I almost fell for the okey doke.
In our house, we use that phrase as a playful, cautionary reminder to be thoughtful about making decisions and to not be fooled.
When school was called off seven weeks ago and I became my child’s full-time teacher, I almost did, indeed, fall for the okey doke.
How could I help my sun master–wait; let’s be real here–maintain the skills he’d been working on if he wasn’t in school daily? It didn’t matter that I’ve been teaching young people and adults for nearly two decades. An almost-six-year old is not a high schooler, no matter how much their dispositions are similar on a given day.
I immediately went down the online rabbit hole of fancy schedules, programs, and apps that had no diverse books or materials, and what seemed an endless stream of worksheets for printing (and my annoyance for the prevalence for these with a lack of regard for those of us without a printer).
Around the same time, I started leaning really hard into rituals and routines that have always anchored me, especially during chaos and transition (cue current moment). Those include running, journaling, and reading. And by reading, I mean fully immersive reading, where I lose track of days, what my kid is doing, everything.
I’d picked up A Black Women’s History of the United States (ABWH) by Drs. Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross at Boston’s fantastic Black-owned Frugal Bookstore, with every intention to read it some day. But once #pandemicreading ensued, I couldn’t quite find a book that spoke to me. Young adult authors, contemporary fiction– books that usually were the perfect balm–weren’t working. When I remembered the copy of ABWH in my car (my greatest fear is to be stuck somewhere without a book, so I have them everywhere), I went looking for it, thinking (hoping?) that it might be an answer to getting my reading life back on track.
I could not put it down, and the voices of all these Black women ancestors shook me, telling me: look, you got this!
This being educating my child and building on the traditions that Black women (and in this case, Black women educators) have been doing for Black children, families, and communities since we were in this country.
I keep thinking about Ms. Nannie Helen Burroughs, particularly.
An educator and activist, Burroughs’ dedication to Black women and girls, and her belief in the brilliance of them, led to her founding of the National Training School for Women and Girls among many other accomplishments. The writers summarize: “…she embraced both industrial and classical education, and expressed early Black Nationalist and feminist ideologies. She encouraged race pride by celebrating dark skin, and she remained a champion of Black women’s voting and labor rights” (p. 2). I also kept circling back to Burroughs’ motto for her school: “We specialize in the wholly impossible.”
Throughout the book, I read and learned about SO MANY Black women who have done (and do) just that: specialize in the wholly impossible by dedicating their lives and work to collective struggles for Black freedom for Black women, girls and femmes, especially during times when so many others denigrated and dismissed us.
ABWH reminds me that the ancestors are always watching and helping if I just listen. Black women have been here educating children and adults for generations. With schools that have systematically attempted to destroy us, we’ve made our own classrooms in places within our communities, written or revised texts to make them affirming and empowering for Black children, and been the teachers, time and time again. While adversity that included racism and sexism was consistent, our responses to it have always been to creatively organize ways to help as many folks as we can, with whatever tools we have. We have consistently specialized in manifesting the wholly impossible, and we’ve always been creative and resourceful.
Who am I to forget that or to not do the same?
Because there is a foundation of Black women educators who have assured the flourishing of Black children (and many others), certainly I can teach my sun and in the process heap tons of love on him. Surely I can understand that schools can be damaging, traumatic places for Black children and decolonize my own thinking that what we do at home isn’t as good as–if not better–than what schools might be trying to teach. Absolutely I could reach out to all the wonderful early childhood educators I know (his teacher included), and figure out how to design instruction that resonates with his deep desire to know, ask questions, and be immersed in learning.
I would merely be doing what Black women educators have been doing all along, and what Black women educators have been doing for me all along.
And along the way, we could read books written by Black authors that reflect my child (like The Brownies Book); books by other authors of color that offer mirrors into experiences he needs and wants to know more about (like We Are The Water Protectors); and have a few moments of transformation. We also could be aspirational and think about the skills, dispositions, and experiences I want him to have and then think about how to realize them beyond the nearly oppressive chatter of “gaps” and “deficits” and “learning loss” that threatens to drown out any other more important talk about normalizing high achievement for all children in the district.
I’m learning much about early literacy as my sun learns how to read, and I’m also remembering how my own grandmother taught me. She collected scraps of wood from my uncle’s shop. As a carpenter, there were always remainders amidst the piles of sawdust. She had him cut them into smaller sizes, and on those she wrote letters and words. As I gained proficiency, she’d add more combinations of words, requesting more scraps as she needed. She, too, specialized in the wholly impossible. The everyday, wholly impossible. She didn’t see it that way, though; rather she’d simply say “I haven’t done anymore than I should have done.”
Let me remember the foundations on which I stand.
Let me not fall for the okey doke.
Instead, I find myself feeling relief and gratitude for being able to learn about the phenomenal history of Black women who have actively worked to make this world better. I am working hard to remember their names and to make sure my sun learns their names and their accomplishments, too. Daily, I inventory more “funds of knowledge” (Amanti, Neff, Gonzalez, 1992) our family has (and that we’ve always had), and think about how we can use those to connect to other things we desire and need to learn.
I hope to make my world a bit smaller by figuring out how to work together with other Black educators who have the ability to teach through their screens and make it feel like their children never left. I’d like to be able to think about how they can share their brilliance to even more families who are working hard to help their children thrive.
Together, we channel the spirit of Nannie Burroughs–and the millions of Black women who have and will continue to be here–as we continue specializing in the wholly impossible: yesterday, today, tomorrow.