Starting With What You Know ...
“Start with what you know to learn what you don’t know.
Start with where you’re at to get to where you want to go.”
That’s the motto we work by in Students at the Center (SAC), the school/community-based writing program a few students and I started in the late 1990’s.
I must confess, however, that I often drop the motto’s second line. Maybe my 20 years as a classroom teacher has numbed me to the idea of going anywhere. Certainly the way New Orleans figures so prominently in SAC writing for community projects has a lot to do with it. When Katrina hit, we were about to finish The Long Ride, a book of student writings about struggles for civil rights and social/racial/economic justice in New Orleans. Our students were touring a play they had written about the connections between the community organizing that propelled the Plessy vs. Ferguson case in the 1890’s and their own community organizing around education quality and rights. I wasn’t just teaching in my birthplace; New Orleans was what I was teaching.
So on Monday, August 29, when Katrina came calling, I knew where I was at and wasn’t giving much thought to where I wanted to go. I knew if we were hit really badly and the waters rose, I may be holed up in the sturdy old American Can Company (now an apartment complex where my girlfriend’s father was living) for a week or so.
Of course, that projection was way too optimistic. By the end of the storm week, after boating through toxic slime lake water, squinting to see my block from an evacuation helicopter, sleeping on a discarded cardboard box on I-10 and Causeway, and freezing toward Texas on a bus blasting its air conditioner in the middle of the night to keep the driver awake and the germs at bay, I had to start thinking about where I wanted to go.
Now it’s four weeks after Katrina. I’m living, temporarily, with friends in Clemson, South Carolina. This week, ten SAC students and recent graduates will gather here, hosted by the university, to do some writing, some healing, some video-making, and some sharing and
reconnecting. For me it’ll be some early steps in getting back to New Orleans, the place I want to go but can’t really get to right now.
In the next weeks and months, I hope this blog will help in finding my way back to New Orleans. I hope to hear from other teachers who have had to learn what it means to live as part of a diaspora, and to learn to teach from that place. Along the way, I’ll share some of my students’ writings, making it public and talking about it, exploring the shadows of what we used to do in class each day. We’ll think about writing as healing and community building. We’ll look into when and why these goals should be central rather than peripheral to the classroom. And we’ll think long and hard about what my colleague, SAC co-director Kalamu ya Salaam, wrote last week about New Orleans now being more the people who carry our city’s spirit, not the place itself.
We’ll explore in this post-Katrina world, with my hometown now a ghost town, what it means to start with what you know… to start with where you’re at. . .