When Emma Goldman Entered the Room

Dealing with the unexpected in a role play

By Brian Gibbs

Illustrator: Ethan Heitner

The room was awhirl: students dashing in and out, noisily planning strategy, silently reviewing questions, rehearsing their speeches. Most were already in costume—making adjustments to headbands, scarves, ties, and jackets—when José arrived. He was a football player, 6 feet tall, dressed in women’s clothes complete with makeup, an ample bosom, a smile on his face, and an accentuated swish of the hips. His entrance was greeted with laughter, whispering, and catcalls, especially from the female students. He walked the length of the room as though it were a catwalk, hips swinging and eyelashes batting.

Ignoring José, I called my students together, had them take their places as character teams in a large circle, and began to introduce our role play. The unit was thematic and focused on the fears and political sacrifices of the 1920s, 1950s, and 2000s. In all three time periods, there was something feared. These fears were exaggerated and exploited by those in power. During the 1920s, it was the Russian Revolution and communism; during the ’50s it was communism, Stalin, and the atomic bomb; and during the 2000s, Islamic terrorism. The effects of these exploited fears included the increased surveillance of U.S. citizens, the rollback of fundamental rights and freedoms, and racist attacks and expulsions (even of citizens). I asked students to use the essential question “What are we willing to sacrifice to feel safe?” to compare the three time periods in order to put the use of torture, the prison at Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, and the U.S. Patriot Act in historical context. Students examined primary source documents, including letters, speeches, and newspaper articles; read excerpts from several secondary history sources; watched film of Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee; and analyzed excerpts of the 9/11 Commission report.

I then assigned teams of students to roles from the three time periods (e.g., ACLU founder Roger Baldwin, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., President Woodrow Wilson, Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, President Harry S. Truman, blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, Sen. Russ Feingold, and President George W. Bush). From their historical figure’s perspective, students wrote speeches, developed questions, and framed an argument to answer the essential question. José and his team represented Emma Goldman—anarchist, free speech advocate, feminist, and all-around rabble-rouser.

José spoke for his team during the opening of the seminar portion of the role play. He was third up and followed strong and well-rehearsed speeches delivered in the characters of Baldwin and Holmes. As I introduced Goldman, José strode to the middle of the room. The giggles and catcalls re-emerged. He stood center stage, cleared his throat, and re-adjusted his fake breasts, to the complete delight of the crowd. He began speaking in a forced, fake, and high-pitched voice, continuing his comic charade. The voice distracted everyone at first, especially when he began to work the room, walking back and forth, pointing at different historical characters in the room, gesticulating to emphasize his points.

However, his arguments as Emma Goldman were spot on, well thought out, detailed, and complete, with several well-placed quotations from Goldman herself: “No real social change has ever been brought about without a revolution . . . revolution is but thought carried into action.” “The demand for equal rights in every vocation of life is just and fair.” “The history of progress is written in the blood of men and women who have dared to espouse an unpopular cause.” Some were from speeches we’d analyzed in class, others were from the group’s own research. As Goldman, José asked several rhetorical questions: “What and who are we afraid of? Who says we should fear them? What’s the source of the information?” He argued that the fear was misplaced: “The world is made of workers who are oppressed and exploited. Through this we are all united.” He finished his speech with a crescendoed call to action and resistance that Goldman herself might well have been proud of. His bow was greeted with thunderous applause.

The role play continued. Other speakers delivered such strong performances that the project engaged us for three full days.

Role plays and other forms of experiential learning always carry a risk. There is an emotionality to them and a stretching of oneself that generally garners strong academic and intellectual results, but can also carry students to places that surprise them, and sometimes surprise me, too. Taking on a role allows students to move beyond themselves; this can include women as male characters, men as females, Latina/os as whites, African Americans as Native Americans, and so on. Although it is not necessary, I find that having students dress in character in some way, from something as small as making a nametag to creating a full-on costume, can help them find the voice and nuance of their person. I give students the choice of playing either the character or someone who was close to and supportive of the character’s positions. This allows everyone to participate at their own comfort level.

