A day of resistance and lessons

SEED logoThe SEED (Seeking Educational Equity & Diversity) Showcase: Tools of Resistance is the first educational conference I’ve been to in many years, and I was excited. Since it was held just 20 minutes away at the First Congregational Church in Oakland (affectionately called First Congo by its parishioners), I didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to drive there. I found parking right away—because, for once, I was early!—and entered through the blue door as specifically instructed on our pre-conference materials.

Loud rap music was coming over the loudspeakers in the main hall, setting a distinctly different atmosphere from any educational conferences I’d ever been to. I gathered various free materials (a mainstay of any teachers’ workshop), made my way over to get a bagel and coffee (also an important component of any teachers’ workshop), and grabbed a seat in the front row for the whole-group event.

IMG_2738.JPG
My paper haul from the conference. I resisted buying the got privilege? T-shirt.

After a brief mindfulness exercise to get us all centered, Dr. Eddie Moore, founder of the White Privilege Conference, took the stage. He began by telling us he was an emotional mess and has been since November. (Nobody in our progressive Bay Area crowd had to ask what he was referring to.) I listened eagerly, expecting to agree with everything he said, and I appreciated his energy and passion. He compared our struggle with racism to the relationship between the dominant lion and the innocent lamb. While I didn’t entirely understand his metaphor, it made for a striking visual.

lion. & lamb
The slide Dr. Moore used to illustrate his Theory of Incapability.

He stirred us up with a rousing call to action, and I found myself nodding a lot. Yes, it is scary knowing that white supremacists have the presidents’ ear. No, we can’t be complacent and accept this as normal. Yes, we must do what we can to resist!

Then he mentioned that even well-meaning white teachers did not see future doctors and lawyers when they saw black boys in their classrooms, and he bemoaned the fact that he had to send his son—a black boy—to kindergarten where his teacher was a white woman.

It was as if a fully saturated roll of paper towels had hit me in the chest. I’m a white woman who has taught black boys, and I sincerely hoped that none of their parents felt that way about me. I know in my heart I never expected less of any of my students based on their race. Don’t I?

I was feeling resistance, but it was not in the way I’d expected. I let that sit with me for a while and consciously worked against my gut reaction. Somewhere in the back of my head I heard my daughter telling me that this was tough work and in order to make progress, I was going to be uncomfortable sometimes.

Then it was time for small-group work. Our name tags were color coded to divide us into groups of ten to twelve. (Go Team Red!) Our leaders went over the procedures for SEED meetings and gave us a question as a writing prompt, after which, we took turns in triads sharing our responses in precisely timed three-minute segments. I went last and finished in under sixty seconds. Although the SEED way is to embrace any silence that occurs before the timer goes off, it is not in my nature to sit quietly. So I just kept adding thoughts until it was time for crosstalk, which is SEED’s term for discussion among the triad members. Then it was time for popcorn (which, as it turns out, did not mean it was snack break.) Apparently popcorn is the term used for the discussion that happens in the small group (bigger than the triad, smaller than the whole group). People shared thoughts and feelings that had come up for them during Dr. Moore’s talk.

And out of nowhere I shared something I had not ever planned to talk about, all in the spirit of being open, I guess. Even as I was blathering, I began to worry that I shouldn’t have mentioned it at all. What would my Team Red colleagues think? Immediately afterward, a kind soul reminded us that this was a safe space and thanked us for being willing to share feelings that might make us uncomfortable. I knew she was thanking me because, as far as I could tell, nobody else had said anything they wouldn’t be perfectly fine announcing to a crowd of strangers. I appreciated that and no longer worried about consequent judgments.

IMG_2733

IMG_2736
Dr. Flyswithhawks presents Dr. Moore with a Tsalagi blanket, which he proudly wears.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a break, we reassembled in the main hall to hear Santa Rosa Junior College psych professor and former co-director of SEED, Dr. Brenda Flyswithhawks. A member of the Tsalagi (Cherokee) tribe, she started her presentation with a mini-lesson on the recent events at Standing Rock. A warm, funny woman who credits her grandmother as being her greatest teacher, Dr. Flyswithhawks shared several personal anecdotes about her experiences with and reactions to racism.

