WITS Voices: New Scene, New Opportunity
December 26, 2018
By Matt Gano, WITS Writer-in-Residence
It’s been an incredible journey working as the WITS Writer-in-Residence at The Center School. My partnership with the esteemed Jon Greenberg along with scores of talented students over the years helped to shape me as a teacher and has inspired a lifetime’s worth of creative lessons and poetic ideas. After nearly 10 years working in the funky halls above the Seattle Center Armory, I was given the opportunity to explore a new path, my track with WITS has now taken me to Roosevelt High School.
The bubbling nerves of stepping into a new school and culture were back as I entered Amy Noji’s portable classroom to begin working with two of her 9th Grade English classes. Will they be willing participants, how much am I going to have to sell the idea of teaching poetry? Do they even like poetry? What happens if they don’t?
These questions were less on the brain when teaching at Center School as I had the privilege of working with students in a Poetry elective class. There are always students who force you to “prove it” but the predetermined label of “poetry class” has always set the tone in the past. All of those questions and anxieties were quickly answered on day one as I was welcomed by students who were engaged and excited for a new learning angle in their English classes.
As white cis-gendered man, I’m often questioning how I represent in the classroom and what my actual purpose is in this position as an artist and teacher. How do I best make an impact, how do I use my privilege and influence in a way that can be meaningful beyond the classroom, how can I make a difference? I’ll admit, I often felt that how I represent posed challenges with a number of students while teaching at Center School. As a select alternative school that emphasizes art and social justice over athletics, Center is comprised of a larger population of students who identify as gender fluid or non-binary and are often doing really powerful work both personally and socially to dismantle patriarchal expectations and norms. Writing about these topics has always been encouraged and even emphasized, however, being in a class led by two cis-gendered white men, I’ve questioned what that means for students and their feelings of representation.
I brought these concerns with me to Roosevelt and was met with a new understanding of how I can make a positive impact. After my second day teaching at Roosevelt, I had a long conversation with one of my partner teachers, Jo Kassel, a first year teacher who received her Masters in Class Studies at Center School. She expressed to me that one of the biggest cultural differences between Roosevelt and Center School was the emphasis on sports and the effect that has on some of the young men in her classes. She noted that a good deal of those involved in the major sports (football or baseball, primarily) were rarely comfortable speaking up or sharing their feelings.
Sports have a way of encouraging toxic masculinity: “Man up,” “power through,” “take what’s yours,” and so on. The model of what it means to be a man – win, don’t show “weakness,” i.e: don’t be soft, don’t let your emotions show unless it’s anger or “passion.” I grew up with sports, I went to a 4A sports oriented high school, I understand the mindset, I’ve resisted it, I’ve lived in it, I’ve been caught up in the expectation, I’ve accepted it, and have also worked hard to dismantle it in my own life.
Being at Roosevelt so far this year has ignited a new feeling of purpose for me. Beyond encouraging creative ideas and sharing my experience as a poet, I also have the opportunity to positively affect cultural change at a prominent Seattle high school. Jo’s encouragement helped me see a new reason for my presence—not only to open pathways to creative thinking and provide space for self-expression, but also to model for the young men in my classes to move forward in their lives with compassion and sensitivity, and to show it outright in their thoughts and actions. To be a “man” who can be both in touch with the world of sports, and at the same time, celebrate being soft not as a weakness, but as a power.
Matt Gano is author of Suits for the Swarm, a poetry collection from MoonPath Press, co-founder and writing mentor of the Seattle Youth Poet Laureate Program, and the principal bricklayer of Abbey Arts’ NEXT STAGE program. He is also a Writer-in-Residence for WITS and a teaching artist for the Skagit River Poetry Foundation. Matt’s dynamic work has led to recent invitations as a panelist and featured poet for the Skagit River Poetry Festival (2018), instructor for WRITE Doe Bay, and faculty member for the LiTFUSE writer’s conference.