Saturday, October 22, 2016

Black Lives Matter & Me


Related to discussion:

I've been thinking about the concept of the White Christian "savior" in context of my hope to work with students who are a different race from me. I'm really trying to evaluate my attitude towards these students and towards people of color in general.

I know I have a long way to go before I can really achieve a level of humility and understanding that allows me to live and work with these people groups without having a mindset that I am somehow noble for making that choice.

I want to live with them, work with them in finding a voice and enhancing and enriching their expressions of culture, and represent them more accurately to people from my own demographic. While those are not tasks that are degrading, the mindset of "saving" them may still be there in trace form. It's something I need to seriously consider and evaluate continuously as I keep moving in this direction.


A week or two ago I watched a documentary called "13th." It deals with the history of mass incarceration and systematic racial oppression of minority people in the US, focusing specifically on the false narrative surrounding Black males that results in their being disproportionately arrested and jailed, often for sentences that strangle any hope they have for a future outside of prison and remove them from their families.

I won't go all MLK or Macklemore (see White Privelege II) on you at the moment, but if you fit the same demographic as me (White middle class, especially evangelical or conservative Christian) think of yourself as a "good person" (hint: everyone does) or if you think Black Lives Matter is irrelevant to you then you need a good solid wakeup call - so go get yourself an education.

I have been aware of Black Lives Matter for about as long as anyone in my demographic, but it became real to me this semester.

I am at the end of my first student teaching placement, and the students I've worked with for the past three months are particularly unforgettable to me (because they are the first classes I really "taught," and because they went through an awkward growth stage with me and we had to figure each other out, but that made the relationships we formed all the more important).

They're going to linger in my mind for a long time, those kids... I will think about those journals I read on the last day of class and the little pieces of their lives that were revealed to me. I will think of them listening to obnoxiously loud rap songs while they write. I will think of them making choruses of "oohs" and "eys" when their teacher says something provocative or "relevant." I will think of them making really lame excuses for why they broke a classroom rule ("Just surfing the web while I wait for this quiz to go down...").

I will think of some of them moving into the honors classes and making the sports teams they hoped for, and some of them getting expelled for behavior problems or falling further behind because they don't have enough support.

Trayvon Martin. (not my student, but could have been)

Those are the things that I know they will be doing because they did them all the time during the three months I was part of their classroom. Life goes on as normal, but I can still dream... Here are the things I hope they will do: 
  • Find out what they are good at and what makes them happy - and be able to do it for the rest of their lives.
  • Have love and support from their families.
  • Be friends with people who are good for them.
  • Appreciate the wonderful people who work in their school and ask for help when they need it.
  • Recognize good in their communities.
  • Listen to really good music.
  • Learn how to write a damn literary analysis paper :)
All those aside, though, my biggest hope is this: That people who don't interact with them on a daily basis, and know qualitatively how amazing they are, will learn to value them as people.

I realized this semester the need to question myself ruthlessly about who they really are and what they really need. Why do they act the way they do? Why might they laugh in the face of correction and refuse eye contact? Why might they distrust authority - or anyone with white skin? I came in thinking I could answer these questions. I left knowing I had so much more to learn.

I think that they knew, by the end of the semester (after I had gotten past some of my awkwardness and insecurity as a teacher and as a White teacher in a room full of students of color) that I valued them, because I knew they could do better than they were doing. I didn't have the ability, as my mentor did, to appeal to them, as another person of color, and insist that either they get their act together or risk reinforcing the stereotypes working against them (upon this statement cue the room going dead silent). I did have the ability to insist that they stop acting like they were made for less.

Tamir Rice. (not my student, but could have been)

I worry about what will happen when they graduate (or don't). I don't see them reaching their potential now and I don't know if that will ever happen. But someday it could be that they don't experience the need to push back against a stereotype, to work extra hard to prove it wrong, because it won't be there anymore.

The fact is, right now, the false narrative says that because they're not White or rich, they aren't valuable. That they're asking for rights they don't deserve. That their parents are bad parents and so they'll never learn "how to act." Or because of their dialect they are less intelligent and less able to communicate well than their white middle class counterparts. Or even that they're genetically inferior or ethnically predisposed to laziness.

Yes, those are all things that real people think. This country, at a systematic level, is an unfriendly place to them.

