Susan Russell, associate professor in the School of Theatre and 2014-15 Penn State laureate, was a speaker at the "All In at Penn State" kickoff event in October 2016. This is the first installment in a six-part series that is part of the University's ongoing focus on diversity and inclusion.
My first classroom teaching experience was in 1996. I was a working actor at the time, and I was doing a show with a kid whose mom was a middle school teacher. This mom taught the kids who were behind the curve, the kids who acted out, and the kids who made everyone uncomfortable and slowed the teaching and learning down.
Teacher Mom’s job was to help these kids read and write, and that was confusing to me because I thought everybody knew how to read and write by the time they were in second or third grade, so why were there kids in middle school that couldn’t?
This was an innocent question from someone educated inside the inner circles, someone unaware of how poverty and trauma can effect childhood development, and someone unaware of how being differently abled can put you in the back of any classroom and make you disappear. Teacher Mom was teaching kids destined to disappear entirely, and the idea that a kid could disappear inside a country selling itself as the land of equal opportunity ticked me off. I got so ticked off that I asked another innocent question: “What do you need?”
The avalanche of emotion this question releases from my students is something I am always learning from, and the avalanche of emotion I feel when I ask myself the question teaches me that I am falling down a mountain too. There is solid ground underneath me, I know it, but there are inclines and valleys and summits along the trail to wherever it is I am going, and just when I think that I have found a boulder or tree or person to cling to for a while, I feel a new patch of ice forming underneath me.
But the slide feels truthful, feels normal in the most joyful and messy way, and my tumble down the slope feels very, very human. Truth is true, and I am trying to climb truth’s mountain, but how I feel in the moment, how I am thinking about my own situations, and how afraid I am of the outcomes and opinions and assessments and statistics attached to my previous and future falls -- these thoughts can send me sliding at a break-neck speed.
My mountain is a beautiful mess, resplendent with snow and ice, beach and valley, and when I feel particularly distracted by an ice floe up ahead, I remember visiting Teacher Mom’s classroom for the first time.
Teacher Mom concentrated on creating solid ground for her kids to depend on. She made simple decisions that were clear and visible and action-based. She asked the kids to look at each other, to listen to what was said, to keep their hands to themselves, and to ask for help when they needed it. These simple agreements kept the kids from getting too mad and messy with themselves and each other and gave them space to find some truth.
Penn State is a unique environment where we, as individuals and a community, can write a story about what is possible for the planet.
What if all we are is what we decide to think in every moment, and those decisions create the way we see and hear each other and ourselves? Thoughts create ideas and ideas create beliefs. People who agree to believe the same thoughts form places like classrooms, churches, social organizations and political parties where they agree to agree with people they understand. Nobody wants to feel alone, separate and outside of inner circles, but there will always be individuals who don’t see what you see, don’t hear what you hear, and don’t agree to agree with you. That can be cool, or that can be scary.
Differences don’t have to become disagreements. Differences can become new boulders and trees for people to cling to for a while during your climb. If we are going to make sense out of this new year, we are going to have to write a new story about Penn State, a story where everyone gets to be seen and heard.
Penn State is a unique environment where we, as individuals and a community, can write a story about what is possible for the planet. If we can make a few agreements with each other, we can create a place where everyone feels like there is something or someone to hold on to if he, she, they or we start sliding.
In this six-part series, I will walk you through some questions that will help separate you from your culture so you can see yourself with a little more clarity. Once you see yourself better, you can begin hearing your own questions, and once you begin hearing your own questions, you will start to hear everybody else’s too. It’s not easy being human, but it can be simple. Let’s get this conversation started. You never know whom you might meet. Peace.