Blog Post

On Grief, and the Inability to Grieve, in the Classroom

A scene from the CW's Supergirl: Kara holds her sobbing sister, Alex, with one arm while holding hands with their father-figure, J'onn, with the other as he looks down.

(This is cross-posted on the CUNY Humanities Alliance site, here.)

Last Wednesday morning brought waves of numbed shock, pure terror, and unspeakable grief crashing through our bodies; through our classrooms; through our relationships; through every component of our lives.

For me, the day of the election, it was only retreating into a surprisingly authentic coming out storyline (that takes compulsory heterosexuality to the mat) on the CW's Supergirl that helped me stay -- somewhat, but not really -- afloat.

Maggie Sawyer from Supergirl shaking her head and telling an off-screen Alex Danvers about coming out that "This is the biggest thing that's ever happened to you." Gif from http://67.media.tumblr.com/e1bf3cf63c313221f7069d0ec1248ae0/tumblr_ogna4gzMwd1usrwq6o2_250.gif

Fantasy.

Because suddenly life was even more of a dystopia than it had been the day before.

The day after, it was sheer numbness brought on by the unbearable reality that the country had just elected a white supremacist as president; sheer numbness, and community. My girlfriend and my home had overnight become a revolving door for friends who needed a place to grieve, to escape -- to eat an overabundance of home-cooked vegan food.

None of them went to work the next day. Last Wednesday. If I had any other job, I would have stayed home, too. But I didn't, because I wanted -- I needed -- to see our students.

Our students who had been on my mind all night, the night we watched the map of the country, built on blood, be utterly drenched in that color. Our Muslim students, our undocumented students.

I spent a lot of time, that night, throwing up.

Wednesday, there were three teacher-esque figures in the room (two fellows, myself included, and our mentor). There were hugs and there were eyes reddened from lack of sleep. Eyes reddened from crying.

There was an uncharacteristic silence -- an exhausted silence, a waiting silence, a terrified silence -- from our students as everyone settled in around a circle, alternately glancing at each other to offer small, defeated smiles, and avoiding each other's eyes. Because there was everything to say, but there was nothing to say.

My mentor, their professor, around the time everyone had settled in, sat down himself and stared around at all of us. I fought the onslaught of tears that welled up just anticipating. Just anticipating. Because election night was only the beginning.

"So," he said. Simply, simply: "So."

He gestured outward with his hands, and the students slowly, picking up speed and passion as they shared, started sounding off. Sounding off on their fear; on their anger; on their disbelief; on their lack of surprise.

They used words that they -- students of color in a room with a white professor -- hadn't felt able to use, had danced around, in the beginning of term: white supremacy. Racism. White people. Us. Us. White supremacy. Us.

I shared this story with someone yesterday, at an event at the Grad Center about the election and our classrooms. We compiled resources for our students, for ourselves. We tearfully shared stories. When I shared the one just described, someone commented that there must have been a lot of trust in the room, already built, for that kind of interaction to occur so organically. The theme of our composition course is "Black Lives Matter." Anti-racism has been the mission from the start.

Yes, there was a lot of trust in the room.

And a lot of grief.

I am proud to have been in a classroom that allowed for such grief, that assumed as its baseline that everyone would be mourning. Because mourning is the word: it felt like the day after Pulse.

Mourning.

A scene from Supergirl: Kara holds her sobbing sister, Alex, with one arm while holding hands with their father-figure, J'onn, with the other as he looks away. Gif from http://images6.fanpop.com/image/photos/39300000/Kara-hugging-Alex-supergirl-2015-tv-series-39354100-500-225.gif

Bringing that grief into the classroom -- as well as the sense, importantly, that grief is too easy to use here, because grief implies that the horrible thing is over, that there can eventually be closure; whereas every day, with more appointments and more uncertainty, more close to January, this gets worse -- not only heightened students' (and our) sense of community.

And make no mistake: this community, these communities that we have and must intentionally strengthen in the coming weeks, months, years, are the things that will keep people alive. Literally.

All we ever have is each other: now, more literally than ever, as white supremacists are the ones coming out, are the ones explicitly in power, now.

Yet the allowance, the welcoming, of grief, of pain, of uncertainty and of mourning, into the classroom encouraged something else, too: it sharpened our students', and our, resolve to engage in our intellectual work, to shatter the paradigms, the rhetorics, that haven't worked, that got us here to begin with, and create something new in its wake.

In the continuing aftershocks of this election, now more than ever is the time to challenge the false binary between intellect and emotion, between what is "smart" and what is "felt." For our CUNY students, anyway. Because we've been hearing a lot about -- rightfully -- the way that "facts" no longer matter in the face of the logics of white supremacy, of queerphobia, of xenophobia and pure, pure vitriol and exploitation of real working class needs.

But that's just the thing: we need to bring to the fore the idea that white feelings, in the reign of white supremacy -- and this includes in our imperialist university systems -- are rendered as facts.

Other feelings, non-hegemonic feelings, are rendered as mere emotions, as irrational.

And this is reflected in classroom practices that privilege white middle-class modes of argumentation, of "logic", of "rational" thinking, of typical academic norms of communication and writing.

Deconstructing this dynamic is essential so that white feelings are exposed as the basis of [white] facts. So that white rage, hidden behind the veneer of a calm face and the barrel of a calm gun, can be exposed as what it is. So that terror is redefined. So that love, trust, and community, can be rewritten.

We cannot do this if we continue to neglect, erase, the way that lived experience -- whether that's of privilege, oppression, or some combinations thereof -- interweave to shape our factual realities, our logics, our pedagogies, the ways we write and the ways we participate -- or don't -- in class discussions that may or may not perpetuate the erasure and invalidation of our lived experiences.

It's not a coincidence that a writing class themed with Black Lives Matter was able to dive into the grief, the mourning, the terror, so seamlessly. Because racial justice requires us to both unite emotions and intellect and simultaneously work to denaturalize the ways that they're already united to place some of us above others.

Dominant academic frameworks have failed us. Again.

Let's not try to rebuild them alone: because ignoring the grief in our classrooms, pretending it can go away after a week, pretending (even when we're avoiding it) that its presence isn't morphing everything?

That's going to be one lonely way to try and survive.

 Alex Danvers from Supergirl, cupping her hand to her own cheek and tearfully telling her sister, offscreen, that "I can't do this [come out] without you." gif from http://67.media.tumblr.com/7c42a23b1170672201c5e8157783c58a/tumblr_ogoq9psGKG1uo0rv7o4_250.gif
 

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