Tag Archives: justice

What I know — what I owe

In the mid ’90s, back when I lived in Texas, I was a teacher. I came to the profession through a rather unconventional — though sadly, not particularly uncommon — path, and I didn’t last long.

I graduated from college with a BA in English, broke, with no clear idea of what I wanted to do for a living and exactly zero job prospects. Despite numerous visits to my university’s career services office, several half-hearted applications to “consulting” firms, and the moral low of applying for an entry-level communications role at Enron, I remained unemployed months after graduation. It was during this desperate time that I learned a school district at the northernmost reaches of the Houston city limits, comprised mostly of poor students of color, was hiring teachers.

It hadn’t occurred to me to apply for a teaching position, since I had no teaching certificate or teaching experience. (I had entertained — and dismissed — the idea of a teaching career early in college.) But this district was just as desperate as I was; it was experiencing an extreme teacher shortage and was therefore offering emergency certification. All that was required to apply was a bachelor’s degree, a mediocre GPA, and a background check.

After a short interview at the district office, I was hired to teach English at one of its four high schools. I started work at the beginning of the semester, without one single minute of training, without even a substantial meeting with the principal or the other teachers in my department. I was told what subject matter I was expected to cover, issued a couple of teacher’s manuals and a rolling cart, and sent off to do a job I had no idea how to do.

The cart, I should explain, was needed because I did not have a classroom. The school was overcrowded, and because I was a newbie and therefore low on the teaching totem pole, I was expected to “float”: teach each class in a different room, using the classrooms of more fortunate teachers during their planning periods. I had no desk of my own, no way to prepare lessons on the board in advance of class, and no place to meet with students or parents outside of class time. I didn’t even have access to a closet to store my coat and purse.

My classes were huge. Some had close to 40 students. On days when everyone showed up, there weren’t enough desks, and I would scramble at the beginning of the period in search of rare extras from other classrooms. A couple of times a month, a new student would show up. At least as often, a student on my roster would disappear.

The school had recently moved to “block” scheduling and for some reason could not figure out how to implement more than one lunch period with this new schedule. So, all 3,000 students ate lunch at the same time. There was not enough room for 3,000 people to eat in the cafeteria, so students ate throughout the school building. The staff was expected to supervise the students during lunch, to ensure that they followed school rules. This exercise in futility was called “lunch duty.”

Back in the mid 90s, state tests were just starting to become a thing. Texas’s test, then called the TAAS, was a big deal for districts and was an especially big deal for our district, since our scores were quite low. In my second year at the school, I was required to teach a daily, semester-long class on this test. (In block scheduling, a semester is the equivalent of a full school year.) I repeat: I was required to teach a daily class about how to take a test. This was in addition to the math test prep that I, an English teacher, was required to do with all of my classes for the first 10 minutes of every period.

These were the conditions under which I began my short-lived teaching career. It is clear to me now (even more than it was then) that I was not set up for success. Given the circumstances, I could not have given my students what they needed and deserved no matter how hard I tried. But the thing is, I didn’t really try.

I had no idea how to be a good teacher, and I didn’t ask for help. I didn’t find a mentor, or attend trainings, or read books about best practices for classroom management or lesson preparation. Instead, I prepared lessons at the last minute and “winged” my way through almost every class. I looked forward to my students completing required readings so that I could show the movie version of the story and avoid teaching for an entire class period. Any (rare) moments that I wasn’t required to spend with students I spent in a locked classroom with a few other young teachers, talking about how much we hated our jobs.

Once, I shared a lunch duty post with a PE teacher, a man in his 50s with many years of experience. In the course of our conversation, I complained about the chaos at the school. He agreed with me about the craziness but seemed resigned and wholly unconcerned. “These kids are trash,” he told me matter-of-factly. He only worked at our school, he explained, because the district paid more than districts with more “desirable,” students. He was looking forward to retirement, but in the intervening years, he would earn his paycheck honorably, by “giv[ing] them a basketball.”

What did I say in response to this man’s disgusting comments? Absolutely nothing.

At the beginning of every semester, I received individual education plans (IEPs) for all of my students with special needs. As their teacher, I was required to adjust my teaching style to suit these students’ learning styles. I know for sure that I did not do that. I did not even know how.

