DUST BOWELS AND SISTER-IN-LOGS: WHERE PUNK AND TEACHING COLLIDE
Today a kid laid this joke on me with the deadly seriousness usually reserved for political assassins:
KID: Guess what planet is closest to you.
ME: Listen, I know where this is going.
ME: Got it, thanks.
I work at an elementary school. I’m a teacher at an afterschool literacy program. I’ve been doing it – in some form, at various schools and through various nonprofits – for over a decade. It’s a cool part-time job that allows me enough maneuvering room to do my other hustles, and on good days, it’s almost ridiculously rewarding and fun. The kids are sweet and hilarious and good-hearted. I walk out the school doors feeling like I added more to the world than I took away. It rules.
Then, you know, there’s days like today.
Days like today, when we’re understaffed and my classroom is writhing with a dozen or more first graders who’ve been in school all day and are about to go entirely Lord of the Flies on me and every single classroom management trick I’ve ever learned in ten or twelve years of doing this just doesn’t seem to work, and this kid is crying and this other kid is yelling into this kid’s ear, and this other kid is trying to insert a marker into a nostril that clearly doesn’t belong to him, and what the hell happened? One of my biggest strengths is getting kids to adhere to a structured classroom and still have fun – to be, for the most part, quiet and calm. So it’s weird to have those bad days where shit is just bananas and it’s like a perfect storm of big personalities in little bodies all in collusion and everything you’ve learned just isn’t quite enough to actually teach them anything.
Some days – thankfully not that many of them, but there are some – you just think, Okay, fine. At least they’re safe and having a good time and their parents are able to work.
At times, that’s what it comes down to. Sometimes I just provide childcare. I prefer it the other way – when we get to learn stuff, and read books, and work on projects – but sometimes on those shitty days I’m just a body keeping someone’s kid safe.
It is what it is.
2nd grader wrote a story about a guy with water superpowers that helped fight crime in the "Dust Bowel." And another wrote one about his many travails trying to escape from the "hot lovah" that kept chasing him. Neither one of em quite got why I was laughing so hard.
I get asked sometimes about reconciling punk with teaching. Like how I correlate the precepts of punk into my teaching style or whatever. And the answer is, what regular people would probably consider “punk” doesn’t remotely inform how I hang out with kids. I mean, how could it?
It’s not like I’m teaching kids about anarchy, or whatever. Seriously – the last thing I want is some second grader acting out the equivalent of “Fuck Authority” or something. The majority of people at my work are five to ten years old. It is sometimes a sizeable accomplishment when some of them manage to make it to the bathroom in time. So when we’re talking about rules at an elementary school, and authority, and hierarchy, I’m all for it, to be honest.
Here’s the thing. I came of age in the ‘90s. Cut my teeth on punk of that era. The notion of “selling out” at the time was heated, divisive. There were lines, you know? It was also a notable time for the fact that while you couldn’t swing a chain wallet without hitting a pop punk band singing about girlfriends and heartache, there was also an adamantly serious, political (and admittedly sometimes dour and joyless) hardcore movement going on. I had a foot in both streams. But I identified a lot more with hardcore and the “hyper-PC” aspect of it.
In retrospect, decades later, there were times that we overreacted. That hyper-vigilance translated sometimes into a seriousness that could be cloying and eventually bordered on a kind of black-and-white absolutism of its own. But. It was an invaluable process of self-discovery. I learned so many lessons from the “uber-PC” era of punk and hardcore that absolutely influence my teaching today. Because they influence everything, you know? They inform how I walk through the world.
So I assisted another teacher in her class today, and you know those trust walks? Where you blindfold a bunch of second graders and put them in a conga line and have them walk around? Well, one blindfolded kid threw up on another blindfolded kid's back and, and, MY GOD I JUST LOVE MY JOB SOME DAYS.
Screenprinted LPs brought me to songs that brought me to liner notes that brought me to books that brought me to ideas. Shows and zines and 7”s stuffed with typewritten inserts taught me about the insidiousness of sexism, how multifaceted it is. How quiet, peer-to-peer, stay-in-your-lane gender-reinforcement can be brutally effective, and how early it starts. (You ever need to be reminded of that, hang out in a classroom for five minutes.) I learned about how nefarious and deeply ingrained racism is. Trans- and homophobia. Classism. And how I’m personally still entirely capable of enacting all of that stuff without even catching myself sometimes. All of it, I learned because the personal is political and how we walk through the day has political ramifications whether we want to believe that or not. That’s something punk taught me. I’m incredibly grateful for it.
The kids in my class seem to be doing okay, enough so that I had to inform some of the 4th grade boys that, you know, "Rock, Paper, Ballsack" was not an appropriate game to either play or bellow at school.
So that’s how punk influences my teaching style. In small, quiet ways. Not facile, not meaningless, but quiet. In reminding kids that “like a girl” shouldn’t be an insult. That learning is worth something for its own sake. Gently pointing out the fallacy of ragging on a kid because of class, and the notion of how fucked class is in and of itself. Of bringing passion and fun to what you’re doing. Teaching with joy and lots of really bad puns. Having clear expectations that students treat each other with dignity – which can be tough for a seven year-old who’s been in school for so many hours that she mostly just wants to roll around on the carpet.
But yeah. It’s those very basic ideals that punk has taught me; they’re the things that I pass on to the little hilarious dorks I hang out with. And it’s not even intentional, it’s just part of me, the way I talk to them. The example that I hopefully set when we sit down in a circle at the beginning of class and we all start learning stuff.
Today a 2nd grader was bummed because she was riding to the coast tonight and would have to sit in the back of the car for TWO HOURS with her "sister-in-log."
When I asked her where the term "sister-in-log" came from, she shrugged and said, "I don't know. You have to sit in a log together because you have the same dad but different moms?"