The fact is that, right now, the false narrative says that if one of them were walking along that street like Trayvon or Tamir and a member of the police force saw them and felt "threatened" by their presence, their clothing, the color of their skin, their posture, or whatever else he decided to cite as justification, he could shoot and kill them with total impunity from the majority of White America. White America might even praise him for protecting the citizens of this country from the "threat" that is their existence. For letting "them" know who's really in charge.

People in general, and students in particular, hardly ever become a threat to the safety of others except when life becomes a threatening and unwelcoming place for them. If they're born into a threatening and unwelcoming life, then that is not a reason for us to be afraid - it's a reason for us to alleviate that - to make a safe space and welcome them into our lives. To validate them as human and show them they can exert a positive influence on this world - through their own personal strengths and cultural assets.

So that phrase - false narrative? It's just another way of saying "lie."

Mike Brown. (not my student, but could have been)

So we need to stop telling lies. We need to tell more accurate narratives about these kids, their situations, and their families - and then we need to take it one step further and tell more hopeful narratives about their futures. This requires us to be in their lives and to know them.

Before I was born the injustice of mass incarceration was happening. Before I walked into that classroom this semester, my students were struggling against generations of low expectations because of circumstances far beyond their control. They will continue to do so now that I've left.

Maybe you don't think Black Lives Matter. Maybe you think All Lives Matter.

I hope that if you're like me, and you struggle to understand people whose lives you haven't experienced, you find whatever ways you can to get to know them, and that you can see them in the way their teachers, their coaches, the people in their communities do: silly, sweet, brave, smart. Kids.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A list of things I've learned

It's been a really great semester for me growth-wise. I've become different in so many good ways.

I have learned:
  • That serving people, and becoming a part of their lives, requires a huge investment of time, and it is hard.
  • Teachers work ridiculously long hours and don't get paid for a lot of the time they put in.
  • Students sometimes deal with issues that are truly insurmountable and that's why they struggle in school.
  • Teachers sometimes deal with issues that are truly insurmountable and that's why they don't all win awards.
  • Getting a gym membership is worth it if just for the showers on the way to work. 
  • When you plan ahead and establish routines, anything is possible.
  • Eating the same three meals every day does actually get old, and it is not that great for you.
  • Sometimes going without caffeine is best.
  • Emotions can be really weird and annoying but they mean you're human and alive and that's a good thing.
  • When someone has your back, they will often expect you to have their back in return.
  • It's possible to establish strong relationships with people over a very short period of time if you allow yourself to be vulnerable.
  • Support from other teachers is essential in any teaching job to avoid burnout.
  • Acting like you're in charge of a room doesn't necessarily make you in charge of the room, but it sure helps.
  • Kids are really just kids and they need a lot of grace.
  • You can do a lot more than you think you can.
  • Driving is boring and sometimes that's great.
  • There's a lot more to the history of hip hop than drugs and gangs.
  • Learn how to back out. Learn how to parallel park.
  • Getting up earlier than everyone else is the BEST.
  • Teachers need to be people who have their lives together and they need to be people that are trustworthy.
  • It's okay to eat a donut every once in awhile, especially if as part of a PLC meeting.
  • Find time to meet friends and just hang out or risk losing your sanity/humanity.
  • Find a really, really, really good album/mixtape/record to get you through a tough stretch and you can make it.
  • Determine to get shit done or don't do it at all. There is no in between.
  • A classroom can feel more like home than any house.
  • Being an adult is about being responsible for things - money, cleaning responsibilities, food, cars, etc. - but it's also about making your own choices and becoming the person you want to become. If you don't make a conscious decision to be who you want to be you'll become someone you don't like, don't trust, and don't want to spend anymore time with. It's the blessing and the curse.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Examining the American Slave Narrative

I really want to go further into the concept of narratives and how they affect our lives, but for now I will zoom in on a particular issue that was highlighted for me recently because of a film that I saw.

The underlying structure of the narrative echoed by this film and many others goes like this:
  • White people are mean to black people 
  • Black people escape mean white people thanks to nice white people
  • Be like the nice white people to do your part and eliminate racism; ie, don't be outrageously cruel and abusive to people just because you can 

The stereotypical plot structure goes something like this:

Abusive-white-man-with-kindly-wife-or-daughter-figure enslaves determined-but-reckless-black-man-or-woman until the latter somehow escapes this environment.