I rarely called parents, in part because many of my students were from non-English-speaking families, and I lacked the necessary communication skills, but mostly because I wasn’t organized or proactive enough.

Despite these (and many other) deficiencies, both of my formal reviews were solid: in the B+ range. This fact alone tells you all you need to know about the level of expectation and the amount of oversight in that school.

It wasn’t all awful. I showed up every day, despite the terrible conditions and the depressing, prison-like atmosphere. I tried to help my students understand how their schoolwork applied to their lives and their futures. I managed a few creative and inspired lessons. And I am certain that some of my students learned something of value from me.

With my 9th graders — in someone else’s classroom (ahem). Hard to tell which of us is the teacher.

Two of my students — eating their lunches on top of a trash can

With a student on the last day of school. Loved that kid but was singing, “Hallelujah!” in my head.

After two years, I accepted that I was not cut out to be a teacher and moved on to a profession I was better suited for. (A decade later, I moved on again, but that’s a story for another time.)

Now I have children in school, and I am dependent upon teachers to care about them, to see their humanity, and to create safe and stimulating learning environments. Now I understand better than ever what my students deserved, and just how much I failed them.

There is no way to fix the mistakes I made. All I can do now is ask myself what I owe.

Certainly, I owe a commitment to the children who are enrolled in public school now. I owe support and encouragement to those teachers who take seriously their responsibility to educate our children. (This support must also manifest in the public arena, by demanding that our leaders fund reasonable working conditions and decent salaries.)

Also, I owe the truth.

The truth is, we don’t value all children equally. The truth is, we are willing to accept substandard education for poor students and students of color.

The truth is, we are throwing away human beings.

What are we going to do about it?

Some truth

For me, the most important thing about writing is telling the truth. Ironically, this is precisely the area in which I fall short. It’s s not that my writing is untrue — I do my best to keep things factual; it’s that it is not as true as it could be. Curating facts to advance a particular point of view or present a certain image is one way to communicate, but it feels very surface. Only by exposing vulnerability and exploring ideas without an agenda can we truly connect with words. So today — and, hopefully, on many future days — I am going to share a bit of my truth.

The truth is, in this moment (as in most moments) I am overwhelmed by the suffering in this world. Suffering — of both large and small scale — surrounds us. Hurricanes, homelessness, famine, disease, and war. Child abuse, poisoned water, mass shootings, failing schools, and underfunded everything. Car crashes. Evictions. Convictions. Loss of parents and children. Loss of species and habitats. Exploitation. Violence.

I am beyond fortunate to have shelter, enough to eat, a loving spouse, healthy children, and access to medical care and transportation. Yet, even in my life, there has been plenty of suffering. And I do not doubt that there will be plenty more.

Right now, as I sit on my comfortable couch typing, there are millions of people who are living through their worst moments and millions – even billions – more who have never known comfort or safety.  How can I sit here, so complacent, while children die of drone attacks and women are raped by soldiers and thousands of people in my own city live on the streets? It is because my own fear of suffering keeps me paralyzed.

Ten years ago, I watched my mother die of cancer. Now, all around me, friends and acquaintances are being diagnosed with the disease. I grieve for them, because I know what they are facing. I also wonder: Am I next? Every time a child dies, or a terrible accident happens, or an earthquake devastates, I am filled with the pain of the people who are affected. But also, I wonder: Am I — are we — next?

Dread and despair are my constant companions. I can push them away, count my blessings, look for the helpers, focus on my breath, connect with my Creator, but they lurk beneath the surface and follow me everywhere – even into my most joyful moments.

I know for sure that fear is the opposite of love. One need look no further than the disturbing election that is playing out under our noses to see that. But I cannot conquer my own fear, or even, most of the time, keep it under control.

Fear informs so many of my decisions. It keeps me from standing up and stepping out more than I do, because standing up might be uncomfortable: physically, socially, legally, and in countless other ways. It keeps me from fostering another child, because I know it will be hard, and also because, if something catastrophic happens to me (see above), there will be three children without a mama. Fear even informs what I post on this blog. I worry that it will sound trite, that it will unwittingly offend, that I will be exposed as a bad writer or even a bad person.

