In Defense of Open Doors

If one were to give an account of all the doors one has closed and opened, of all the doors one would like to re-open, one would have to tell the story of one’s entire life.” – Gaston Bachelard

Ryan Davis

There is a hallway that changed how I view teaching.  I mean that quite literally. The hallway is not a metaphor.  It is physical space with polished tiles and faded lockers and old paint.  The thing about space is that while we are constantly shaping it to function in accordance with our purposes and values, our spaces are constantly shaping us.   It is an infinite waltz with no clear lead or follow.  

This dance between our architecture and our way of being was made real to me by a hallway full of English teachers.  I am math teacher, but this was before the time that I really knew that what we do is not as much about subjects as it is about students.

One distinctive feature of this hallway was that its doors were almost always open.  And so through the hallway like a spine ran the verve and hum of life, even when it held no people.  The classrooms connected and alive to something bigger, the energy of each slipping out the open doorways.  A space that was more than a collection of individual rooms, but a community. 

It was a space that changed me because it so clearly changed students. The community of open doors fostered belonging and ownership that could be seen in students dipping in and out of rooms to grab a writing piece or book or just to connect for a brief second.  The architecture spoke with a welcome and invitation. It was a place made more fully theirs.  

As much as this is a love letter to hallway (or more so the people who made the hallway alive by choosing to open their doors), it is also an admonition of laws that requires teachers to keep their classroom doors closed and locked.  I know the horrific realities that motivate such laws because I know the images that I, and I’m sure most educators, too frequently find ourselves trying to push out of our heads. School safety raises serious and immediate questions.  And, our answers require a difficult self-interrogation as to whether they are actual solutions or merely responses to fear.    

Fear often disguises itself as pragmatism. It contrasts the ease of a solution with a scenario of severe risk — a closed and locked door protects us from an outside terror.  The simple resolution may be immediately comforting, but it is often incomplete. For instance, experts advocate that when possible the first and most desirable response to violence should be to flee the situation.  A closed door impedes the ability to escape quickly, even more so if the violence begins in a room with closed door. A closed and locked door could also prevent a child from entering a safe place.  

It is impossible to predict whether in a moment of mass terror one will be advantaged by being in a room where the door is opened or closed.  More importantly, such thinking remains rooted in fear and anxiety about the future that cannot help but manifest in the present.  

I don’t know with any certainty what confluence of factors conspire to turn a child toward such terrible violence.  Some have highlighted trauma and mental health. Others have identified bullying and ostracism as playing a significant role.  Then there are misogyny and white supremacy and other ideologies that normalize violence. While the influence and impact of each of these factors may vary, they share a common trait: they are only fed, and never solved, by isolation.  They are wounds that can only be identified and healed by building places of connection and belonging. They require community.   

When I picture that hallway now, with all its doors closed, I feel an immense sense of loss.  The hallway with closed doors is a shell. It feels cold. When I think of having the keep my own door closed and locked, I feel the same sense of loss, but also frustration.  Frustration that I cannot contribute to community that is edifying and empowering for my students – a bigger community that holds them up and closer, and ultimately makes them safer.

For now, fear has caused us to curl a little more inward. And, it is perhaps easy to dismiss a door as a small thing. Perhaps there are compromises to be struck like funding doors that lock from the inside so they can be kept open, but also quickly locked and closed without leaving the room.   I’m optimistic that educators can help lawmakers understand why these seemingly small things matter. The power of a community of open doors is hard to describe unless you’ve experienced it. I am grateful that I have had that chance. I worry that students today do not.  

The opening or closing of doors transforms our space which in turn begins to shape us.  While educators will always work to create community where we can, our physical space can either limit the community we make or invite us to make more.  Open doors can make a school more than a series of rooms. Open doors connect classrooms to a larger vibrancy and sense of belonging – they compound the power of community, and all the benefits that come with it.  They make the space our students deserve.  

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