What I Saw

Notes Of A First-Year Teacher

The Lark Essays: An Introduction 

On November 13, 2014, “Two Truths and a Lie,” a writing workshop I teach in NYC, was held up at gunpoint. After the robbery, the class became the invisible center in a maelstrom of tensions around the New York Police Department’s Stop-and-Frisk policy, gentrification, and the role of police in communities. Much of what was written in the media about us and about the robbery was not true. Most of the solutions to “crime in the city” that were discussed in relation to the robbery did not reflect our beliefs.  

The media, including the
New York Times, covered the class in skewed ways, placing us as simply a marker in the inevitable path of gentrification. Facebook and neighborhood blogs reacted with racially charged remarks and calls for more police presence. My students and I bristled at such simplified answers that were nothing more than a shrugging of the shoulders or a heightening of violence—a refusal to look at all the reasons why this young man would need to walk into my classroom with a gun. 

As writers and teachers, my students and I had a choice. We could allow our experience of that night to be misused or we could create and share our own narratives. As teachers in NYC, we have seen young boys of color suspended as early as middle school, a few of many affected by the school-to-prison pipeline. We have witnessed the effects of Stop-and-Frisk on students’ abilities to focus in class. We’ve felt the build-up of rage in the eyes of the public at the list of names as long as generations of young black men killed with no justice served. For many of our students, both high school and undergraduate, Stop-and-Frisk, police brutality, and lack of justice were not issues in the news, they were personal events and obstacles in their lives. 

Why did this young man walk into our classroom 10 minutes before class was about to end? These three articles by Soniya Munshi, Nina Sharma, and me explore this and other questions about the robbery and its after-affects from multiple perspectives. 

This piece does not end with a gun.

This piece ends where it begins.

You see, I had been observing teachers for a year and this is what I saw.

I saw numerous lectures and teaching demonstrations during the pedagogical seminar required for my graduate school teaching fellowship. I saw instructors walk in with binders full of exercises during two consecutive summer teaching workshops I took in addition to the seminar.  I saw myself, a first-generation South Asian-American woman, filling notebook upon notebook of exercises on race and identity—writing exercises through which the undergraduates assigned to my composition class would discover themselves through their writing.

And in the first weeks of standing in front of 14 first-years, I saw none of the above could truly prepare me.

Prior to the start of the semester, I reviewed and reviewed all the exercises I could try, timed the “aha” moments of insight down to minutes in my lesson plans. In the throes of those first weeks, though, I would just come back exhausted, with the less nuanced concern of how teachers manage to do anything.

Teaching to me felt nothing short of sorcery—how do you make students talk, how do you get OK with silence, how do you tell students they are wrong without saying they are wrong, how do you say they are right without singling them out, how much should I talk and reveal about myself?

As we studied the works of James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Peggy McIntosh, among others, I saw myself struggling not to swiftly correct students who took deeply racist positions on social privilege, their guiding arguments being along the lines of: “for things to get better, people need to not make such a ‘big deal’ of things.” I saw myself struggling as I realized the common thread of Whiteness among the students who were making such claims. In particular, I saw myself struggle with a student who, for the better half of the semester, wanted to argue in his papers that White and male privilege simply did not exist.

Beyond that, I saw myself struggle with how to cultivate a sense of authority. I had a student who would look out the window, doodle, and then say that the material made no sense. Another student who dismissed writer Rebecca Solnit as a “man-hater” early into our conversation about her essay “Men Explain Things To Me.” One more that hardly came to class even when notified about the absence policy. All young White men.

I struggled not to let these concerns eclipse the moments when things synced up, when a quiet student began to talk, when I could hear new friends make lunch plans together as they packed up—some days even just that felt like a win.

I did this all while, back in student mode, I saw week after week a professor, a middle-aged White man who led a literature seminar I was taking, not struggle in the least to tell us we were wrong and to single us out—both of which he did with what seemed like near-expert simultaneity.

He did not struggle to ask me one session if I were Hindu and then tell me I was wrong about the facts of my own religion.

“Yes, we have many gods, a pantheon,” I said.

“Ah, not quite a ‘pantheon’,” he said.

He did not struggle in the following session to give a full 15-minute lecture on “Hindi” philosophy—confusing the language with the religion.

He did not struggle to share choice details of his personal life. As when I watched him do a trick I had seen another White male professor do the previous year, describing an overnight prison stay for a reason he kept a mystery.  It seemed like a cred-currying move, the story becoming a running gag. And perhaps it was funny, just lost on me.

“You were in for murder, right?” a student joked a few weeks later.

“I could take him every semester,” another student said to me.

That same fall, I joined a community writing workshop called “Two Truths and a Lie,” thinking of it as reprieve from grad student and teaching life.