I try to choose love over fear, as often as I can, in as many contexts as I can, because love — not the sentimental variety, but love as King envisioned it — is the only constructive response to the violence and misery in our world. But I am not very good at it. Thank God I have so many examples of courage and love in action to draw on for inspiration. I will keep trying.

Ase.

fear-is-a-prison

We are water

These are strange times. I look around and see a world consumed by greed and hate. Everywhere I turn, there is an injustice, an outrage, a terror, each on its own so big, so entrenched and intractable, that it doesn’t seem possible to fix it — or even to make a meaningful impact. I don’t know what to do about any of it, so most of the time, I do nothing.

But something beautiful is bubbling up in the midst of the greed and hate: resistance. While I sit around feeling hopeless and angry, courageous people — regular folks with bills and deadlines and daycare pickups — are building movements. These people understand that knowing the exact right thing to do isn’t as important as the doing. So they speak up, tell the truth, and refuse to go along, in the face of unlimited money and military might marshalled against them and a corporate media establishment that alternately ignores and vilifies them. They stand up — despite the risks to their reputations, livelihoods, safety, and freedom — because it is all they can do.

I am humbled and inspired by Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, sHell No!, COPINH, the Democracy Defense League, and so many others. And today, as we await a federal judge’s decision about the fate of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, I am especially grateful for the Standing Rock Sioux and all of the people who have gathered at Sacred Stone Camp, sacrificing themselves to protect our water.

Water protectors at the Sacred Stone camp resisting the Dakota Access oil pipeline (source: Indianz.com)

Water protectors at the Sacred Stone camp resisting the Dakota Access oil pipeline (source: Indianz.com)

Last Saturday, one of the members of the camp was interviewed after being attacked by dogs from the pipeline company’s private security. The reporter asked the man if he thought he and his fellow activists would win their battle to stop the pipeline. He replied, “We win every day, when we stand in unity.”

I am with you. Thank you.

Context

My Chicklet is a woman’s woman. Almost as soon as she could talk, she was proudly asserting her gender identity – and allegiance. Now she’s eight and a half, and for the last few months, she’s been talking about feminism and women’s rights in ways I hadn’t even thought to introduce to her yet. Her delivery is a bit on the self-righteous and unforgiving side – she comes by that naturally (ahem) – but she’s not wrong about any of it.

Chicklet’s newfound feminism has caused some sibling tension. Whenever she makes an assertion about men’s role in women’s oppression, or asks to participate in something that is for girls only, her little brother gets upset. Really upset.

In their most recent exchange, he burst into tears as soon as the subject came up. “Don’t say stuff like that,” he sobbed. “You’re making me feel bad about my gender!”

Some background:

Sweet Busling is one of the most open-hearted, fair, and inclusive people I have ever known. In his world, the power balance is clearly tilted in favor of his older sister, whom he adores and looks up to. And, though his dad and I have been proactive about teaching the historical roots of racism, we have kept most of our discussions about gender to general concepts of equality, which Busling has taken to heart. He simply doesn’t see sexism as something that hurts women. Instead, he sees any attempt to single out or exclude someone based on their gender as wrong. And, he is personally offended by any suggestion that there is something wrong with being male.

For months, I have struggled with how to handle Busling’s reactions to his sister’s gender-related complaints and assertions. My instinct has been to comfort him, to push aside my daughter’s very valid critiques in the interest of protecting his feelings. After all, he has no context for understanding women’s oppression. And he certainly didn’t have anything to do with it. Plus, he’s my baby! Every time I look at his sweet face, I want to reassure him that everything is OK.

But here’s the thing: Everything is not OK. Sexism and misogyny pervade our culture. If I avoid or dismiss or sugar coat the truth so that my child can feel good, I have done him – and all of the girls and women he will interact with in the future – a disservice. And really, we’ve had enough recent examples of self-absorbed, entitled young men who see their feelings as more important than someone else’s freedom or safety.

solidarityMy son’s perspective about women’s equality is my responsibility. (Actually, it’s mine and his father’s, but you get the idea.) He doesn’t have any context about women’s oppression because he is new to the world, so it’s my job to provide it. This doesn’t mean I should teach him to feel bad or guilty about being a boy. Instead, I must teach him that oppressive, hierarchical systems hurt everyone, that his freedom is bound up with everyone else’s, and that it is his responsibility to challenge systems that harm people.

