[Spring has sprung! After a long hiatus due to technological challenges with my old website, I’m pleased to announce the restart of my blog and the debut of my new website, at the very same www.moraleswrites.com.]
A Tiger in the House
I’m teaching a writing workshop at a local middle school this spring, a collaboration with 3D artist Nicki Werner. Nicki and I were leading a brainstorming session on Thursday, trying to get the 7th and 8th graders to produce some possible themes and forms for the collective sculpture the class will be making.
The overarching topic of the workshop is one of place — how do we change the places we spend time in and how do they change us — so Nicki and I came up with a list of what we thought were provocative questions: Where do you have influence? What do you wish you could change about our community? What should adults be talking to you about that they aren’t? Where do you wish you had more power?
“Subway,” says the queen bee of the class.
Nicki’s taking notes on the board. “You mean the sandwich place? You wish you had more power at Subway?” she asks. We are both hoping she means something about city transit, some necessary infrastructure.
But no, Queen Bee means the sandwich place.
“Target,” says another girl.
“The mall,” says a third.
The classroom teacher says to them, “I think you’re going to have to dig a little deeper than that. What about some of the news stories we read in class yesterday. What issues came up?”
Another girl, who usually speaks so quietly you have to lean in to hear her, says directly, “I read about a man who raised a tiger in his house and his neighbors were really upset.”
We push for a moment more on deeper issues and wrench out “litter” and “deportation of immigrants,” but we are interrupted by a voice over the intercom: “Teachers, Code Red.” Then, “This is a drill.”
Within seconds the classroom door is locked and all 25 middle schoolers, two teachers, Nicki, and I are crammed into the art room supply closet. At ages 12 and 13, they know the Code Red routine: Into the closet, remain silent, hope the shooter will pass by, thinking no one is there.
The kids are restless. A couple students try to ask questions and are shushed. A boy in the corner takes off his silicone wristband, given to him by a recruiter from a local Catholic high school, and begins flicking it nervously. The English teacher silences him with a quick grip. When the class clown makes a face behind his thick glasses, his classmates lose their composure. The art teacher makes him turn to face the shelves full of colored paper and boxes of glue and tape.
The only true silence they manage is when we hear the door handle being tried. Although we know it’s just an administrator checking that the lockdown procedures have been complied with, the students are rigid, eyes wide. For a few seconds, they show how much they understand why we are in here.
When the voice over the intercom gives us the all-clear, telling the staff, “You may now resume instruction,” I almost laugh. The students had received plenty of instruction during our time in the storage closet.
On our way out of the closet, I say to Nicki, “Well, at least now the students will have a real issue to bring up when we get back to brainstorming.”
But they didn’t. In spite of the fact that we had just collectively played dead in practice for not getting shot and then returned to our seats to “resume instruction” without further comment, the students had nothing to add. Nothing they wish adults would talk with them about. Nowhere they wish they had more power.
“Oh, come on,” I say, trying one last time to cajole them into a substantive discussion. “Maybe something that is much more likely to affect your life than, say, a neighbor raising a tiger in his house?”
Nicki writes “school violence” on the whiteboard out of sheer obviousness and says, “Well, keep thinking of ideas for next time.”
Today, reflecting on the Code Red and the silence, I realize that maybe the tiger the neighbor is raising in his house is the biggest problem these kids are facing after all.