is no general sense of uniformity.   They all understand that this election effects their future.

Their stories begin. Stories of how they will feel now when they walk out into the city, of what will go wrong if the rights for LGBTQ people go away. Some girls worry about the right to have control over their own bodies.  Some ask if their international friends will go home. They all feel scared that hate crimes will be overlooked or even legalized. One even explains what happens to her family if the stocks crash.  The stories continue, tumbling out.  I can feel the anxiety rising in the room.  I know how this goes.  After a while, I interrupt them and explain what I am seeing.  Yes, these are real reactions; yes, some of these things could happen, but you can sit and escalate your fear by telling each other terrible stories, or you can think how to make art that helps people understand you better.  You can plan ways to respond that will invite broader thinking, that will educate people in new ways.  They are quiet. I didn’t mean to chastise them, but I know that the group terror will take away their sleep, their ability to do their good work at all.  It has done so to my own ability.

After a while, Carey (not his real name), my transitioning Native American student, sortof agrees, but he takes the thinking one practical, and critical, step further.  In his articulate way, he says, “The rhetoric that man used set a tone in the whole country.  What that man says, and the way he says it, gives permission for other people to pick on me. I am afraid to use a public bathroom because someone may now feel even more free to beat me up, and that person’s anger or hate at my difference gets projected on me, and then… maybe… he kills me.”  I stop talking, sit back, and think.  Yes, for all my need to move this conversation in another direction, that’s exactly how it works.  People who believe language doesn’t mean anything, who let other people talk like Trump has, over and over, don’t know psychology as well as this sixteen- year old who faces every day the fact that his identity offends some people.  He faces squarely that the language our leaders are permitted is the language, over time, that influences and permeates many people’s response to him as an individual. That language gives permission for people to ignore civil discourse and move toward harassment and hate behavior. And he knows that the “tone” of language effects both attitude and behavior toward him personally. This young person who identifies as male even though he was born biologically female, knows first-hand that language counts every time he gently asks that people use “male” pronouns when referring to him rather than female pronouns. The ironies are not lost on anyone.  Why shouldn’t he be scared?

It’s my turn to be quiet. Even if we make art, does it make a difference?

Does it?  I don’t have an answer.  I believe in empathy and compassion so I ask people who read this to see, in their minds eye, these students.  I ask that we see these young people who happen to be incredibly diverse, incredibly unique, incredibly fine young human beings.  I ask that my friends and family who may have voted for the man who will ascend to the White house, this man who denigrates women (and so many others of difference), I ask you to see my students, to respect and defend them and their rights to be who they are. I am not manipulating you when I ask that you see the fear in Carey’s eyes, how he twists his hands, or clings momentarily to his friend, who, tears in her eyes, clings back.  This fear is real and active.  This is, in part, the result of language, and language, spoken in truth or in hatred, reflects our identities.

In that classroom, Frank, the music maker, finally shifts the mood and asks them to sing with him.  He teaches them an old Moondog song.  It’s in 5/4 time, a difficult rhythm, but haunting.  One of our young women sits on the boxdrum, beating it out.  The line of the song is, “Be a hobo and go with me, from Hobogen to the sea.”  He teaches it, me thinking about the oddity and rightness of asking us to sing such a new and erratic rhythm, to be hobos, a kind of perverse acknowledgment of being wanderers in this time.  We all stand and sing, and then he teaches the round.  The lines make a beautiful meandering sound.  We get two or three parts going in the round, and then it drifts off.  One of the students ends off key, “…and go with me.”