Denying the Verbal Reality

I moonlight as a radio personality. We paint verbal pictures all the time on the air. The listeners visualize us anyway, so we give them something to see. Back in September, we did a Back-to-School tour, which kicked off from my school.* The staff were just as excited as the students to meet James and Alicia; our P.E. teacher told me later he was blown away that James didn’t look like he’d always envisioned.

I also have about three years of improv training. There’s a lot of overlap in skills to radio, especially related to “verbal reality.” In improv, you build a scene by saying things. As soon as you say it, it becomes true. Bob, we really need to do something about the squirrels in the bathroom. Boom. True. Scene started. If the scene partner denies the existence of the squirrels, says they are not in the bathroom but rather in the kitchen, or changes the topic of the scene completely, he or she is a bad bad improviser and no one will want to play with them ever ever again.

It is very important to confirm the verbal reality. It is the foundation of good improv, good radio, and, as you’ll see, good allyship.

My students inhabit the intersection of multiple forms of marginalization: disability, gender, ethnicity, more disability, age, class, language. In this area, we can add religion to the list, as only one of my four students is of the dominant faith (Latter-Day Saints). As their teacher, I reside in a usually comfortable nook of intersecting privilege: I am white, middle class, college educated. I am bilingual, but my first language is English. For the most part, I do not have a disability, although my migraines are straddling that fuzzy line between “chronic” and “disabling.”

This week, I almost spilled that privilege all over one of my kids.

Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Monday was library day. The librarian was reading a book and I was interpreting it, as is our Monday routine. During the story (which was a biography of MLK, of course), the TLK said in his sotto voice I’m black, too. I turned to him, interjected the story with Actually, you’re brown, and kept right on with the story. A page later my brain screamed SLOW THE HECK DOWN, TEACHER LADY! I stopped the librarian. I had just spilled my white teacher privilege all over my student, and I had some mopping up to do.

A slight tangent: my migraines cause aphasia, where sometimes I can’t say what I actually mean to say. My grandmother died with dementia; her words were failing her long before she stopped using them altogether. I work with students whose language is often behind that of their hearing peers and their own cognitive capacity. So I have an unofficial rule: Listen to what I mean, not to what I say.

I assumed my student had a concept gap like he might have in math or science, and that it was my job to correct him. Silly teacher. TLK knew exactly what he meant. I just forgot how to listen. There is a time to correct errors in vocabulary or concept, but this was not that time. And I had just denied his verbal reality.

One of my frustrations as a feminist getting her bearings was when people around me denied the importance of my lived experiences. When #NotAllMen was more important than #YesAllWomen. When their opinions (This conversation about your experience with being bullied and interrupted and talked over by men makes me uncomfortable. I’ve seen a woman do the same thing once, so your statistics about the prevalence of such behavior are invalid.) took up precious real estate in what had been a safe space for me. When I had to police my own tone because my frustration or my anger or my tears made someone with privilege uncomfortable. Now, I still get frustrated, but I know that I can say, Stop talking for just a minute and listen to what I’m trying to say. Stop telling me that your opinion supersedes my lived reality. Stop denying the existence of my squirrels, Bob!!!

At a festival this summer, I was trying to have a conversation with a man who kept interrupting me, steamrolling what I was trying to say. He was trying to tell me things about the band that was playing. The thing is, I sell merch for that band, and at the time of that conversation, had been selling merch for over a year. I know all the songs; I can play some of the songs on my ukulele. I’m not an expert, but I know the band. Even though he was just repeating the same thing over and over, and I was standing there selling the stuff, he wouldn’t let me say anything. I looked him in the eye and said, Ok. Now it’s my turn. 

My students don’t know they can say that yet.

So I slowed down. I stopped. I did what I should always do when my students speak up and need an ally: I asked TLK what he meant. He meant is family isn’t white. They’re Mexican. His skin is dark. And most of the people in their apartment building aren’t white either. And outside of school, his friends aren’t white. And mom and dad’s friends aren’t white.

That’s what he meant with his almost-whispered I’m black, too.

And I almost missed it.

*Yeah, that was totally my idea. I produced that show. Putting Deaf kids on the radio was a lot more successful than you would probably think. It was awesome. We did subsequent shows from the alternative high school, the alternative middle school, and another alternative junior/senior high about 30 miles away. Flipping the power, handing the mic to the kids. It was a month for the underdogs, who came right out and said, “I wanted to talk to you guys so people know we’re good kids who just don’t fit anywhere.” So sometimes I do know how to listen… I’m a work in progress.


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