Listening, not relating

In the children’s literature courses that I teach, I ask students to consider the concept of books as “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors”. I did not invent this analogy, that must be attributed to Rudine Sims-Bishop. I choose to use this as one framework for reading because it provides language for the students (and me) to talk about our responses to books.

Every time that I teach about children’s literature and reading, someone brings up the notion of “relating to a book.” For example:

  • I really couldn’t relate to this book, so I read it but it wasn’t interesting.
  • Because I couldn’t relate to the book I just wasn’t engaged.
  • Students need to be able to relate to everything they read.

This phenomenon of relating has been evident to me across institutions, undergraduate students, graduate students, experienced teachers, novice teachers, librarians, parents, formalized education contexts and informal. And no matter how often I hear it, it bothers me. It bothers me deeply. Sometimes I have to take deep breaths and count to 10 before I can respond.

Because here is the thing. If you think that the only way for you to engage with a book as a reader is for you to ‘relate’ to it, that is a huge problem. It is a huge problem because as humans, the world is not always about relating. We are NOT all the same. And giving yourself or your students permission to disengage because you can’t relate is irresponsible. It is irresponsible pedagogy and irresponsible human-ing.

I spent a good portion of my life thinking that part of my responsibility was making people comfortable. Not upsetting anyone by talking about things that might make them uncomfortable. I realize now, that is hugely problematic. Because that mentality asks 1)for me to anticipate everyone else’s comfort & discomfort (an impossible task) and 2) for me to place EVERY ONE else’s comfort and needs ahead of my own. I’m not ok with that. It took becoming the parent of two daughters for me to realize this, that and some really amazing people in my life.

Two things happened in the past 24 hours to shake me from my comfort. The comfort of creating this blog and then “belly-button gazing”. The first thing is that I have been listening to the audio book of Ta’Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. It is read by the author. I finished it today, and I will start it again tomorrow. I will write more posts about it but right now, I need to listen.  I need to listen closely. I will listen over and over again. I will especially listen to the parts that make me uncomfortable in my own white skin.

The 2nd thing that happened is not my story to tell, it is the story of two friends. Two friends parenting a young son in middle school. A young son who is thoughtful and kind and so so so aware of the injustices in his school that are being allowed. Injustices that are happening because administrators “don’t want to upset anyone”. Here is the problem, that isn’t possible. My two friends initiated a conversation with administrators. A conversation that is so so important for every single student in the school, not just their son. They are having a conversation, even though it is taking more energy than it should because they want to yell and have every right to yell. At one point in my life, I would have though, “they are so brave”. That is BS. They are not brave. They are human and kind and they are not willing to place the discomfort of some ahead of the expense of any one. And the discomfort – that comes from a place of privilege.

And so here I am on day 4 of my new blog, putting in print – words on a page – publicly sharing, saying to you that I have spent the first few days being a good middle-class, white woman. I was not saying anything that might upset anyone. I was sharing my inner thoughts and ponderings because others might be able to relate to them and find comfort. I will still do that I’m sure. Because I am, in fact, a middle-class white woman. Because connecting with other people is at the core of who I am as a teacher and person. But that cannot be all I am. That is not I all I want to do in the world.

I can also push myself to say what I am thinking and pondering as I listen to stories and experiences that are not my own. I can share how I have learned to listen, REALLY listen and engage with experiences that I don’t relate to, because that isn’t always important. What is important to me now, is listening to experiences and stories and ideas that are not the same as my own. With the goal of listening and learning, not just relating.


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