I stood in the center of the gallery and turned to face each of its four walls. I’d spent the morning with a handful of students and the gallery director, covering the walls with a roll of brown paper and carefully measuring, marking off, and numbering squares for our project: The Poetry Block.
The idea emerged months before in a meeting between myself and my fellow collaborators from Georgetown College and local arts agencies. Under the helm of the gallery director, we’d gathered to plan Word and Image Week, a celebration of art, poetry, letterpress printing, and all the mixed-media gradations between. The idea for The Poetry Block came in a simple but brilliant question from the Art Department chair: What if we let people draw and write on the gallery walls? Within minutes, a workable – and gallery-safe – plan for an interactive public poetry and art project emerged, and I exited the meeting thrilled by possibility.
Later, that thrill turned to worry. In early February, an incident involving an unthinkable racial slur ignited racial tensions across campus. Soon, other tensions which had long been smoldering began to burn. The majority of the student body seemed poised for a series of open dialogues on equality; however, there were others who were not ready, who instead continued to fuel the fires. Events escalated; the administration, who later publicly admitted that they were slow to react to the crisis, increased the police presence on campus and called an assembly. They also requested that the students and faculty no longer use class time to mention or discuss the incident, to avoid further fanning the rising flames.
While I understood the administration’s policies and appreciated the difficult need to stop fires before they started, I couldn’t help but worry about the implication of this decision: that open and productive dialogue on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and religious beliefs is, at the least, dangerous, and at worst impossible.
And, though I hoped, standing in the gallery that Tuesday morning with the blank papered walls facing me, that The Poetry Block would offer a safe space for the students to speak, I worried:
Was opening such a space to anonymous public commentary dangerous?
Was it possible to spark such a discussion without tempers rising into flames?
And how would the students and faculty react to the results, either positive or negative?
What I saw when I entered the gallery the next day was better than I ever could have imagined.
In the squares students questioned what had happened on campus: “Diversity has boundaries? Ignore ance.” They admitted their faults: “I cause my own damage. I don’t know enough.” They showed their strengths: “Someone who loves, cares, and creates peace: this is me.” They asked essential questions: “How do we create happiness?” and “Who are you to judge?” They offered answers: “A hypocrite!”
They argued that censorship is a form of control that forces conformity; in one drawing, a student showed this by X-ing out what “we” want for what “they” want. They wrote of how open communication – both in terms of speaking and hearing – is a basic human need: “I just want to be heard / Someone reach out to me!” And they stated the truth behind it all: “All we want to do is love. All we want is to be loved.”
It was the last statement which struck me the most.
In the end, my worries were unfounded – what seemed to upset the students most was the fact that they weren’t allowed a space in which they could speak and thereby learn more about themselves and others, in which they could work through their misunderstandings and misguided actions their own way. What upset them most, in the end, is that they were not trusted.
This moment of realization profoundly affected my own teaching practice. In my experience, trust in the classroom can be difficult, particularly when it means trusting students to speak and work and reach their own revelations, their own ways. It means, for the teacher, releasing a little bit of control and allowing possibility – which, before the Poetry Block, I feared would cause chaos – to appear in the classroom. It means allowing the students the space to do what they need to do, to learn how they need to learn, which is not always how I as a teacher have planned a lesson. I learned that, though the act of letting go and trusting my students may be frightening, in the end, both they and I will learn more if I allow them the space to speak.