So, I’m standing outside in a school parking lot freezing as the snow flurries dance around me to the whirl of the wind home only to Michigan or maybe Chicago in the dead of winter. My hands are red and chapped and I can’t go inside because I am keeping four men company as they bravely try to break into my car to retrieve the car keys that I had carelessly left in the trunk just ten minutes before. Two of the men are teachers, one is the maintenance man, and the fourth is a colleague – like me a teacher educator. We are all committed to our work at an alternative high school that services students that have fallen through the cracks of traditional school environments – acted out often by what our society deems as “criminal” or “anti-social” behaviors. As the wire hanger takes on miraculous shapes -- thin enough to strategically slide through the window but turned at the end just enough to hook onto the stubborn door lock – I feel all at once the irony of the situation. It bubbles up inside me like a cross between a muffled cry and a clandestine giggle. Then the elation I feel as the teacher who does not give up after we are all decidedly frozen hooks the knob and bends slowly, slowly and bam! The door is unlocked and I am happy so happy and proud! We had successfully, skillfully, artfully and with great determination - broken into my car! I screamed, I believe. Jumped up and down and I couldn’t stop thinking as I hugged every body, that I had witnessed a miracle and that this triumph, right there on a cold, Friday afternoon, in a high school parking lot -- was nothing less than a victory of faith, of teamwork and determination. From the outside, however, that moment could have looked more like a criminal offence, an act of defiance (AAA said it would take them 90 minutes before they could get to my car) and simply – Breaking and Entering. I am an accomplice. I feel, as a matter of fact, joy. We had all shared an authentic learning experience about the facts of life and how at that moment, we all knew in our heart of hearts that the most important skill we needed was “How to Break Into a Car” (circa 2005).
It was not unlike what happened this summer in Spain when a car was stuck in a sand dune right off the beach. For two hours several groups tried to help the stranded couple out of their predicament unsuccessfully. Finally, a group of seemingly “rowdy gangster” types took over the scene saying in rapid Spanish punctuated by slang that nobody had the “street sense” enough to get the car out of the ditch. We all watched amazed while him and his “boys” picked up the car in three steps and solved the sand problem that no one was able to solve in over two hours! They were able to see the situation with critical accuracy and instead of pushing the car out, he simply said to us sarcastically, “it doesn’t take much common sense to know that you have to lift up and out rather than push through that damn mess” or something like that. We all left the scene burnt from the sun thinking how grateful we were at that moment for their existence. It had been only a few hours before when we were indignant that those same beach “gangsters” on motorcycles were disturbing the peace and quiet on what would have otherwise been a perfectly secluded beach.
When we share real lived experiences with each other, something happens. If we listen, really listen to each other, we recognize in one another’s stories that life has a way of breaking boundaries. Whether boundaries be of class or race or language or gender or religion or politics or age or whatever!, we are all inexplicably interconnected, woven together by a wise and knowing hand of fate. We are being reminded that we have something to learn from one another and that learning is sacred.
bell hooks in Teaching to Transgress (1994) speaks of engaged pedagogy as a teaching and learning experience that transgresses traditional classroom boundaries towards a liberatory exchange of ideas grounded both in theory and real lived experiences. In a transcribed dialogue between herself and a colleague, Ron Scapp, bell hooks writes: “One primary difference between education as a practice of freedom and the conservative banking system is the latter encourages professors to believe deep down in the core of their being that they have nothing to learn from their students.” Ron Scapp reminds us that “when one speaks from the perspective of one’s immediate experiences, something’s created in the classroom for students, sometimes for the very first time. Focusing experience allows students to claim knowledge base from which they can speak.” Educators who are suspicious and critical of engaged pedagogy fail to understand that the emphasis on voice is not just the act of telling one’s experience, but that using that telling strategically – to come to voice – allows students to speak freely about other subjects (hooks, 1994, p. 148).
As a teacher educator, I work with many teachers who find it difficult and in some cases impossible to “relate” to the students they work with. The divide that they feel between themselves and their students is sometimes so wide due to social “boundaries” labeled race, class, language, shared histories of domination or oppression, criminality, conduct, gender, age – and so on, that there is no real connection between what they intend to do in the classroom and the students themselves. How can we work with teachers who believe deep down in the core of their being that they have nothing to learn from their students?
Breaking and entering into my car on a Friday afternoon so that I could get back home to my family was a moment of triumph for me and a group of responsible and respected educators who teach every day students the difference between right and wrong and how to be a responsible citizen in society. We all silently wished that there was a student among us with the “street smarts” to make the break in swift and with promise of assured success. And yet, I wonder, if that hypothetical student who could have broken in my car, would have been recognized and valued in our school community or if we would have honored his “skill” as much as we honored the teacher who magically got the door open? I wonder if that hypothetical student would ever have the opportunity and encouragement to tell a similar human-interest story of “triumph” in front of a teacher without the fear that he or she might be judged. Judged not for the act of criminality, but for an act of triumph. The latter being the connection, the transgression, the missing link that unites us all as human beings.