When “Boys Will Be Boys” Isn’t Good Enough

As our activity developed over the next few days, the students engaged the issues and each other. Questions were asked, arguments made, passions raised, and content invoked. There was laughter, outrage, and argument in this serious intellectual endeavor. Students seemed to have forgotten José’s swagger that first day.

But it bothered me. José’s exposition of Goldman’s life, experiences, and opinions was correct, clear, and well argued. It was his performance that was troubling. I’d been experimenting with adding costumes to role plays for several years, but hadn’t run into this negative aspect before. José’s rendition of Goldman was stereotypical, overly sexualized, distorted, and generally inappropriate. His continuous touching and shifting of his “bosom” and provocative walk combined to create an insulting caricature of an heroic historical figure. By not engaging the issue, I had given my tacit approval to the portrayal.

This was a realization that I didn’t come to until the end of my second sleepless night. For the three days of the seminar, I let it ride. As a teacher I’d learned that it is sometimes simpler to let some things go. A note from a substitute teacher about how badly my classes acted while I was gone—let it go, they won’t act that way now that I’m here. A ridiculous excuse for why a student is late—let it go, she’s here now and she knows I know. The role play had been a success, students had demonstrated intellectual and academic skill. No one had registered anger or revulsion at his behavior, so why not just let it go?

Sometime during that second sleepless night, I remembered the presentation that the Gay-Straight Alliance had made at the opening faculty meeting. “You would never allow the words nigger or bitch, chink or spic, so why do we allow the word fag?” The student speaking wasn’t using defiant language. No hands on her hips, no fierce look in her eye. Really, she had been asking. “It’s not the students who are using the word you need to worry about,” she continued. “It’s the quiet students in the back of the room who will never reveal themselves by asking you to make it stop.” I realized that, for all my feminist intent, I had allowed sexism space in my classroom.

The next day, I approached several colleagues, both male and female. The general consensus was “Boys will be boys” and “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.” I wanted to agree, but I couldn’t.

What Would Emma Do?

I knew I needed to approach the issue in a way that didn’t undercut the successful role play we’d had. I was also concerned about isolating José, who certainly wasn’t alone in his compliance with misogynistic stereotypes. I asked myself: Do I engage José alone first, then the whole class? The whole class first, then José individually if needed?

I decided to raise the issue with the Emma Goldman team: Ysenia, Sade, Michael, and José. They agreed to meet me after school and arrived all together in a bustle on a bright Thursday afternoon. They were still excited about their victory. Goldman and like-minded individuals from the 1950s and 2000s had carried the day by arguing that rights and freedoms should never be rolled back. They agreed that fear itself—of other cultures, languages, ethnicities, political systems—was the problem. We discussed the role play for a bit, sharing the most provocative and powerful moments.

The conversation shifted when Ysenia asked, “Do you have the pictures yet?” She was referring to my habit of snapping pictures during role plays and printing them out, one for the student photographed and one for the “museum,” my classroom walls that were covered with years of student photos. I did have the photos, and we spent some time looking at them. In preparation for this discussion, I had removed all but two of the photos of José. When we arrived at the first one, he smiled and the group began to laugh.

“What do you think of the photo?” I asked.


“He was a good-looking woman.”

Then all eyes turned toward José. “You got my good side,” he said.

“What would Emma Goldman think of this?” I asked.

“We rocked it, man,” Sade argued emphatically. “We represented her hardcore.”

“We left it all on the field,” added Michael.

“I felt like I knew her, like I was her, you know what I mean?” José said, as the other three nodded their heads in agreement. “I think that she would be outraged by what’s happening now, she would be in the streets, giving speeches, organizing. She was wrong in some ways, especially for today, but she’d be proud of us and I totally respect her spirit, her zeal.”

“It was the selections of her autobiography that really helped me get to know her,” added Ysenia.

“So you represented her well?” I asked.

