Isolation and Intimacy in Audre Lorde’s Teaching

Audre Lorde, a strong woman of color, feminist, activist, member of the LGBTQ community, influential poet, teacher, and much more, has left this world with so much wisdom for everyone to share. The intelligence she offers is not only limited to her civil rights and feminist activism but lessons through her teaching as well. Since my major is Inclusive Childhood Education, I was very intrigued by Lorde’s work with her students at institutions like Hunter College and The Free University of Berlin. Inclusive Education revolves around allowing students with disabilities to join general education classes, so all students have the most appropriate learning methods and receive the best possible education. As an educator, Lorde drew on her own experiences of isolation and vulnerability to create an atmosphere where her students were encouraged to speak out about their interests that they felt connected to. She wanted her classroom to be a space of intimacy to achieve greater human connection and raise consciousness about issues of discrimination and inequality. From Lorde’s approach to teaching, contemporary educators can learn how to make their students feel important, comfortable, and safe in the environment they learn in, so these classes can help increase students’ awareness of themselves, others, and the world. 

Lorde’s experience with loneliness in school had a big influence on how she chose to teach and how she wanted her students to feel. Loneliness “causes people to feel empty, alone, and unwanted. People who are lonely often crave human contact” (Cherry). This resonates with Lorde immensely because she always treasured human touch. In her early school experience, she had a sense of “loneliness” bottled up inside her. She didn’t feel as though she fit in with the children around her or impressed her teachers. One incident that was explained in the book, Zami, was how her teacher kept Lorde inside to work on vocabulary while the other students were released from school. Lorde states, “I came to loathe Wednesday afternoons, sitting by myself in the classroom trying to memorize the singular and plural of a long list of latin nouns” (60). As she sat alone after school, her teacher would come and go as he pleased, and she would sometimes spend hours there forced to try and fix her mistakes. Lorde didn’t have a connection with her teachers or classmates which made her feel like she had no one but herself. Even her mother didn’t understand the importance of relationships at school and told her school is a place for learning, not having friends. This was hard on Lorde because she was the only one who knew exactly how she felt: alone and unwelcomed, which is what she didn’t want her own students to endure. Loneliness also came from cultural differences, as there were less than nine black students in her class (Zami, 24). One of her poems says, “We are/ Enclosed by the walls between us/ by the chemistry of the dead/ spaces we share” (The Classrooms). Lorde’s poem emphasizes her lonely experience in her classrooms which she described as “dead spaces.” With this separation, she felt detached from the people around her, but it made her realize she didn’t want her future classroom to be represented with this same feeling of rejection.

Lorde took the loneliness she felt from her school and wanted to guarantee none of her future students would feel this isolation. To achieve this, she began to teach college students the importance of Black Women’s Poetry, Afro-American Literature, and much more during the 1980s when oppression was still very infamous. She strived to help her students better understand their own individual lives and connect their experiences to things that were going on worldwide. This was done by incorporating lessons about White and Black American racism and sexism. Her syllabus includes, “Defining Racism,” “Mechanics of Oppression,” and readings about “White Majority,” and “Notes of a Native Son” (18-20). These topics may be intense, but Lorde wanted her students to be aware of racism and possibly make a difference in society. Lorde made her classroom a safe place to express sensitivity and vulnerability so the effect of the lessons would be more beneficial.

Lorde created a classroom where students could be vulnerable so they could embrace fragility with personal or societal matters. Vulnerability is “the state of being open to injury, or appearing as if you are. It might be emotional, […]or it can be literal” (Vocabulary).  Lorde wanted her students to allow unspoken emotions to be heard through their voices. She incorporated personal assignments into her lessons that were related to real-world issues. Lorde asked her students to answer, “In your daily living give 3 examples of actual ways in which you yourself can function to positively counteract racism. Be specific” (Lorde Archive, Spelman College, Box 82). For Lorde, it was necessary for her students to dive into the vulnerable state when discussing harder topics such as Racism and American Women. Vulnerability allows her students to open up, move into their deep thoughts, and share what they have experienced and felt. In “I Teach Myself in Outline,” Atkin and Brown write, “Lorde’s classroom was a place of open wounds, where vulnerability was visible and the learning process entailed acts of mutual care as well as expressions of tension” (7). This quote describes how emotion was important in Lorde’s life and her teaching style. Lorde strives to be the best listener, mentor, friend, and educator she can be to her students. One of Lorde’s key points is to speak out and break the silence: break the walls separating our emotions from our words. Breaking the silence will lead to the break of this loneliness inside her and others. Lorde uses her sense of emotion and motivation for change through her teaching methods and hopes her students will begin to share the uncomfortable with her, each other, and eventually the world. 

Intimacy is a key component in Lorde’s work as a teacher. Intimacy is “the state of being intimate. A close, familiar, and usually affectionate or loving personal relationship with another person or group” (Dictionary). In “Poet as Teacher- Human as Poet- Teacher as Human,” Lorde describes this intimacy as a kind of relationship that connects us with our real feelings. This intimacy is metaphorical, but also not restricted from being physical. Lorde touched her students’ hearts by providing the comfort and breathing room they needed to express themselves. One of her students said,  “She made you feel, when you were talking to her, that there was no place she’d rather be” (4). Her students appreciated her attentiveness and the insight she brought to the class. This is also what we as students desire in our own teachers. We need teachers who, like Lorde, present trust and dependability. Educators can achieve this by trying to try to get to know their students on a more personal and intimate level, knowing when they are struggling with something or having the perfect day. Lorde allowed and encouraged her students to express their thoughts and opinions so they could understand themselves and be understood by others. 