Experiencing my own child’s inability to recognize sexism has helped clarify many things for me, including the refusal of many seemingly sane white people to acknowledge the existence of racism. In the past, I assumed that such people feigned ignorance to mask their hostility or indifference to black and brown pain. But now, I am starting to understand that they simply have no context.

Racism, anti-blackness, and white supremacy are facts of life in the United States — part of the very foundation of our country. And yet, it is possible for white children to make it to adulthood without ever being forced to deal with this reality. Schools do not teach the truth, and parents – even those who consider themselves anti-racist – often exacerbate the problem by avoiding difficult conversations or substituting platitudes like “skin color doesn’t matter” for substantive dialog.

Of course we want our children to feel good and have a pleasant life, but our children’s comfort cannot come at the expense of justice. Parents of white children must educate their families (starting with themselves) about racism. They must teach the truth about our nation’s history. They must point out examples of racism and give their children the tools to recognize and resist it in their own lives.

We are all born into systems of oppression we had no hand in creating. Sometimes, they benefit us (in an immediate, individual sense, though certainly not in a long-term collective one); often, they don’t. Either way, it’s our responsibility to help dismantle them. Even if it’s uncomfortable.

People of color and the planet, part I

“If you breathe air and drink water, this is about you.” – This Changes Everything

Almost all of my adult life, I’ve received the message that environmentalism isn’t for black people. Black people aren’t “outdoorsy.” (Don’t tell these folks!) We don’t camp (ahem) or hike or kayak, and we damn sure don’t mess with wildlife. And anyway, we don’t have time to worry about polar bears and glaciers when we can’t even walk home from the corner store without fearing for our lives.

But here’s the thing: Preserving the natural environment is critically important to black people — not just because we live on this planet with everyone else, but precisely because we are black.

Mainstream discourse causes us to think of “the environment” as some special, pristine place, far away from our day-to-day lives and immediate needs. This encourages us to believe that the only people who should concern themselves with environmental issues are people who have the luxury to focus on niche causes. In other words, white people.

In reality, our environment is directly connected to us. It is what we eat, drink, and breathe every day. What affects our air and water affects our health and well-being and our children’s ability to thrive.

In the United States, it is poor communities and communities of color that are most likely to experience the effects of pollution. Freeways are built through our neighborhoods, factories bury hazardous chemicals near our homes, and municipalities locate landfills in our backyards.

Often these polluting forces are brought with the promise of jobs, most of which are provided at the expense of our health — sometimes our very lives. More often than not, they are forced on us, because we do not have the money, political clout, or connections to stop them.

Natural disasters often disproportionately affect black people, both because we are more likely to be living in substandard housing and because the country as a whole just gives less of a damn about our well being.

On a global scale, the effects of climate change are not being distributed equally. The nations that will be most affected by climate change are in the global south, while the global north, which is largely responsible for the problem, sets emission targets that will protect its own people and then does nothing to meet even those.

So-called “developed” nations have built their wealth by appropriating resources from brown and black people across the world and by placing the disproportionate burden of their extractive, wasteful, greedy culture on those same people.

What this means is that we cannot truly improve the well-being of black and brown people without fundamentally changing the way we treat our environment. Rather than rejecting environmentalism as a hobby for people who already have everything, black folks should be at the very forefront of the movement to protect our planet and demand justice for its inhabitants.

This is not about buying recycled toilet paper or organic bed sheets. Certainly, individual choices have a role (though to be clear buying stuff is the exact opposite of what we need to be doing), but to counter the forces that are destroying us, we must build something bigger than our individual choices. We must come together as communities to protect our land and water. We must demand affordable, accessible transit service and safe places to walk and bike. We must insist on healthy, whole food grown sustainably. We must share with our neighbors.

We must refuse to accept rapacious corporations into our communities because they promise us a handful of jobs. Instead, we must insist that our young people be the first hired to build the sustainable, healthy, and safe communities of the future.

We no longer have the luxury of leaving environmentalism to others. As the tragedy in Flint makes painfully clear, our very lives depend on it.

Wisdom from a walker

“Part of the mystery of walking is that the destination is inside us and we really don’t know when we arrive until we arrive.” — John Francis

I recently watched this very interesting talk by John Francis, aka “Planetwalker.”

