Jesse Walsh has been the Director of Philosophy at Saint Martin de Porres Academy in New Haven, CT (a private middle school for underserved youth) for the past four years. Prior to that, she founded a Philosophy Outreach Program at a Boys & Girls Club in Dorchester, MA. Both groups have enjoyed incredible success and continue to thrive today. In addition to blowing the minds of urban youth, Jesse is also currently pursuing a MPH in Boston University’s Health Law, Bioethics and Human Rights Department, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Ma’am, please step around the counter and follow me.”
He leads me into the glass-encased detaining area behind and to the left of the main counter at the US Customs Station. I am on my way back home after a trip visiting a friend in Canada and nearly the last one in the line of people who have been corralled off the Greyhound and squished into this tiny room. If I were closer to the front, this group of strangers I had just shared a bus ride with would now be glaring at me in my fishbowl jail as they process by. But they’ve all been cleared and already returned to their seats to commence heaving, impatient sighs as they wait for me. How is it that the only Caucasian, English-speaking woman on the bus is the one being held at the border as she tries to return to her own country of citizenship? Has racial profiling gone the way of affirmative action?
“Is there a problem?”
“Will you explain again what it is that you do?” If you’ve never entered the US from another country, you may not know that the officials in customs are trained to ask rapid-fire mundane questions about your life in complete deadpan fashion. Before now, I wasn’t certain that the answers you give even matter as much as your demeanor while doing so, as most of the time they appear to be waiting for their turn to shoot another at you rather than genuinely cogitating your replies.
“I teach Philosophy.” Not an explanation exactly, but I don’t have a lawyer present, so I’m being intentionally obtuse.
“Where?” One man asks me questions while another paws around in my luggage. I’m fully clothed, but this seemingly unwarranted intrusion into my personal belongings has me feeling quite exposed.
“At a middle school.”
“Where?” The vagueness and repetition of his question is giving me some of the power here. He must know this?
“St. Martin de Porres Academy.” Oh Lord, please don’t let him ask me where that is. I already said I live in Boston when he asked me earlier why I was headed there and now if he finds out this school is 150 miles away in Connecticut…that bus is going to strand me here.
“It’s a weekday. If you’re a teacher, why aren’t you at school now?” Relief. He’s moved on. Other Man is unscrewing the lid to my shampoo bottle. Do people still hide illegal substances in their shampoo?
“Because I’m not teaching today.” I’m starting a chicken and egg argument. Old habits die hard. Is this why I am being vetted? Because it’s a weekday and I’m not standing in front of a classroom full of eager students? Surely I am not the first teacher to attempt to return to the United States on a regular old non-holiday Friday?
“So you teach Philosophy to middle schoolers, but you are not teaching today even though the kids are in fact in school?”
“Right.” Is this rocket science? Am I experiencing a break with reality?
There is a long pause. His eyes are boring into me and I have a feeling that a stinging reprimand is imminent. I’m trying to hold back both laughter and tears because I know neither is appropriate. “What sort of middle school has a Philosophy teacher?”
“Ummm.” Did he mean ‘Philosophy Teacher’ or ‘Philosophy Class’? Am I supposed to answer this? Where to begin?
Before I can respond, Other Man shakes his head and swats his hand as if to say “Let her go. She’s strange but harmless.” He didn’t find anything suspicious among my toiletries, books and dirty laundry. “Okay, Miss. You’re free to go. Have a safe trip back home.”
I wanted to launch into a passionate defense of P4C, but instead I walked quietly across the painted yellow line on the ground that separates the US from Canada, boarded the Greyhound and took my place among the sea of judgmental eyes. I watched out the window as we zipped past the evergreens and thought about the encounter I just had with US Border Control.
Even before my profession became a concern of National Security, I knew it was widely unheard of and quite surprising to the general populous. When I used to tell people I was a Math and Science teacher, they would unequivocally respond with something like “Oh, I always hated Math” or “Good for you, we’re always in need of good teachers,” etc. But no matter what, that was typically the end of that. One terminal comment and then on to the next thing. Unless they had been teachers themselves, of course – then they might express further interest in what I did, but only because they wanted to compare it to what they did.
Now, however, when I say that I teach Philosophy to middle school students, people react with extreme shock. It’s as if I said I was teaching German to Australian crocodiles. Most people are very curious about the actual content of what I teach; some others are interested in how I go about doing so. Many folks want to know about the school that I work in, whether or not the students like it, who else is doing this sort of thing, etc. No matter what, though, there is always a barrage of questions to field. You simply cannot tell someone you teach philosophy to children (or German to Australian crocodiles) and escape their insistence on knowing more. It forms a wall around you that you can only scale with stories and insights of your experience.
