Language of the Unheard

I found I needed a way to think about vandalism and violence at school. My instincts toward fear and anger didn’t work. These feelings separated me from students, making me suspicious and defensive, creating a distance between us instead of the openness needed for teaching and learning.

And, strangely, what helped me most was thinking of vandalism and violence as miniscule versions of the 1967 riots. I was a kid then, living in Flint, Michigan, one of the sites of the more than 150 urban disturbances that broke out during that “long hot summer.” I remembered what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. later said—that a riot doesn’t develop out of thin air and that a riot is the language of the unheard.

So at school, when I saw words I didn’t even want to think about etched into desktops, when we huddled in a darkened classroom because of a gun in the school, when protest graffiti was painted on walls, and when I tried to break up a fist fight in the hall, I tried to turn my mind to this question: Why?

“Seek to understand why those individuals have taken to the streets,” King had said. And though I don’t like or condone violence and though I believe violence and vandalism in school deserve consequence, still I tried to understand—what were the messages behind the vandalism and violence? What had I failed to hear in my classroom? What had we failed to hear in our school system? In our town?

Some students, I learned held grudges against the in-groups, who they felt excluded them and against teachers who favored those in-groups over them. Some students were bored, feeling that the school didn’t give them opportunities to learn what they wanted to learn in ways they needed to learn. And some students were angry because of what was happening at home. These students saw school as an enemy, not as a place where they were included and valued. In these students, I could see despair that linked to anger and then to action.

And though I never found magic answers, I noticed a handful of ways to make a space for disenfranchised students, to hear from them, to open two-way, not one-way, communication:

  • A graffiti wall: An art teacher in our school turned a long hallway into a venue for graffiti art. And students used this wall to ask for social change, to express their feelings, to express their creativity.
  • Two simple words: I discovered the words “tell me.” When I wanted to connect with a student who had been aggressive, these words worked. They invited communication without condemning connotations. These two simple words helped me reach students.
  • A book: S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders is a coming-of-age novel that describes the conflict between two groups in a town: the lower-class Greasers and the well-to-do Socials. Hinton, who was seventeen years old when The Outsiders was published, shows the grittiness of conflict but also points toward hope. “Stay gold,” my students said to each other after reading the book.
  • Journals: When I gave students a chance to write about what was important to them—and without censure or editing—I understood them better and I found bridges toward them.
  • School breakfasts: When I’m hungry, I’m not nice—and neither are students. I noticed a change in the emotional climate of our school when all students were invited to free breakfast every morning. In class, students were not distracted by hunger. And in hallways their blood sugar levels were high enough to give them a chance at walking away from a fight, not throwing the first punch.

We can, and should, use cameras in school hallways, have consequences for destructive behavior, and clean away offensive graffiti. But we should also pay attention—listen for language that is not often heard.

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