The most incredible story dated back to an incident that happened when she was a child. She remembers her grandmother hurrying all the children to the back of her house one day to hide. And when they emerged, little Brenda went out to the front yard, where she found her uncle hanging dead from a tree, the victim of hooded Klan members, who wanted to show Native people just what they thought of them. Years later, when she working toward her doctorate, she persistently made efforts to sit down with the grand dragon of the KKK. When she finally got a meeting with him, she told him she forgave him and told him about that traumatic day from her childhood. I have no idea what that meant to him, but she explained that the forgiveness was for her, not for him.

I could not relate. I don’t possess that kind of forgiveness, and I was floored to hear of someone who did.

We wrote our evaluations and jotted down questions on cards that were not quite 3 x 5 to submit to our speakers for an end-of-the-day conversation. Although the schedule claimed that the conference closed with a mindfulness exercise, I think that got skipped in favor of letting the Q&A time go longer. Even so, they got around to only a fraction of the questions, so I felt fortunate that both of mine were answered.

boy-cryingI’d asked Dr. Moore how he reconciled leaving his boy in the hands of a white woman every day, knowing he preferred not to. He replied honestly that it wasn’t a matter of reconciling it, that he still has a hard time with it. And I could hear the pain in his voice as he picked up a piece of paper and replied, “Every day, I hand my boy over whole.” Then he ripped the paper into strips, letting them fall to the floor as he said, “And every day, this is what I get back.” He proceeded to piece the strips back together on the ground and added that even after this process, his son was never as whole, that creases remained.

That is when I understood his side of the story. I may do the best job I can do as a white woman, but I could never be the perfect teacher for his son. Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect teacher, but a parent always wants the best for his or her child. And he was speaking as a parent.

My question for Dr. Flyswithhawks was “How were you able to get to a place where you could forgive the grand dragon of the KKK for the death of your uncle, even understanding that the forgiveness was for you?” Her answer: grace–the grace she has as a spiritual woman, the grace she learned from her grandmother. She was a great believer in prayer, even as she conceded that some of us in that room would be uncomfortable with the concept of prayer.

There was that idea again—being uncomfortable. Here I was, a devout atheist since the age of 11, looking up to a woman of faith and appreciating her for all that she was. This by no means changed my thoughts on God, but I didn’t have that automatic reaction to discount what else she said, as–I admit–I might have before.

So the day was full of lessons: I learned that I could be vulnerable without negative consequences. I learned that I could listen and hold onto ideas that were contrary to my own without having to argue against them. I learned that I could accept wisdom from someone whom I truly admired but wasn’t completely aligned with ideologically.

And I needed to work on being comfortable with silence. That one might be tough.

Learning to reframe bad news

 

broken heartFirst, the bad news: I didn’t get the job I’d really hoped to get. I’d applied to be the After School Director at Prospect Sierra’s middle school, but I got beat out by someone with more experience and a PhD. I can’t compete with that. Sigh.

I usually wouldn’t get so emotional about being turned down for employment, but thinking about it afterward, I began to understand the implications. This was not merely an employment opportunity–landing this job would have represented something more akin to healing. Rejoining Prospect Sierra’s faculty would have felt like reconnecting with a long-lost family member or childhood friend.

Now the background: Out of 24 years of teaching, 19 of them were at that school. It was a great place to work, and I got along with teachers, students, parents, and administrators. Except Sheila, the lower school head, who of course was my boss.

In independent schools, teachers don’t get tenure the way they do in public school, and our contracts allowed the administration to dismiss teachers without cause. When the school didn’t renew my contract eight years ago, it felt like a divorce. I was devastated.  It seriously broke my heart.

Luckily, my husband, Dave, was there to pick up the pieces and offered me a job in his company without even so much as an interview.

A few years ago, Sheila retired. Former colleagues kept telling me I should come back now that she was gone. But I had moved on and switched careers. I became a copy editor and proofreader, and I had time to pursue writing. Occasionally I missed the classroom, but I was happy.

I began teaching an after-school creative writing class in the Bay Area called Take My Word For It and ended up getting assigned to one semester at Prospect Sierra and a few at Madera. I think in the back of my mind I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to teach any more–I’d lost my confidence. But it all came back to me, and I enjoyed teaching again, although it was only once a week for an hour.