“We did everything on the criteria chart and did it well.,” Michael said. “Even Ysenia spoke. Her conclusion at the end of the seminar was right on.” He patted her on the shoulder.

There was a pause, but only for a moment.

“It was the costumes, wasn’t it?” Ysenia ventured.

“What about the costumes?” I asked.

“It was disrespectful, wasn’t it?”

“We were just having fun and we did everything on the criteria chart,” Michael insisted.

José said nothing.

“It wasn’t the costume so much, it was the acting, right?” Ysenia was still digging, still processing. “It was José. When he did that walk and all. You know, the . . . ” she pantomimed his hip-swinging sashay.

“Really, was that disrespectful? I mean come on . . . ” Michael’s “really” came out defiantly, but the rest struck a reflective tone.

“Yes, it was!” This was Ysenia with a fierceness I’d never credited her with.

“I can see it, I get it,” José said. “But for reals, I was just messing around, I’ve seen people do way worse stuff.”

“In this class?” Sade asked.

“Nahh, in the quad, the street, television, movies, you know, out there.” He pointed out the door for emphasis.

Making It Right

We talked some more, Ysenia absolutely convinced that it was disrespectful, Sade agreeing that it was disrespectful but not that bad, and the two boys agreeing that it was disrespectful but not really a big deal.

José asked me, “If it was so bad, why didn’t you stop it?” I didn’t have a clear answer, but I tried: “I didn’t want to embarrass you. You and your team did a great job on everything I asked you to do. I didn’t have the words then, it took a while for it to bubble to the surface. It just nagged at me, I knew something wasn’t right, but I wasn’t sure.”

I went on. I shared what I learned from the Gay-Straight Alliance. I spoke about my wife, my daughter, my secret crush on Emma Goldman, and the world I tried to create within the walls of my classroom. I also said that I had an idea what José was thinking—it seemed like a good way to get through having to perform a female role. But that wasn’t good enough. We need a world ready for Sade, Ysenia, and my daughter—a place where women, their struggles, and their contributions are respected. Real learning comes with laughter and buffoonery, or at least it should. Humor has its place, but I didn’t think that making fun of Goldman that way was the right place.

“Why wasn’t this part of the criteria?” asked Ysenia.

So we talked about what was good about the criteria chart, how it allowed them to self-reflect, know what was expected, and earn a grade for the performative aspect of the role play, for “bringing it all to life.” But it left open the possibility of disrespect.

The openness of the criteria were freeing. Did we want to end that with a bunch of rules over what Michael called a “little thing like this?” This led to a long argument. Finally José brought us to the point: “If we want females represented fairly and accurately, and we all agreed we do, then we need to add something.”

They wanted to leave the flexibility, but force my hand, because they all thought I should have done more to intervene in the moment. After two more meetings, we agreed to add this language to the criteria chart:

All historical characters will be presented as close to reality and with as much respect as possible. Any intentional or unintentional disrespect will result in a lowered grade and an intervention meeting with the teacher.

When the writing was finished, we were a bit exhausted but buoyant, feeling we had done some good.

“So now what? Is this it?” asked José. He had come around to an understanding and wanted more.

Ysenia rescued us. “Why don’t we present this to the class?”

“Why don’t you present it to all the classes?” I asked.

And so they did. With some assistance from me, they created a discussion-based presentation that opened with a photo of José as Emma Goldman projected on a large screen in the front of the room and my opening question: “What do you think of this photo?”

In each class it led to a spirited discussion of deep and difficult things. In each class there was resistance, with some arguing that the new criterion was too restrictive, but there were countervailing voices as well. Staying silent for most of the classes, facilitating a bit here and there, I did speak at the end. I talked about the world I wanted for my daughter and for all of us, how it was my responsibility to use my positional authority, if necessary, to push reflection and a larger understanding of gender stereotypes, feminism, and historical accuracy.

I have never had a student act that way again. All the sexism in the world, my school, and my class did not disappear, but we did make a dent. And a dent is a beginning.