When I visit a class to teach, it seems like there’s never enough time. There’s so much—SO MUCH—that I feel like young people need to know about. There’s so much that these kids aren’t going to learn anywhere else if they don’t learn it from me. I hit them with a ton of information every time, and every single point or topic or issue I discuss is like the tip of the iceberg.
Life, history, people—these are complex topics. They resist categorization of any kind by all but the most disingenuous. To give a presentation is to tell a story, and you have to construct the narrative carefully. What do I include? What do I leave out? There are always time constraints. There are always constraints on what I can talk about. I don’t have the chance to get to know students as individuals, or find ways to relate what I’m talking about directly to their lives. I have to speak in generalities. But there’s always more. There’s always more.
This past week I did a series of presentations at a charter high school in San Francisco. I was invited there by an english teacher, to his 12th grade classes, to present information that would relate to the themes they’re studying: identity, art, and society. I did what I do: take the veil off the matrix, talk about all the institutions that we don’t think about or question. But there’s never enough time! I worked with three different groups of students, I had a total of 3 hours with each group. NOT ENOUGH.
I want to give them the keys, show them the doors. I didn’t come here for money—I came here on my Harriet Tubman: to free slaves. The bell rings, I have a moment of panic. There’s so much more I need to tell them. So much more they need to know. I have to be satisfied with this: for the first time since I started teaching workshops, I leave them with a reading list. My favorite books. “If you read all the books on this list, your entire way of thinking, your entire experience of reality will change. You will never be the same. Consider yourself warned.”
There’s a phrase that came into vogue sometime during the corporate ecstasy era of the late 80’s and early 90’s: “think outside of the box.” They love that phrase. But here’s the thing—you can think inside of the box, you can think outside of the box, but what you are never ever supposed to do is think about the box. It is not supposed to be questioned. I go into classes and I say, here’s the box. In all the time I’ve been teaching, the students respond entirely positively. In all that time, all teachers, with one exception, have likewise responded entirely positively. People are hungry for this.
“You can’t escape the desire
to break out of the matrix—
it come written in the DNA”
–from Supreme Anarch
Time is always limited. All the more so in a classroom setting, in a compulsory schooling institution. Real education means pursuing knowledge and/or skill without boundaries, including time boundaries imposed from outside. On the first day with the third group, I was in the midst of telling my version of the story of hip hop culture—which, if I may, is way more interesting and deep than any other version I’ve ever heard; I was motivated by boredom and frustration with typical narratives to create it—and we ran out of time.
All of the students had to leave to go to another class. When I saw that same group the second time, I used that incident as part of my discussion of the pathology of compulsory schooling—I asked them, by show of hands, if there were no consequences, who would’ve rather stayed and listened to the rest of my presentation instead of going to whatever other class they had. Every hand went up. Every hand—Even the bored and cynical looking kid slouched in a chair in the back of the room.
A young woman asks me, “Why aren’t you a teacher?” I tell her I am a teacher. But I know what she means—she means a classroom teacher. My answer, brief and diplomatic—I hated school the first time through, why would I go back to work there? Everyone laughs. But the truth is much more complex. How do I explain to her in five or twenty or ninety minutes why it is that I can’t teach the way I want to teach, and students can’t learn the way learning is supposed to happen, within the boundaries of a state institution? How do I explain that this place, this system is designed to prevent learning? Only the most heroic efforts of the most dedicated teachers deliver anything resembling education within that system.
I tell a young Salvadoran boy, a middle-schooler, about indigenous people and spanish conquest. His eyes are wide. “Can you be my history teacher?” he asks me.
A young man who shares my name and my interest in rapping is taking notes on everything I say. He asks me questions, searches for clarification, after the class period has ended. He’s skipping another class to see my presentation.
A young man asks me if I will be his friend.
A young woman asks me if she can give me a copy of her zine—she did the art, her boyfriend wrote the poems. I enthusiastically accept. I read the poems on the train headed home, the words of this young man who at twelve years old turned to selling drugs to help his mom pay the rent. Tears burn my eyes. I look on the back of the zine: it was produced as part of the youth program at the organization where the love of my life works, the woman I have not seen or spoken with in eight months. Her name is on the back of it, as art director. Tears burn my eyes, again.
A young woman, and another, and a young man, and another… All ask me, “Are you coming back?” When I tell them no, their disappointment is palpable. It breaks my heart.
Ninja. Disappear in a cloud of smoke.