I like to start each new school year with a game. It’s called “Yes” and it involves students standing in a circle, asking for permission to move across the circle and take someone’s place. It’s a cycle of saying “yes” and my hope is that the idea of assent carries over to discussion. As the players improve at the game, I up the intensity. I have students toss a heavy, imaginary bowling ball across the circle. They practice saying yes by catching the imaginary bowling ball in a way that suggests that they’ve “yessed” its imaginary weight. Then we blow a feather across the circle while the bowling ball is circulating, and finally I pull a “lizard” from my pocket and send it scampering to a classmate.
The students are usually having fun by the time the game is in full sway, but they often forget the heft of the bowling ball, the speed of the feather, and the path of the lizard. Someone inevitably drops a bowling ball, the feather is most often lost, and the lizard is almost always squashed. It’s ok. It IS imaginary after all.
But yesterday, I pulled the lizard out of my pocket and sent him to Noah*. Noah waited patiently for the lizard to arrive at his feet, where he gently scooped it into his hands and gave the reptile a gentle little kiss.
For the rest of the game, everyone followed Noah’s example, and they were tender with the little beast. For the first time in the game’s history, the lizard survived the game–everyone made sure not to tread on him.
This year, my students read Between the World and Me for summer homework. It is a book that discusses the black experience, and it’s not shy or glib in discussing the realities of oppression. It’s a scary book to teach as a white, privileged teacher from the ‘burbs. So I nervously unveiled a plan for the students to teach this book themselves–by creating an assembly for the school on the themes of the book.
I expected nervousness, and even abject terror. I expected dissenters and whiners.
I did not expect the students to say, “Can we invite the press‽ Everyone needs to see this!”
“Yeah! We need to get buzzfeed in on this!”
“This needs to go viral!”
I had black students with tears in their eyes patiently, but urgently explaining to white students why this assembly mattered on a very personal level, and how it would mean everything to them that all students engage in the challenging work ahead–even if that meant disagreeing with one another on occasion. I had two openly conservative students tell me that, yeah, they were nervous, but they wanted to do their best for their classmates’ sake. I had students that had never spoken hugging it out at the end of class. I’m watching all of this and I’m thinking about how gently they all handled that lizard.
The internet sometimes makes me feel like the world has just decided to be a cruel, careless, obstinate echo chamber. It’s easy to forget about the human behind the keyboard and lump them into a political paradigm. But in my new group of students, I saw a care for all creatures great and small, real or imaginary.
I am daily reminded that my goal of changing the world as a teacher was silly and self-serving. But if my students can nurture an imaginary lizard, they can also show the world the gentle, loving attention it seems to need so desperately right now. I might not be able to change the world, but man-oh-man, will they.