Telling this same story over and over again in our literature and media does three things.
  1. It implies that there is no more to black history than being enslaved by American white people. Let's realize that slaves who were brought over from Africa had a life and a culture before that event and that they formed a life and a culture during their enslavement and after it even though many of them continued to be oppressed in other ways.
  2.  On a more micro-cosmic level, it reduces the lifetime of the black slave in America to the story of his literal captivity and freedom. Let's look at slaves as people with many aspects, dreams, struggles, and plans that went awry in which slavery was probably more of an obstacle to their life than their entire life encapsulated.
  3. It portrays the white master figure as the cruelest of the cruel when in reality many white slave owners would have considered themselves, and have been considered by acquaintances, as good Christians, decent businessmen, kind fathers, good husbands, etc. Portraying the white master as inexplicably violent and greedy may be accurate when considering interactions with slaves, but it dehumanizes the abuser so that modern-day racists might look at themselves by comparison and understand themselves as vastly kinder and therefore pure, good, un-racist people devoid of any racial bias. This is almost like implying that as long as we tell the story we can eliminate our responsibility for the oppression experienced by ethnic minorities.
All of these things point to an over-simplification of our understanding of white-on-black enslavement in American that disables us from exploring the complexity of the issue and the lives of the people involved.

To be clear: I believe individuality is independent from race and that our choices define us, not our ancestry. Our ethnic background doesn't determine our choices and therefore not our character; but it does predispose us to a particular position in society that gives us an advantage or a disadvantage in relationship to other ethnic demographics.

To try to eliminate that position to the degree that our choices in regard to other community members seem neutral to us is irresponsible and ignorant. The American slave narrative attempts to do this. It tells white people "don't be like these mean white people, be like these nice white people, and you have done your part to not be racist." It tells black people "accept the treatment people give you, because at least it is not as bad as getting whipped and starved and separated from your family." 

Oversimplifying the past is the quickest way to ensure that we don't learn from it.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Why Am I Doing THIS?!?!?!?

I realized today that I want to teach because the most important people I have ever met are teachers.

That college kid teaching young kids art who most of the time seemed harsh and serious, and one day held up my sketch of two profiles and said to the whole class that I had made the best example of mirror imaging. Even though my brother's profiles were pretty, and probably everyone else's in the class too, and I knew it, I will always remember that my teacher praised me for my ugly drawing because I did my best to tap into the real meaning of art.

The piano teacher who assigned me a performance piece I felt I couldn't handle and that I hated the first time I practiced it, which taught me how to wrestle with an art work until I understand it and can touch it with my own pulse.

That startling, persistent horseback instructor who never let me leave the arena after a fall and never cried with me when I was scared but always told me with her insistence that I would reach my goals and if I had not reached them I was not done working.

That sweetest of teachers who overcame a life of self-abuse to embrace a holistic understanding of health and an unapologetic, pervasive spirituality that gave her a passion for students while she still maintained firm authority.

That short, sharp English teacher who challenged me to work hard every day of the week and never once allowed me to think I could get by on talent alone.

Those professors who have modeled interpersonal excellence, and made me through their own joy and passion in everyday life to prioritize loving and understanding others above anything else.

I have said to my friends before in trying to understand my own growth as a person and how it has been stunted and come in bursts that teachers have been better parents than my true parents could have ever been, and this is not a fair statement because my parents have sacrificed a lot to give me the gifts that I have. My mom, after all, was my first teacher, and the one who showed me how varied and intrinsic and joy-infused, how self-generated learning can and must be.

There is something about choosing to invest in someone else's world, even if only on the merest fringes, that dedication to changing the soul in the slightest ways that will become the person's realization of their true self, that unshakeable belief that each of us holds unlimited potential and that the rest of the world, if it is skeptical about that potential, may go to hell.

When you make someone else's success your goal, you hold a tremendous power to give the gift and the joy of life in a million different ways, a million times a day. It is staggering to me the amount of influence a healthy adult can hold over the wellbeing of a young person still coming to understand who they are, not yet conscious of what they need.

Anyway, enough of the pretentious language and run-on sentences.

The point is this:

There is nothing that will satisfy me but to pass on the gift, to exude the joy - to teach.