For years I was an active participant in New York City political movements: fighting for free and affordable tuition at city and state universities, marching to free Mumia Abu Jamal and all political prisoners, organizing for Reparations for African-Americans, protesting the war in Iraq, the unjust Rockefeller Drug Laws, and nuclear proliferation, taking a stand against violence in our communities and standing up for peace and justice. This time, my heart was already entrenched somewhere else, with the children of New York City’s public schools. I didn’t have time to occupy Wall Street. I was too busy occupying schools.
This is the life of a teaching artist, going from borough to borough, from one educational institution to the next, engaging students, teachers, administrators and parents, with a shared project or educational goal. Sometimes our sessions last a couple of weeks, a semester or an entire school year. Other times, our encounter is no longer than a single, forty-five minute class period.
Just recounting my educational experiences makes me dizzy. So many children’s faces. So many memories. Elizabeth, the shyest girl in class, receiving a standing ovation from her classmates after reading her poetry out loud for the first time. Nigel beaming with pride once we completed the video from our neighborhood walk. Explaining to Ryan how he actually is hurting himself when he calls Harold retarded. Letting Nigeria know that I know what it feels like to have a parent die from AIDS. The seventh grade boys’ faces transforming from silly to compassionate after listening to their classmate Arturo express his pain for being teased for being Mexican and the deep pride he felt for his family and his country. Six-year old Lily running up to hug me after reading her poem at the art gallery. Recording C-Lou’s freestyle as he took over the cypher. Janessa crying as she told me that I was her diary and that I’ve helped her through the hardest year of her life. Ashley giggling as she reads her poem while I beatbox.
After all of these faces and all of these classrooms, I am left asking myself similar questions to those who used their bodies to represent the Ninety-Nine Percent. What was it all for? What did my students learn? What did I learn? How did these educational experiences shape these young people’s lives? I have more questions than answers which is usually the best way to know that learning happened.
The Occupy movement emphasized the simple idea that occupying public space could be a profound act of civic engagement. By occupying public schools and other educational institutions, I was doing my part in the fight for justice. While the Occupy movement brought people together to occupy the physical space where our collective economic reality is determined, I was occupying the physical spaces shaping the minds of our young people and with them our future.