Teaching as a Form of Self-Care
I slept straight through election night.
The next morning after learning the results I called my youngest daughter before her father took her to school. She’s a sensitive child; the kind of sensitive we don’t see often in the world anymore. I did not want to tell her that her candidate lost the election, but I didn’t want her to hear it from anyone else. As she processed my words, I heard her choke up. The more she tried to fight her tears, the harder she sobbed and when I asked why she was crying she said, “Because Donald Trump is not going to take care of our country. He’s not going to take care of us.”
After I hung up, I walked into work— a classroom filled with high school students enrolled in my college composition course. Eleven young ladies, five young men, all Muslim. Sixteen of the brightest minds I’ve ever had the privilege of teaching. They were and are teenagers eager to learn and conquer the fundamentals several years before most of them will graduate high school. I felt an overwhelming sense of fear and dread. For them and for me. For us. For all marginalized people.
That morning the parking lot attendant, a man I would have mistaken for a black American, waved hello to me for the first time. Two of my students greeted me as I reached the stairs. This had never happened before; they weren’t even allowed to loiter outside.
“Professor Towns! Sister! Did you hear? Donald Trump won the election!”
In the months prior to the election I returned to the classroom for the first time in over a year. I had taken the assignment as a personal trial. I needed to explore the ways in which teaching was beneficial to me. I needed to determine if I had any passion left for the career I’d invested my life in.
A few weeks into the semester I’d brought in a poem to discuss for a journal writing exercise. It was my attempt to bring some creative pieces into our creative-less curriculum. The poem was a piece about the schism that sometimes exists between parents and children. Prior, my students had been very dignified and polite. Imagine, whenever I asked how they spent their weekends they’d assure me they’d studied and done not much more. [Beautiful little fibbers.] Sometimes I’d catch the eye of one young lady in the room—the freest spirit in the room. I knew she had not spent the entire weekend studying and her eyes seem to confirm though she never said a word.
I brought in the poem and the students read and re-read the piece and fell silent. The conversation started slowly. From the left side of the room (where the girls sat) a few students chimed in about how they thought it was a good poem and not much more. With a little push, they formally analyzed the poem and highlighted literary devices (this was not expected). The discussion continued this way right up until I asked the class to clarify the ways in which they could identify with the poem. Not long after, the proverbial dam broke and the flood gates were never closed.
In the months following the election they talked more than ever. Cultural expectations. Racism. Education. Teen angst. Palestine. War. Grey’s Anatomy. Walls. Eventually the conversation was not restricted to journaling. Each Monday and Wednesday the class came alive with discussion whenever the opportunity presented itself. On many occasions, one student or another would touch my shoulder or call my name and we’d iron out assignment details. Then they’d unexpectedly share some part of their truth, some piece of them they wanted to introduce to me.
Before the semester ended, they drew pictures and wrote nice messages for me in Arabic on the board and talked me into having a classroom celebration to wrap up the semester. From this celebration on my desk.
Without knowing it, all of my reservations and apprehension subsided. These young people helped me understand what I was doing and, more importantly, why I was doing it. I teach because teaching helps me take care of me. This is self-care. I find peace in helping my students prepare for the next phase of their lives. I need to feel connected to spaces where there is growth and purpose. It is especially necessary to my survival during these trying times.
Qiana Towns is a resident of Flint, Michigan and a graduate of Central Michigan University and Bowling Green State University. She is a 2016-17 artist in residence at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor’s University Musical Society. Her most recent poetry work appears in the Harvard Review online.