I don’t remember how I came across the talk, because I had never heard of Francis or his extreme walking before I happened upon it.* A little background:

In 1971, when John Francis was in his 20s and living in Inverness, California, two oil tankers collided under the Golden Gate Bridge and spilled close to a million gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay. The resulting devastation disturbed Francis deeply. He volunteered to participate in cleanup efforts, but it didn’t feel like enough. So, after some soul searching, he decided to give up riding in motorized vehicles and walk to get around.** According to his official bio, Francis “started walking because he felt partly responsible for the mess that washed up on the shore.”

A few months after this decision, Francis also decided to stop talking – at first to take a break from the arguments with friends and family that his new walking lifestyle had prompted, and then as a discipline. Not talking helped him learn to listen and, paradoxically, strengthened his ability to communicate.

Over the next 22 years, this silent walker (and occasional cyclist and sailboat rider) earned several degrees, including a PhD in land resources; taught university courses; wrote oil spill regulations for the US Coast Guard; started a nonprofit; and traveled the world as a UN ambassador.

Damn.

But what is interesting about Francis’s talk is that it is not about the decades he spent walking. It is not about the struggles, triumphs, accomplishments, or even the recognition that resulted from his steadfast adherence to a decision he made as a very young man.

No, Francis’s talk is about the reasons he decided to stop walking — or, to put it more accurately, to start riding again. He didn’t change his mind about what he believed, nor did he simply grow weary and disillusioned and give up. Instead, he evolved. Over the years and miles, Francis’s understanding of humanity’s abuse of this planet deepened and broadened.

“Environment changed from just being about trees and birds and endangered species to being about how we treated each other. Because if we are the environment, then all we need to do is look around and see how we treat ourselves and how we treat each other.”

He began to see the connections between our disrespect for other human beings and our disrespect for other species. He began to see justice and ecology as intimately intertwined. And he began to see that he had an obligation to spread this message as broadly as possible. To do this, he would have to put his days of taking years to travel across states behind him.

“I realized that I had a responsibility to more than just me, and that I was going to have to change. I was afraid to change because I was so used to the guy who only just walked. I was so used to that person that I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t know who I would be if I changed, but I [knew] I needed to. I [knew] I needed to change because it would be the only way that I could be here today. And I know that a lot of times we find ourselves in this wonderful place that we have gotten to, but there’s another place for us to go, and we kind of have to leave behind the security of who we’ve become and go to the place of who we are becoming. And so, I want to encourage you to go to that next place, to let yourself out of any prison you might find yourself in, because we have to do something now. We have to change now.”

I relate to John Francis on many levels. I relate to his love of walking. I relate to his deep appreciation of the natural world. I relate to his horror and sense of helplessness in the face of unprecedented environmental destruction, motivated by unprecedented greed. I relate to his extremism, which in my case, has its roots in part in an “all or nothing” mentality and in part in a self-righteousness that I have only in the last few years begun to acknowledge and attempt to address.

I relate to his conviction that racism, war, inequality, colonialism, environmental destruction, and all forms of abuse are symptoms of the same sickness: the sickness of disconnection and separation, of viewing “self” as being contained within the walls of one’s skin, rather than as one essential part of a beautiful, connected whole.

I relate to the way he tied his identity to his mode of travel — and especially to his eventual chafing at this connection. For many years, my identity — or at least, my public persona — has been built upon how I choose to get around. Yes, public transportation is something I deeply value. It speaks to me on many levels, and I intend to keep riding as long as I am able, which I hope is for the rest of my life. But my identity is not dependent on my transportation choices.

I will never tire of writing about buses, because they are much more than a way to get around. But I have more to say – about motherhood, and community, and spirituality, and justice, and history, and ecology. And I, like John Francis, believe I can do a better job saying it without the yoke of an identity that is no longer serving me.

Though our family will continue to live without a car, and I will continue share my love of public transit — here and elsewhere — I’m ready to write about more than just buses. And really, it’s about time.

***
* Of course, after the talk, I went straight the library and checked out his book. I’ll report back.
** I have no idea why he didn’t consider using a bicycle to facilitate his travels. Perhaps he has the same mental block that I do.