I'd like to write to you about my lungs.
I teach acting, and when I do, I use my voice a lot. Growing up, I didn't learn to breathe deeply. And now I have to, to teach an intro acting class to twenty rambunctious teenagers/early twentysomethings. Day one is yelling about the syllabus. Day two is yelling about the intro quiz, which the kids fill out and then introduce in partner pairs--or, if there's an odd number of students, in a pod of three, whom I usually end up calling the Three Musketeers. I play the "Atomic Dog" Pandora station for warmup. I yell above songs like The Gap Band's "Early in the Morning" song at the top of class. The first thing, always: I have them walk around the room. I call each name on the roll list. While perambulating, each kid picks a thing: Dylan, the freshman squirt, has everybody crab walk. Imani leads with a disco fever move. Jack, who is 6'4" but has no idea what to do with that, whose ears are the most amazing ears I've ever seen, waves his arms around like seaweed on the ocean floor. I make sure every kid on the floor gives whatever the thing is a try before yelling the next name. And everybody has to do it, so after a while, they freeze less when I yell their name. They know we'll wait kindly, bopping along to "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," until they think of some silly thing to do.
Will is almost always late. But he just kind of sails in and moves to the beat better than the rest of the dudes combined. I put Dylan the squirt and Jack the beanstalk with Will for their first skit. The skit was based on their own important memory, from their intro quiz. I wondered how the Three Musketeers would fare, this lovely awkwardness and this rhythmic ease making a little skit together. They made a skit that mashed up a memory about Michael Jackson, with one about visiting DC for the first time, with one about learning what it means to be a man by going fishing. So Dylan the squirt is sitting at a bench and Jack, all the glorious length of him, is a fish, lying prone on the floor, opening and closing his mouth. And Will, who is black, moonwalks into the scene to explain in a high pitched voice what it means to go fishing and be masculine. My lungs were gasping for air, we were all laughing so hard.
Day three I yelled during "If You Want Me To Stay" that they were getting a curve ball. A social warmup. This time, I yelled, think of something you can do with a partner or two, or with each person in the class: a high five, maybe, or a little jig. It's not something I knew I would ask them to do, America, it was something my lungs kind of came up with, and I ask Jack of the Amazing Ears to go first. He casts about nervously for a few seconds, sees Will, and something in him lights up. And as he ambles toward Will and lifts his arms, my lungs freeze. But Jack just puts his arms out, and then around Will's neck, and burrows his head in Will's neck. This was not a bro hug, America. This was a bear hug. And Will, bless and thank him, hugged him back. And then everybody, all the eighteen- to twenty-two year olds of various majors and interests and colors and shapes and sizes, just walked around hugging each other as "Outstanding" played.
I didn't breathe, America. I forgot to yell anything. I just watched this miracle of young people who met a week ago snuggling like it was no big deal. I wanted to tell them that what was happening heals something old in America, soothes something frightened in my heart, that it flies in the face of the pessimism and racist hatred soaking this fucking election, and that will probably soak the government in ways that may end the experiment of American Democracy, such as it ever was, and I want to intake a breath and tell them that there is no other place in the world I would rather be than this room, no other person I'd rather be than the steward of this room where what occurs to them to do first is hug. I figured maybe that I needed not to call too much attention to the fact that they are making a new world. New norms need to feel normal, right? Like a breath you don't think about taking.
At the top of the next class, it's Will's turn for the social warmup. He decides everyone is going to act like they're gonna high five, but then go in for the hug instead, and my lungs fill up with gratitude again.
And with fear, America. Because I can't yell loud enough to stop the engine of the world outside this room, where not everyone who looks like Jack sees someone who looks like Will and their first instinct is to hug him and not hurt him. I just want to stay here, in this room, America, where we all can breathe. I just want to stay here, breathing, like Eric Garner could. Like Eric Garner could until they threw their arms around his neck.
This piece was written in response to a prompt by the slam poet, artist, and academic Javon Johnson.
The names of my students have been changed.