Initially, I reacted rather positively to this attention. I mean, what philosopher doesn’t like to discuss philosophy, especially the very stuff that she is working on? For a couple of years, this was my conversational “in” at any social gathering. The ace I kept in my back pocket. The white rabbit in my hat. The cat in my bag. It was a verbal shot of tequila that could invigorate or resuscitate even the dullest of dialogues and make them dance on tabletops.
Until one day when I was crossing the US-Canada border, on my way home from spending a few days with a friend. Then, all of a sudden, it was a shoe bomb. It was drugs in my shampoo. It was a reason to be detained and humiliated. It was…humbling. On my bus ride home that day, it occurred to me that although it is a lot of fun to educate people about what I do, it might actually be better if, in my lifetime, I could tell someone “I teach philosophy to middle schoolers” and the reply that came was not one of shock, awe and disbelief, but rather casual acceptance: “Oh, good. The world is always in need of good teachers.”
“Identity Crisis” Activity
At Saint Martin de Porres Academy in New Haven, CT, I primarily teach Philosophy through games and activities that are interwoven with and/or ensued by philosophical discussion. Most of the discussion is prompted and perpetuated by the students themselves, but until recently, it hadn’t occurred to me that the games themselves could also capture this Lipman-Sharp spirit.
I was working on an activity I called “Identity Crisis” that was designed to challenge students to question the nature of identity – their own and others’. I wanted to find a way for them to do this as a hands-on investigation. I wondered if it could be done using stuffed animals as proxies for human beings. The possibilities were tremendously exciting to me! I thought about them cutting off teddy bear limbs and exchanging them with a neighbor, tearing off a button eye, using scissors to create a scar, or markers to ink tattoos. I made a bulleted list of all my mutilation ideas and sat back to glance them over. I had about a dozen and my head was swirling as I tried to determine a proper procedure. What to try first? Is there a hierarchy here? Can we start from the least invasive and move our way up to the most intrusive? How would I even decide what that was?
The answer came, as it often does, from a student. I have a 9th grade Philosophy Assistant. She is a graduate of the middle school and of my Philosophy Club and expressed interest in helping me out with my weekly class. As I explained the activity to her, her whole face lit up. “Oh please, oh please can I light mine on fire?!”
I checked the list I had made. I hadn’t even thought of that and it was such a great idea! Clearly, there was a perfect opportunity here to allow my young philosophers to determine the fates of their stuffed animals. They almost always controlled the conversation – it was about time they had more of a role in shaping the activity, too!
Of course before you can lose or alter an identity you must have one and this is a tricky problem for these stuffed animals. Since they lack thoughts and language, we can’t very well extract their identities from them, and so the identity must be assigned. Before our investigation of identity could be brought to the hands-on level, we first had a preliminary discussion on what identity is and where it comes from. Afterwards, each student “assigned” a particular identity to his/her animal.
Identity Crisis was definitely one of the most successful games to date – they had some really great insights. During the limb and stuffing akimbo, they were repeatedly prompted by me and each other to determine whether their stuffed friend had indeed undergone a change in identity or if it was still the same. After switching arms with another student, 8th grader Lionel said, “My animal has lost the identity he previously had, because he used to have long arms that he could bend and use to climb trees to hunt for food, rest and escape from predators. But now he has a short arm that doesn’t match and he can’t use it the same way as he used to.” A 7th grade student disagreed – “Yeah but if he were a human being, humans can lose their arms and still be the same person. They don’t lose their identity, not even if they get a fake arm”.
Kareem, another 8th grader, noted that his animal was a polar bear, but after he exchanged a limb with another student, now it had one black leg. Since polar bears don’t have black legs, it couldn’t be a polar bear anymore. Another student asked, “But what if it had been born that way? With one leg that was black but both parents were polar bears”. Kareem hesitated. “That’s different. If he was born that way, then it would be a birthmark, not like a disability.” Lots of students had questions about that – “Do disabilities change our identities?” “What are disabilities?” “Does that mean you can’t be born with a disability?”
Over the course of 3 or 4 classes on this investigation, students continued to bring up questions about identity. 6th grader Mariyah wanted to know if she would lose her identity if she switched heads with her friend Aveanna. Another student wondered if there was any possible way to retain your identity if you lost your brain. When we burned Michaelle’s stuffed animal, students wondered if its identity was now gone and what happens to our identities when we die. Do dead people have identities?
But it was not all so serious. At one point, I noticed several students cutting the length of the hair on their animals. I asked if doing so would have an effect on their identity. “No,” answered 7th grade Maleek, “now he just looks fly”.