About this time, my husband and I were reviewing the state of our finances, and it was none too rosy. We weren’t bringing in enough income and had spent most of our savings. It was unlikely that we’d ever be able to retire. We started entertaining the possibilities.

This past February, I ran into a former colleague who still teaches at Prospect Sierra, who mentioned that the school had raised the pay rate for substitutes to $150 a day.

Hmmm…I updated my resume, filled out an application, and was subbing at Prospect Sierra the day after I handed in all the paperwork.

The biggest surprise? I discovered that I love middle school students. Maybe part of my brain stopped maturing after age 13, but I totally relate to them and appreciate their sense of humor. I’d always taught elementary school, but now I was seeing myself as that rare breed I used to pity: a middle school teacher.

mortarboardI became quite fond of these kids and even attended graduation last week. (Yes, I did cry a tiny bit…)

So I was overjoyed when I found out about the After School Director position. What could be more perfect? I wanted it too much. When the head of the middle school called yesterday to break the bad news, it hurt. Even though she wasn’t even at the school when I was let go, it felt a little like getting back together with an ex-boyfriend just to get dumped again.

But the take-home message is that I’ve discovered a new side of myself, and I don’t have to teach where I taught before. There are middle school students all over the place, so there must be openings at other schools, right?

A different kind of urban hike

IMG_1116
This statue of an old-fashioned maiden was my only photo of the day.

Although this year’s project focuses on the paths of Berkeley, inspired by my January 2 purchase of the map so named, I also made a vow to walk more in general. And the opportunity arose on my first day of subbing.

Let me backtrack just a smidge. . . I left teaching 7 1/2 years ago. Okay, it would be more truthful to say that teaching left me, but that’s a whole long sob story I’d rather not relive for this post. Suffice it to say that I went from a stable 25-year career in elementary education to the glamorous offerings-aplenty world of publishing. Or maybe that was the little lie I told myself to get me up every morning.

I was incredibly lucky to land a job in publishing with nary an interview or related job experience. Since my wonderful husband hired me, I didn’t even have to update my resume. (My favorite line is that I can do what I want at work because I sleep with the boss.) Of course I have a B.A. in English Lit, which is exceedingly rare and a huge asset in the job market. (English majors not only have the distinction of being the best-read baristas, they are also prone to sarcasm.)

So, you may have heard: the publishing industry has been in decline since someone proclaimed that print was dead. And our property taxes here in Bezerkeley are among the highest anywhere. So . . .

To make up for the reduced income–and because my nemesis was no longer in charge of the lower school–I decided to see if the school where I used to teach needed subs. I filled out the paperwork, handed it in, and got called that evening to sub the next day for one of the 7th grade humanities teachers at the middle school campus.

Of course Wednesday is the day that I teach an after-school creative writing class for 3rd-5th graders at Madera Elementary in El Cerrito, so I explained that I could sub only if I was allowed to leave early in order to teach my class. It was fine.

The office staff person in charge of subs told me to wear my walking shoes because part of my day would be escorting my charges on their trip to visit their 4th grade buddies on the elementary campus, which is 1.6 miles by foot. The plan was for the 7th graders to walk over, eat lunch with their buddies, play with each other at recess, do an activity together, then walk back to their own campus in time for a 2:30 dismissal.

Except I needed to leave at 1:40 to drive to Madera, which is a mile and a half away from either campus. So I got up early, drove to the elementary campus, parked my car, and walked the 1.6 miles to the middle school campus to arrive there at 8:10, ready to get my class roster and sub plans for the day.

En route I saw one current elementary teacher walking the opposite direction  heading for work and one former middle school teacher who happens to live in the neighborhood out for her morning jog. I got lost, very briefly, when I unnecessarily climbed a steep block that led to a dead-end. Since I wanted to make up time for my wrong turn, I stopped only once to take a picture.

My first day of subbing was wonderful. In the morning the kids worked on making books out of their collections of vignettes–choosing their about-the-author photos, formatting the various pieces, printing out their pages, and gluing them together. They were kind, helpful, self-directed, polite, and respectful. Who knew that 7th graders were so great?

