Going the Distance

Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

TEACHING A BOXING CLASS, again after many years, is reminding me that teaching is teaching. The gym owner was very pleased after taking my class recently. He enumerated the ways in which my approach was in keeping with the mission of the gym. It’s a special community of a gym, adamant that all bodies are good bodies and that conventional physical aesthetics are not necessary to be beautiful. This mission is spurred on by LGBTQ inclusivity, but it also pertains to many other groups. Including my group, the not-old-but-no-one’s-calling-you-young-anymore group. That one.

As the two of us were talking, I started to realize that what Sam saw me doing with my boxing students is that which I do with all of my students. I see them. And I realized that what surprises and pleases so many of my students – and the majority of my colleagues’ students as well – is that experience of feeling seen. Like, I consider myself pretty funny, sure, and my expertise – whether in boxing or the humanities – is pretty darn strong, but why really do so many of my students express so much joy in class? It can’t be all me. We teachers – and grown folks in general – learn at some point that most things just aren’t all that much about us. The responses we get from our fellow human beings tend to have more to do with the responders than the respondees. That’s a bit of wisdom most of us gain as we age. And it’s quite liberating, I must say.

So, knowing that my students in the classrooms, Zoom meetings, and workout rooms of this world tend to be fairly pleased with their experience, I have to ask myself, what are they responding to besides me and my stellar pedagogical skills? Ah-ha, I thought to myself the other day as I removed my Everlast hand wraps and wound them tightly into small rolls, these folks just don’t necessarily expect to feel seen. Or if seen at all, then they expect to be judged. It’s important to note that the cohorts I have had the pleasure of teaching tend towards the marginalized: students of color, students with learning disabilities, students who identify outside mainstream boxes of identity. Folks like this start to get used to walking this earth either as invisible, or burdened with assumptions and stereotypes. Let me state for the record here that I am not claiming that I am free of judgment concerning others. I am so far from sainthood when it comes to my feelings about this human race. In fact I can think of a handful of people right off the bat who I barely tolerate. BUT, when it comes to my role as a teacher, I am somehow able to shed most of that judginess, and instead see every student as simply a person with a story walking into a classroom full of other stories. bell hooks pretty much always says it best:

“As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.”

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress

I am having the relatively new experience of being marginalized myself because I now belong to that aforementioned group of a certain age that quite often gets written off. Throughout my life I have certainly felt misunderstood, and sometimes harshly judged, but rarely have I felt invisible, disposable, or irrelevant. That is new for me, and a little bit hurtful if I have to be honest. But here’s how I cheat that experience, I teach! Being around a bunch of young people and engaging with them and their stories – and even sharing a few of my own – revs me up big time. So much so that when I walk by a group of people, or enter a room, and get that unseen feeling it just doesn’t affect me as much. I actually kind of feel sorry for those folks who are missing out on me and my thoughts.

At the end of the conversation with the gym owner, a most lovely trans man who wanted me to understand the positionality of queer gymgoers, I explained that I kind of got it. Not that I know what it is like to be raised in a body that never feels like quite the right fit, but that the response – or lack thereof – to my aging body in places of physical and intellectual activity has been a bit marginalizing, too. But at this gym – as in my classes – it is clear I still have something to contribute. I mean I wish I were better than these feelings of insecurity, I wish my inner spirit was so strong that I did not even notice that our culture is afraid of aging, that it still discriminates against it in all sorts of ways. But I’m human, and vulnerable to the cultural vagaries of this planet on which I live.

So yeah, as we teachers often say, I have learned at least as much as I have taught throughout these years. And I am really grateful to all my teacher friends who I have commiserated and grown with. And I am really grateful to all my students – all of them, even the ones that have helped hurry this aging process of mine! Because I am so lucky to know their stories, and even to play a small role in some of those stories. Teaching is teaching. Like writing is writing. Like people are people. Oh yeah, and like love is love.

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