The end of the 2019-2020 school year was, to say the least, unconventional; to say the most, it was awful! Community building is a huge part of my classroom environment and “office hours” via Zoom meetings just don’t compare with the face-to-face, one-on-one interactions we have while physically at school. The anxiety we all felt while watching the daily press conferences about the novel coronavirus invading our world, our country, our state, and our city could not be collectively shared and dealt with. We had to rely on words sent through routers and the cloud and Zoom calls to convey our feelings and our fears.
Sometimes writers get it right. Jason Reynolds, Laurie Frankel, James Baldwin, Zadie Smith, Earnest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Erik Larson, Angie Thomas: they do that for me. They bring words to life in my mind, in my heart, in my psyche. I FEEL something when I read their words. As a teacher of English literature, language, and composition, I want my students to FEEL the power of words as I do when I read them.
Sometimes the recommended reading in our curriculum does that. Certain passages in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby can evoke the feeling of desperation in the reader that both Gatsby and Daisy feel because their love is forever doomed. Similarly certain passages of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird can evoke the feeling of frustration in the reader that Scout feels when confronted with the injustice of the charges brought against Tom Robinson.
But sometimes it takes a rap lyric to evoke the same feelings of desperation my students are experiencing as they witness peaceful protests being met with police in riot gear. And sometimes it takes a YA novel about police brutality written by a young black woman to evoke the same feeling of frustration my students feel at the injustice of seeing yet another black body abused or killed by white police officers.
Writing, while not as personal as face-to-face contact, can evoke FEELINGS that turn to action that lead to change. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this and used it to fuel action by blacks and whites during the Civil Rights movement. James Baldwin also knew this and used it to spark conversations around the globe about the position—and potential—of blacks. Ibram X. Kendi knows this and is using it to educate us on the impossibility of racial neutrality. Robin DiAngelo knows this and using it to define and destroy white fragility based on the socialization of white supremacist ideas.
My hope for my students is that they recognize the power the pen holds. And that this power has helped create the feelings that prompt people to take notice and change their thinking. And that these feelings can fuel change. And that they can, with practice, write words that evoke feelings that might make this world a little less scary or that might fuel change that will make this world a little more safe. I hope that they realize their written words can feel like that soul warming hug I so desperately want to give them right now.
~ Cassie Coggburn, Westerville South High School