While Lorde had felt lonely and isolated as a student, she sought to create an intimate and vulnerable classroom that brought students together to share related and relative emotions. It was important to Lorde to take care of her students both educationally and passionately because this was not evident in her own experiences in school. She didn’t want her students’ opinions to be ignored, especially in her lessons about injustice. As Lorde said, relating to her school experience, “Caring for was not always caring about” (Zami, 27). She does much more than “care for” her students, she treats them like people with real emotions who should trust the classroom environment enough to share them. Understanding her students’ experiences and feelings, as well as making them aware of problems in society was a goal she had for her classroom, and also a goal for us as educators to follow. Lorde wanted to create a connection between her and her students to make them feel more comfortable when expressing ideas. Teaching is a lifetime duty. We teach ourselves and others new things from everything we do. Lorde’s style of teaching has a big influence on myself, as well as current teachers, and encourages us to be open to a connected, vulnerable, and intimate classroom so we can incorporate these methods in our own classrooms.

Works Cited

AZ Quotes. “Audre Lorde Quote.” AZ Quotes, 2004, Accessed 8 May 2020.

Cherry, Kendra. “The Health Consequences of Loneliness.” Very Well Mind, 23 Mar. 2020, Accessed 29 Apr. 2020.

“Intimacy.”, 2020, Accessed 29 Apr. 2020.

Lorde, Audre. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Crossing Press.

Lorde, Audre. “The Classrooms.” “I Teach Myself in Outline,” Notes, Journals, Syllabi, & an Excerpt from Deotha. 2017.

Lorde, Audre. Lorde Archive, Spelman College, Box 82

Lorde, Audre. Poet as Teacher- Human as Poet- Teacher as Human. 2009. Oxford University Press

Lorde, Audre. “I Teach Myself in Outline,” Notes, Journals, Syllabi, & an Excerpt from Deotha. Edited by Iemanja Brown and Miriam Atkin, CUNY Poetics Documents Initiative, 2017.

“Vulnerability.”, Accessed 29 Apr. 2020.

5 Replies to “Isolation and Intimacy in Audre Lorde’s Teaching”

  1. Hey Kara, I think you did a really incredible job with this blogpost. I think talking about Lorde’s effect on the classroom is so important during a time like this when we can’t experience learning in a traditional way. I also really like that you included the points about feeling isolated and how Lorde transformed her teaching around her own experiences. I think you did a really great job with this thesis and I love how much you encompassed with this post.

  2. Hey Kara,

    I really enjoyed how you connected the writings and teachings of Lorde into your own life and professional pursuits. I agree that it is absolutely vital for teachers to relate to their kids and to express to them that they are not alone and that everyone experiences vulnerability. Vulnerability should be promoted in the classroom because the only way to express the truth is when you cast aside any feelings of ridicule or disapproval. To ask children to be emotionally and intellectually vulnerable challenges them to trust the teacher, their peers, and their own intuition. This is an important step in teaching kids that it’s okay to think, see, and experience the world in the ways that they do. Lorde’s emphasis on tactile communication initiates her bond with the children which transcend that of teacher to a student. It eradicates any sense of hierarchy and encourages the student to perceive the teacher as a friend.

  3. Hey Kara,
    I really liked how your post talked about Lorde’s time spent as an educator. I believe Lorde used her teaching to spread awareness about injustices and her experiences and encourage others to share theirs as well. I also liked how you included that as a student Lorde learned how to NOT teach her students. In the past I have had professors and teachers that I had no connection to or really did not enjoy being in their class. As a future educator, those educators taught me what to not do in my classroom. I think Lorde also felt that way and used those experiences to become the educator that she was.

  4. Hi Kara, I really enjoyed your blog post and thought you did a wonderful job of bringing up the importance of Lorde’s teachings. As students we need to feel comfortable in the classroom. I think that being in a classroom where we as students can be vulnerable is so important. Going through school my favorite classes were the ones where I felt comfortable to talk in and express my own thoughts on subject matters without being shut down. I really loved our class this semester because I feel like Dr. Savonick set up our class the same way Lorde set up hers. I felt free to say what was on my mind and felt like I was in a comfortable learning environment. I also loved how Lorde reflected on her past experiences as a student realized how she wanted her future students to learn. For this, I think Lorde is such a powerful educator.

  5. Hi Kara,
    Great job on your blog post. I really loved how you dive into the thoughts on what it takes for a teacher to not only be a good teacher, but a supportive teacher. Lorde has experienced a number of hardships especially feeling lonesome, so I’m glad you brought our attention to how powerful she really is for what she did. Utilizing her own hardships in order to help her students reach their fullest potential is really inspiring. If I were an education major, I would have absolutely loved to be in this class to understand that the student’s needs should be the biggest responsibility as a teacher which Lorde has shown us throughout her works. When you have a teacher who is concerned with their students well-being in addition to their success, it really inspires the students to want to try to be their best. Luckily, this class, ENG430, is taught by the phenomenal Dr. Savonick who has thoughtfully understood Lorde’s lesson of teachings which she applies in her own classroom! Good luck to you on all of your future educational endeavors!

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