The Most Important Teacher In My Life

I remember not starting to read The Night is Dark and I Am Far From Home until the night before the day it was due. Around nine p.m. I made a pot of coffee and sat down with my coursepack-printed version of this out-of-print book. Staying up until three in the morning was standard for me, and I looked forward to the quiet of our living room on Lawrence Street. As I read, I became more and more agitated and more and more awake. The coffee was nice but not necessary. I devoured the book in one sitting, angry, excited, moved.

I remember the beautiful blonde wood and the echo-y, old feel of the Perry Building (I am almost certain that is what it was called) where English 319 met. I always loved having the chunk of time set aside at the beginning of class to discuss with a partner whatever we’d read, in part because I loved being able to go off exploring the building. LaShaun and I partnered up for that day’s discussion, and we sat on a sunny window ledge and talked. I remember the discussion was friendly, engaged, but I wasn’t yet starting to feel riled up.

It wasn’t until we all reconvened to discuss, that my hackles started to raise. I described the book in my journal as an “absolutely inspiring and totally frustrating” read. I wrote that it was “making me re-examine myself and my life” and “really shaking me up.” So then, here I was feeling so emotionally engaged with this book, especially because I had just decided to become a teacher, and I felt that we were “having this really…safe discussion of it. And I became so frustrated, and I raised my hand and voiced this in this totally inarticulate and frustrated and near-tears-voice-quavering way because it was this totally safe discussion about a book about revolution: we were sitting in our class in an expensive university, politely discussing revolution.” I wanted to “be all frustrated with everyone else, but I didn’t feel like I could. And I felt so safe, and talking about middle-class high school experiences—no matter how oppressive—was still really, really dancing around everything, and why weren’t we jumping into the the class issues and why weren’t we talking about being hypocrites sitting in a classroom politely discussing this book which, in not so few words, calls for revolution?”

Buzz’s response in my journal in part said, “Anywhere you are, there is work to be done, ways to deepen your commitments, connections to be made, anywhere…It’s important to be unsafe and to be secure in being unsafe…”

At the time, I felt grateful for these words, but I didn’t know how much they would continue to be relevant in my life and my work.

I became a teacher, and for years I struggled with not feeling very good at my work. I student taught in Detroit under a terribly racist master teacher, and I cried nearly every day because I knew that the little bit I was giving these poor Black kids wouldn’t ever be enough to undo years of miseducation and poverty. I taught in East Palo Alto, where I was fired at the end of my first year of teaching because I had given the kids too much freedom in publishing zines. I nearly gave up on education at that point, but so much of what I cared about felt connected to being in the classroom. So I found a good fit: a large, comprehensive high school in San Francisco where I am supported by my administration and inspired by my colleagues. It took me years to feel like I knew what I was doing, and even now I still feel like “there is work to be done.” I finally feel secure in all the ways I struggle as a teacher: I don’t feel like that struggle is indicative of failure but rather of engaging with all the big questions about what being an educator in this country truly means: How do I inspire true freedom in my students while holding them to authentically high expectations? How do I create a sense of righteousness within a discipline framework without becoming an authoritarian so that kids feel safe? And how do I help students feel secure in being unsafe in all the important ways?

I became a teacher very much because of Buzz, his courses, and Jonathan Kozol. Years later, I had a chance to meet Kozol at the Teachers For Social Justice conference that happens every year in San Francisco. I had him sign my book, my coursepack copy of The Night is Dark…, and when I told him it had been required reading for the most important teacher in my life, he knew right away who the teacher was who’d assigned it.

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