It’s OK To Not Have The Words – The Jose Vilson

There was a moment, just as I was getting into the groove of my second class, where I thought I had it all together. And then, I didn’t.

I’m teaching a class this summer on education and public policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, an endeavor I didn’t foresee until about a week and a half ago. Two years ago, I was a new doctoral student taking this class, and now I had a chance to remix it and interpolate it with some middle-school-pedagogical considerations and current knowledge to boot. But there I was, about 30 minutes into class when a student secretly messaged me mid-mini-lecture on the new events. At least a dozen students were murdered in a small town in Texas. I kept calm and kept going. Shortly before our scheduled break, I extended our class break but didn’t have the words for the moment. I paced back and forth for the better part of 15 minutes, not knowing whether this amount of time and the right amount of grace would let the adult learners know I cared.

I don’t know. It took 15 years for me to develop that intuition in my middle school teaching. Even then I didn’t always know. Luckily for me, I also know it’s OK to not know.

Something that people underrate when it comes to creating safe and brave spaces is that there may be significant pressure from interlocutors of the culture to have exactly the right words for the moment. A part of that might be how we’ve never had this much textual information with such ease of access in human history. That access has given us a plethora of sources from which to generate opinions and messaging that align well with what we may be feeling at the moment, whether it’s the right meme, short video, or cartoon. We don’t always give ourselves the opportunity to let a moment marinate, opting for the perfect tweet, short video, or screenshot.

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As the news reports and research flood in from various sources, we may seek to name the sadness, the rage, and the mourning in digestible bits. And we then seek to document that with something thoughtful, relevant, and connected to the moment. We don’t have to.

In fact, maybe the right words are the ones you have right there, including the plethora of swear words in our arsenal. Maybe it’s simply saying “I don’t like this” to whomever you find in earshot. How else can you meet the political bystander effect sweeping through so many of our politicians who otherwise have no shortage of speeches during re-election with anything other than actual anger and sadness? A silver lining in globalization is that now we see how other countries have quickly handled similar incidents as soon as they happen while America lets millions of people die by not passing legislation that will literally save children. We get to share the fissures in the rhetoric, too. Safety can’t be predicated on who has more guns but on whether guns are easily accessible in the first place. While police officers literally stood by as the onslaught happened within the schools, a community up north in Buffalo, NY was mourning its elders and educators who were murdered only a week and a half before.

Rage doesn’t necessitate all the words, but it does necessitate naming it rage.

On Thursday, I was hoping to open up space within my virtual class to examine some of the ramifications some more, and tried to put together some thoughts to build upon, but I know community takes work. We’ll keep working to repair the harm in our spheres of influence. As many of my more religious folks have mentioned, we can have all the thoughts and prayers we wish, but faith without works moves nothing. Educators know how hope drives feeling into action, and I’m ever hopeful that this set of collective rage can move legislation and our collective conscience.

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But I’m also hoping I can keep tapping into the present the more I explore the past with my students. I’ll commit to engaging as much of my works towards this and so many other causes where my words aren’t enough. But I’ll also commit myself to just feeling what needs to be felt. The words may or may not come, but the nods and the active listening will take hold.

Blessings.