Most of us who have been teaching for some time need periodic reminders of the important work we’re doing in the classroom. It’s easy to become insensitive in our relations with our students and let automatic pilot take over. Also, since our salaries usually don’t reflect the value of what we do, the central role we have in students’ lives, it’s easy to stagnate. Being one of those teachers, it was uplifting to read Blackboard: A personal history of the classroom by Lewis Buzbee. A moving and thoughtful meditation on learning, the book underscores our value as teachers and the lasting impact we have on our students.
In Blackboard, Buzbee, a native Californian who currently teaches in the University of San Francisco MFA Program, revisits in memory and in actuality his history as a student. He starts with a trip to Bagby Elementary, prompted by his daughter Maddy who wanted to see her dad’s old school. For the rest of the book, Buzbee moves back and forth between past and present, filtering his earlier educational experiences through Maddy’s current ones. This approach allows him to contrast the public schools of California’s golden years, when the state still “had a commitment to public education or all California students” (193), with the contemporary situation.
When Buzbee was in school, he didn’t live with “metal detectors, barred windows, locked gates, and sometimes armed guards” as his daughter’s generation does. Instead of students entering a safe space where they can experiment and explore, today’s youth study in “a locked down school [that] announce[s]…it is a dangerous place” (88). It isn’t just nostalgia operating here. Buzbee highlights our fear of violence that is reflected in the schools themselves because of the contemporary world’s complexities.
Despite the new moral and political complications students today face, schools still offer them the opportunity to experience valuable things they might not encounter in their daily lives. He describes how the best schools have fully equipped labs, woodshops, “easels and paints and pottery wheels” (110). He says, “School pushes you—lures you?—into the world” (136), offering students many different paths to follow, from math to science to history and so much more, including typing, a skill Buzbee has put to good use as a writer. The best schools also have teachers who care deeply about their students. Buzbee remembers every teacher he had from kindergarten through high school, “a steady corps of teachers…who helped [him] focus on the blackboard and urged [him] to cast off into the world that waited beyond it” (189).
At the center of much classroom learning and this book, “The blackboard is not an object that is merely stared at; the student sees beyond what’s written there, to the larger world.” So too does Blackboard take the reader beyond the classroom and its dynamics to how these things contribute to the larger world. Blackboard gives us a better appreciation of the integration of learning with social and political life that is essential at all ages. He says, “The blackboard is not merely a convenient teaching tool; it becomes a focus for the student’s mind, both individually and for the larger class” (48). It is a lens through which we discover ourselves.
What happens in the classroom motivates us to explore beyond it, the teacher offering the impetus for those ventures. Students are like instruments in an orchestra, making music in response to the teacher, who “commands her audience, conducts them” (60). For Buzbee it meant asking his parents for a “telescope and a microscope and a chemistry set” (60). These items not only opened him to mysteries he hadn’t considered before, but also inspired his parents to join him in investigating the heavens with his new telescope.
Buzbee’s time in the classroom wasn’t always joyous. Like all students, he often didn’t want to be there. Also, acquiring knowledge includes pain as we are encouraged to push beyond our current limits: “School drags us, sometimes kicking and screaming, out of our shells” (66) by forcing us to discover that learning is also about making mistakes and then correcting them. He offers his own terrifying moment in fourth grade of working out an equation on the blackboard in front of the whole class. As he says, “Not only did Miss Babb show me where I went wrong, but everyone else in the class could see my error and learn from it….On a blackboard, redemption is possible” (66).
After reading Buzbee’s book, none of us will see a blackboard in the same way again. That blank space that replicates a night sky but without any constellations becomes transformed into something illuminating, an opportunity to move beyond our limitations. Vital work goes on behind the walls of our educational institutions. As Buzbee stresses, “School, though imperfect, is still essential” (192), but we need to focus more on “what happens inside the classroom, rather than what happens in legislatures and on school boards” (192). If we can do that, he believes we might be able to improve not only our schools, “but the lives of the children there, and the future we all must share.”