If A Tree Falls: A Critique of Silence

I wrote this poem as a general critique of urban school policies that mandate silence in spaces where silence is not necessarily warranted, especially in communities of color that are overwhelmingly served by white teachers. While the critique focuses on literal silence, it is also reflective of the “silence” promoted and valued by punitive practices in the spaces our children of color occupy.


Fading beams of dusk’s dusty sunlight

Streaming through early September’s half-baked leaves

Painted blotches of my half-shadowed

Nine year-old

White skin


Amidst the trees

My favorite thought

Suspended between inhalations of the tangerine-infused air:

If a tree falls in the woods

And no one is there to hear it

Does it make a sound?


There are first graders in Chicago

Losing time at recess

For speaking in the halls


Drinking in the message

From the cup that reads:

In public spaces,

Your voices

Your noise


Is not wanted


In public spaces

Black and brown voices

Permeate shared breathed air


Posing immediate threat to

Desperate clutches of

Centuries-old power


Embodied in the fear

Painted on white teachers’ faces

When they are in front of


In power


There is a time and place for silence

Like immediately following

The freshly cracked spine

Of a new book

Or in the space between songs

Of your favorite record


We value student voice, we say

Hoping no one reads

Fine print underneath

That states

“Under our terms.”


Making sacred its use in the private space

Encapsulated in a classroom’s four walls

Where its contents

Its noise

Is controlled


We value student voice, we say

But denounce it in the public space

When its reach

Knows no walls


We mistake

Silence for


Silence for


Silence for



But when we teach

This mandated silence

Required acquiescence

We teach


This absence of noise

This absence of voice

This absence of self

Is what is required


Of you.


What empires do we build of silence?

Of speak when spoken to

Of do not disturb

Of your voice

That noise



The bricks of the empires we build of silence

Are not stacked higher over time

But built stronger

They are maintained

They are soundproof.


If a tree falls in the woods

And there is no one there who chooses to listen to it

Does it make a sound?


One response to “If A Tree Falls: A Critique of Silence

  1. Dear Sarah, Absolutely beautiful observation. I hope this is not widespread urban school policy – – horrible loss if it is. Love you, Grandma

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