Then at 11:35 on an unusually warm, sunny February day, all the 7th graders and their teachers trekked over to other campus, bravely sweating up that last big hill. It was pizza day, so they happily ate outside with their 4th grade buddies and spent recess together. Afterward the 7th graders gave handmade cards to their buddies and helped them make special valentines that light up. I loved watching the older children patiently teaching younger ones and having fun.

I slipped out and drove to Madera to teach my regular class and was pretty tired by the time I got home that afternoon.

It was quite a productive day all around: between the two jobs, I earned $200 and took 12,668 steps!

See Gidion’s Knot If You Possibly Can!

Gidion's Knot 3Because I’ve been blogging so much about food lately, I haven’t been sharing all the wonderful theater experiences as I should. But I would be remiss if I didn’t encourage as many people as I could to see this amazing play at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley.

Everything about Gidion’s Knot is well done. Before the play even officially begins, actress Stacy Ross is in character as a teacher on stage, grading papers at her desk in a convincing fifth-grade classroom. The set is decked out with the typical primary-colored, cheery pre-fab elementary-school posters under harsh institutional fluorescents, which is the perfect setting for shining light on an extremely dark topic and sets the right tone for what must be the most uncomfortable parent-teacher conference ever. My compliments to set designer Nina Ball and lighting designer, Michael Palumbo.

I don’t want to give away important plot twists because part of the beauty of the play is the unveiling of each element, but it is a story that delves into many issues, none of which are easy or clear cut. An abrasive, wounded, misguided mother, played by Jamie Jones, descends on the teacher who does her best to consider the mother’s situation before reacting.

Johnna Adam’s script is a finely cut jigsaw puzzle whose pieces interlock before the audience to reveal a troubled student who never appears on stage. Both the mother and teacher have pieces of that puzzle. But even when the audience has the insight of both women, the picture isn’t complete, which illustrates how deeply complicated an eleven-year old can be.

Also noticeably absent is the principal, who is supposedly on her way. Representing an institutional lack of support, this Godot fails not only the teacher and the parent but presumably the boy as well.

Stacy Ross is one of my favorite Bay Area actors, and this role took advantage of her great talent. (Another actress will take over that role starting March 4, and I’m sure she’s good, but to be on the safe side, I would get tickets now.) Jamie Jones did such a good job of being that multi-faceted pain-in-the-ass parent that I actively disliked her character while also feeling great sympathy.

It’s not a rollicking good time, but it’s a moving drama that poses important questions that will haunt you long after you leave the theater.

For tickets, go to https://tickets.auroratheatre.org/TheatreManager/1/login&event=0

Bullying Antidote offers hope and explores options

bullying antidoteBullying has been around as long as there have been people, but it is not an inevitable condition that we as a society have to give in to. New approaches are starting to make headway as schools and parents tackle this issue that will not go away.

Last week I attended a book launch at Laurel Books for The Bullying Antidote: Superpower Your Kids for Life, written by my friend Kristen Caven and her mother, Dr. Louise Hart. It was a warm, muggy night in Oakland, so the door was opened in Luan’s cozy little bookshop to allow the occasional breeze to provide some relief. A small but engaged audience of parents and teachers listened to the authors present ideas based on both science and experience.

Kristen & Louise
Louise Hart & Kristen Caven

Hart is a community psychologist who has studied school environments and is an expert in self-esteem development. Caven is a writer who is actively involved in the parent association where her son attends high school. (She also happens to be an active member in the California Writers Club, which is how I know her.) Together they have compiled information that explores the topic quite thoroughly. One major aspect of this issue has to do with different parenting styles. Nobody sets out to raise a bully or a victim (or at least I hope nobody does!), but any sort of extreme parenting, whether permissive or autocratic, leaves its mark on our children. Through positive parenting, the authors suggest that we can help turn the tide on a trend that has contributed to the bully/victim dynamic. Recognizing patterns, understanding motives, and focusing on effective communication are all part of a multi-pronged approach to dealing with this prevalent problem.