I knew the instructor of Two Truths, fiction-writer Bushra Rehman, from my writing life outside the program, specifically from New York City’s Asian American Writers’ Workshop. I saw her teach there, then read from what would become her debut collection of short stories, Corona, which follows a young, Queens-born, Pakistani-American girl coming of age.

In Bushra’s class, I could be sure there would be no breezy accusations of man-hating, no prison-pride stories, and no discussion of “Hindi” philosophy, unless as potential material. In fact, one of the first writing exercises Bushra gave us was to craft a scene around an incident of racial microaggression, using an excerpt from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah as a model.

Her student body was filled with writers of color, queer and transgender writers, as well as our allies. Bushra seemed effortlessly to weave both matters of identity and matters of craft into one discussion.

Altogether, I found our conversations to be more intellectually rigorous than any I was having in grad school. I always looked forward to closing off my week with them.

I looked forward also to the change of scenery, the class took place in an area far different from campus, in Flatbush, Brooklyn. My mind seemed to loosen itself quickly from the grip of grad school and teaching as I made my way down Church Avenue to class. I almost forgot about New York entirely. The series of shops on that stretch of Church reminded me of the ones my grandparents would take me to when I tooled around with them as a five-year-old down the streets of Perth Amboy, New Jersey.

As I walked by Bobby’s on the corner, a large department store brazenly displaying its quantity over quality, I thought of how my late grandparents would have loved this store. I remember watching them delicately examine racks and bins of goods glazed by neon overhead light. Even though they saw their children making it as doctors in this country, 100 varieties of rubber flip-flops still did it for them.

As the shops ended, blocks of two- or three-story homes began. They were mostly wood-shingled Victorians built decades ago. This section of Flatbush was one of the first intentional suburbs, a model for towns like the one where I grew up, now preserved as historic property.

Soon, the shops started to mix up. Some seemed dated and in line with the ones my grandparents took me to. Others seemed fairly new, their shiny wrappers of hipness still un-scuffed, catering more to the young, middle-class families that have been moving into the area. In fact, our workshop met in the playroom section of one of the newer cafés on Church. It was a small but private space, separate from the main café space. It even had its own separate entrance for us to come and go as we pleased.

As I got closer to the café, I could see the street sign of Coney Island Avenue, considered by some as marking the end of what is now often called the “Ditmas Park” section of Flatbush. It always made me think of my parents, who lived on Coney Island Avenue when they first moved to America, but much closer to the shore, as did the parents of Bushra and three other members of our workshop. Immigrants always start out at the edges.

I imagined my parents living in a small apartment with my oldest sister, still a newborn on their knees. I’ve heard stories of them cooking dahl while the landlord absurdly claimed the smell brought the roaches. I’ve heard stories of them working long hours at a hospital where their supervisors bullied them into tears. I’ve heard them tell these stories with a myriad of voices: sometimes with old anger, sometimes with quiet strength, and sometimes, the best times, with laughter.

It’s laughter from the edges that I believe we share in common: immigrants, children of immigrants, and marginalized people. It’s our collective inheritance, the laughter that keeps us from punching, the laughter that keeps us from crying. It’s what emerges on the pages. It’s what enveloped our classroom, what I admired most about Bushra as a teacher, what mystified me. She told no joke to create a genial and productive atmosphere. Shared no cred story. But the room and our work seemed to swell with a sense of humor.

In fact, I was laughing at a classmate’s very funny and very sad short story, when the Black man, no older than my students, came through the playroom’s entrance and walked up to the middle of our folding table.

He was trembling enough that you might think all he was carrying in was the cold.

The young man dressed the part of a robber: classic black ski mask, silver gun so large and shiny it felt like the fanciest thing in the room. But Bushra, sitting to the right of where he stood, seemed more in charge than he did; it seemed, in fact, like she hadn’t stopped teaching.

As he instructed us to put our laptops in the bag he held, Bushra breathed a sigh that seemed more tired than frightened.

I was without a laptop, but I still looked to Bushra for what to do.

She was the first to pick up her laptop and place it in the bag, her movements demonstrative in the way teachers can move when being expressive. Soon the students who had laptops followed suit. Soon the young man’s declarations of “Faster, I don’t want to kill you” were replaced by the quietude of a full bag. Bushra and the young man exchanged a final look, she nodded to him, and then he took off, fast as he could.

This was the ultimate teacher observation. Bushra simply held space for the young man as she held space for us every week.

This piece does not end with a gun.

It does not end with the subsequent stop and frisks by the police that followed.

Or the innocence of the random Black men they harassed.

It does not end with the race-based bias and melodrama in the media coverage of it all.

This piece ends where it begins—with one teacher observing another.

The Lark Essays

This piece is dedicated to my Two Truths family.

Nina Sharma is a writer from Edison, New Jersey. Her work has been featured in The Asian American Literary Review, Drunken Boat, Certain Circuits Magazine, The Feminist Wire, Reverie: Midwest African American Literature, and Ginosko Literary Journal.