“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination– indeed, everything except me.”
-Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Each of the two years I have taught seniors, I end the year with a close reading of Ellison’s Invisible Man. I do this for a few reasons: 1) it is a seminal piece of work of American literature that has had a huge influence on everything that came after it, 2) it is amazingly relevant to our culture and world and my students today and 3) it’s an amazing book that everyone should read.
Invisible Man is the story of how it feels to be a black man growing up in 1950’s and 1960’s America. It touches on segregation, movement, Communism, the effects of slavery in both the South and the North, the role of street rule in Harlem NYC, and police brutality. It’s the story of the narrator’s journey to identifying and understanding his role in the world; of coming to terms with how powerless white society has made him and finding a way to survive in that world. Through this journey, it challenges our notions of race and class (and the intersection of both) and explores the effect of prejudice on both the victim and the perpetrator.
There comes a point, usually later in the unit (although it has changed year to year depending on the comfort of the students I’m teaching) when I ask students to think about a time they themselves felt “invisible.” I passed this point a few weeks ago and got some interesting (and disturbing) answers:
“When you move to a new neighborhood.”
At this point, I stopped writing down ideas on the board and turned to the student, James.
“When do you feel invisible in school?”
“Teachers make me feel invisible.”
“How do teachers make you feel invisible?”
“Teachers just, like, give us information. I mean, not all teachers, but some of them don’t really listen to what we have to say. Like when we ask to slow down or when we don’t understand what we’re doing. Also, sometimes I get marked absent when I was in class.”
I nodded, paused, and took a sip of coffee.
He continued, “And you know how, like, sometimes I try to cut your class mister. But you chase me down the hallway and yell, ‘Seniors who want to graduate aren’t late to class’?” (This is a thing I often yell in the hallways of my school.)
“Well, not all teachers try to chase me.”
At this point, I was a little bit at a loss for words. Where does this discussion go next? I half wanted to apologize for my colleagues. I felt guilty for my entire school, and I wondered what my part was in making James feel invisible. I didn’t want to just leave his statement hanging out there. I also in no way wanted to challenge his statement, both because I know there are teachers at my school who don’t see him– they see students around him or they see “figments of their imagination;” they see a collection of assumptions and biases they have about students like James– and because it’s the lack of listening for understanding, affirming, and respecting his feelings and thoughts that made James feel invisible to begin with.
For me, being a teacher has been challenging this year because I have tried to 1) create a stable, structured, safe learning environment for all students and 2) allow for all students and perspectives to be heard equally. It’s a difficult line to walk: maintaining discipline so all students can be heard but also maintaining a classroom environment where all students feel their voices are heard and valued. James feels like his voice isn’t heard and, sometimes, literally isn’t seen. I think that being a white male teacher in a school populated almost entirely by Black and Hispanic students makes this dynamic especially important. In this moment, I could feel the fragility of that dynamic, which I had spent so much time trying to build.
So I asked the only follow up question I could think of:
“Do you think teachers mean to make you feel invisible?”
“Sometimes they probably do, because you know Mister, I’m not the best student always. But most of the time they probably don’t mean it and don’t know they’re doing it.”
“They should train teachers not to do it, so students don’t feel invisible.”