My classroom during spring semester is a small, square, airless space that could serve as a torture chamber for someone who gets migraines. The walls, which contain no windows, no windows at all, are made of cinder blocks painted with a glossy paint that reflects light from overhead fixtures which hum and vibrate until I swear I could get motion sick just by trying to focus my eyes on a text. In most classrooms, I avoid the horrible migraine-inducing lights by keeping them off and using natural light, but it's sort of tough to do that in a room with no windows.
Today, as soon as we'd gathered in a circle, I said to the student closest to the door, "Hey, can you shut the door and turn off at least one strip of lights?" It's one of my peculiarities that I simply can't teach with the door open. It drives me crazy.
Swishy Hair got up and shut the door, and switched off not one, but both strips of lights. Suddenly, the whole room was dark. Really dark. As I may have mentioned, it's a room with no windows.
"This is so much better," said one of the students. See, I'm not the only one who gets migraines.
"Want to have class in the dark?" I asked.
Two of the students laughed. I could hear Swishy Hair moving back to his seat, the scrape of his chair against the linoleum as he sat down. The lights stayed off.
We were discussing several essays from an anthology of urban nature literature, including a piece by bell hooks that explored connections between racism and the environmental movement, a piece that I knew had made some of the students uncomfortable. I figured that it might be easier to talk in the dark, just as people find it easier to talk when they are sitting by the campfire and no one can see their faces.
We usually begin class with students reading excerpts from their response pieces. I hesitated for a moment, wondering how we could do that in the dark. "That's not a problem, " said one woman. I noticed then that students were pulling out their cell phones, using them like little flashlights. All around the circle of desks, cell phones winked and glowed as students opened and shut them.
I thought it would make me nervous to teach without my notes, without being able to see the text. But the three essays we were discussing were ones I know well, ones I've taught before, and I didn't have any trouble remembering what points I wanted to make or what questions I wanted to raise. Of course, I am someone who talks with my hands, making all kinds of gestures and motions, which made no sense when no one could see me. The student next to me said, "I can feel you waving your hands in the air."
The hardest part was not seeing the eyes of the students. I normally spend so much time scanning their faces, watching to see who is engaged, who needs to be nudged into speaking up, and noticing the blank look that reveals a student who has not done the reading. Instead, I had to rely on the voices that came out of the darkness.
Some students did speak up more, assertive because no one could see their faces. And it was easier to listen somehow, with no distractions at all. We talked about the implications of bell hooks' ideas, we talked about white privilege and racism and prejudice. Students spoke up honestly, frankly, in this dark and quiet atmosphere. It felt like we were sitting around a campfire on a summer night.
I felt startled when a student looked at his cell phone and said, "Hey, I think class must be over." I had forgotten all about the time.
Swishy Hair stood up and turned on the lights. Ouch. Glaring brightness bounced off the cinder block walls, the linoleum, the shiny desktops. It was a dreadful, abrupt return. The only good thing was that I could see again the faces of my students as they packed up their backpacks, their cell phones, their books. Most of them were smiling.