During the question and answer portion of the presentation, a young man shared his recent experience as a substitute camp counselor. Neither a teacher or a parent, he hadn’t known about the book event. He just happened to be walking by and impulsively entered the open door. Then something about the topic piqued his interest, and he stayed. His own father, he admitted, was less than an ideal parent, but rather than putting energy toward resenting him, this young man seemed bent on breaking that cycle and taking what he learned to heart.

It’s possible that, as it often is, the authors were mostly preaching to the choir, considering those assembled. But even if just one young person really understood the advice being offered that night, perhaps it will influence his choices and actions, spurring a ripple effect that will touch many. It may be a romantic notion, but hope thrives on such notions, doesn’t it?

30 poems…day 25

NanoPoMo

Day 25

On Thursday mornings I go to Martin Luther King Middle School to volunteer in a program called Writer Coach Connection (WCC).  WCC has recruited enough volunteers so that every 8th grader in Berkeley public schools gets a writer coach to work with throughout the school year. I work with three students one week and three different ones on alternating weeks. I get to see my six 8th graders for about 25 minutes apiece to work with them on whatever writing assignment they have that week.

In the spring, the big writing project is their iSearch, which is an eight-week long research paper on a topic of their choice. This includes not only the research, but involves conducting interviews, compiling a bibliography, keeping regular journal entries on their progress, writing a cohesive paper tying together what they’ve learned, and making a presentation to the class.

This morning was particularly fun because students got to write a creative story that illustrates some of what they’ve learned through their research. (Usually we’re helping with persuasive essays or something more structured.)

One of the stories had me laughing out loud—it was written with such wit and sophisticated humor. Another one actually got me teary. One girl amazed me with how much specific information she was able to embed into her story. I was so impressed with them all. So this poem is dedicated to the 8th graders whom I coach.

I got the iSearch blues

What is this? I have to do a research project?

You’re kidding, right? I mean I’m just thirteen!

It’s hard enough to concentrate on math and history

An eight-week project is a tad obscene

Research is for grown-ups—it’s way too hard for me

I ‘m just a kid, you know—I have my rights!

Already I spend every day working hard in school

Now you want to take up all my nights?

Okay, at least I get to pick the topic that I want

I admit that part is really kind of cool

But going to the library and taking lots of notes

Are not my favorite parts of middle school

I’ve always liked the movies—could I direct a film?

I could study lots of scenes and clips

Maybe I could interview someone in the biz

And pick up lots of good directing tips

I think I’ve got my topic. Now it’s time to plan.

I found this killer website full of stuff

Like how you  pick a camera angle and you set the scene

(And that working with live animals is tough)

I’ll borrow Grandpa’s camera and I’ll write the script myself

I’ll build the set with help from Mom and Dad

My friends can act it out…You know, this iSearch thing is fun

I changed my mind—it’s really not so bad

It’s the last time…

Last night I attended the 8th grade graduation at the school where I taught for 19 years.

I love the pomp and circumstance of graduations: the songs of youth and hope, girls with their hair done and in fancy dresses, boys looking uncomfortable in suits, speeches, hugs, and an air of excitement about the future. Many of them will go on to attend Berkeley High and so will not have to officially say goodbye to about half their classmates. But as one of the graduation speakers noted, it will never be the same. Parents and teachers chuckled at the drama of Nekhi’s words: “It’s the last time we will all be together as children.” But truer words were never spoken.

Eighth graders no doubt feel pretty grown up when they’re the oldest kids on campus. The girls certainly look like women in their elegant and sometimes revealing dresses, at least until they have to traverse the stage in four-inch heels to accept their diplomas. But they are young teens and about to be thrown to the bottom of the food chain once again in high school. And for the lifers who went to school nine years under the gentle care of a small private school and plan to attend Berkeley High, a school of over 3400 students, they will experience a radical shift in their environment. But even the kids who attend smaller public high schools or independent schools will never be those same eighth graders again. High school requires a certain amount of responsibility and in turn offers an independence beyond middle school life. So when they have their  reunion in four years, they will be different people, and in fact, will certainly no longer be children.

So, no, it’s not the end of their youth, and many of them will surely continue their friendships beyond middle school, but Nekhi’s words ring true: It’s the last time they will ever gather together as children.