A Classroom Not My Own

Written by
Kelly J. Baker

Jul 31, 2019

Jul 31, 2019 • by Kelly J. Baker

I'm standing in front of a classroom that's not mine. It's June in Florida. The temperature outside is supposed to be in the 80s, but when you step outside, it feels like it is over 90 degrees because of the constant humidity and the hot sun. The class is taught by a colleague of mine, who's also a friend, at my alma mater. His classroom is in a building that I took classes in as an undergrad almost 19 years ago. The building has been remodeled and updated, and even now, the room is under construction.

There's a wall missing, with metal bars exposed. Yellow caution tape stretches over them to warn students to keep away from the missing wall and the gaping hole in the ceiling above. As my friend begins to introduce me to his students, I keep eyeing the place where a wall should be. The students are seated in desks too close to it. I know they are. I rein in the urge to tell the students to scoot their desks a little farther away, but later, I give in and tell them to move for their own safety. (No amount of caution tape is ever really protection.)

I'm attending the class to talk about one of my books, the one on white supremacy, nationalism and religion. I've given public lectures on this particular book at colleges and universities, big and small. I've Skyped with students in classes all over the nation, and occasionally, I get to visit a class in real time without the blipping screens and petty frustrations of video calling. It's a real joy to spend time with students in their classroom and to hear what they think about my book and to have them ask the questions they want to ask about white supremacy.

The Back and Forth

When my friend finishes his introduction, I step in front of his class. These students—who he cajoled into seats at the front and middle of the long, narrow classroom—evaluate me, trying to reconcile what they imagine a scholar of white supremacy looks like and what I actually do look like. As they turn their attention to me (or away to a computer screen or notebook), I feel that rush of nervousness I always feel in front of a classroom. As long as I've been a teacher, I get nervous before each class session, and I've learned to channel that nervous energy into excitement. My nervousness has not gone away, even after hundreds (thousands?) of class sessions. I doubt it ever will.

But, then, they begin to ask me questions, smart ones that I have to ponder carefully to answer. They ask them slowly. They are testing me out, trying to figure out who this person in front of them is. They get bolder with the types of questions they ask. I try to answer just as boldly, because that's only fair. We go back and forth. Question and answer. Clarification. Another attempt at an answer. More questions. With every new question and every new answer, I begin to feel comfortable in this space again. My nerves settle. And I start to remember all the things I forgot about myself as a teacher.

Forgetting and Remembering

I'd forgotten how much I move in the classroom. I can't stand still, so I almost bounce as I pace in front of the classroom. I rock to and fro on my heels. I fidget. I'd forgotten how much I talk with my hands; I gesture wildly as I explain concept after concept. I'd forgotten how animated and excited I get about explaining my areas of expertise and why they matter in the past and right now. I'd forgotten about how talking to students helps me clarify what I think. Working through ideas with them helps me figure out things I haven't worked out yet. I'd forgotten what a generative space a classroom can be.

I'd forgotten what it feels like to teach.

As the time ticks down to the end of class, I begin to feel like something I've been missing has come back to me. This was a part of me that had lay dormant for years but was finally awake again. This space, this classroom, is a place where I belonged, or maybe even it is a space I was made for. For a moment, I did something I loved while basking in the glow of how that felt.

Not Quite Over

But then, as quickly as it started, the class was over. The students gather their notebooks and bags and flee out of the air conditioning into the hot summer. A few tell me they appreciated me joining them for the day. I debrief with my friend and his teaching assistant as they walk with me to my parking space available only to visitors.

Thinking of the visitor's space brings me up short. It's not my classroom I'm leaving. Standing in front of the class is a rarity now; I'm only a visitor to campus. Being a teacher is not my job. It's not what I do now. I get into my old SUV, face the sweltering heat in its interior and wave goodbye with a wistful smile.

It doesn't take long to leave campus, and I start to dwell on the career I left behind. Sadness is there and gone, so quick I hardly notice when it passes. It's a fleeting sadness that no longer takes my breath away. Something else remains in its place: joy and contentment in knowing that I will always be an educator. I now know that I can create spaces to educate, in a classroom and beyond. I know that I already have.