Tag Archives: race

Trying to Turn to Wonder

The strange part about social media is that, even when you don’t want to, you find out what people you know (or, in this case, think you know) are thinking.

This week has been difficult, largely because injustice prevailed in the Trayvon Martin case. I have been inundated via the media, as people express feelings of hurt, disappointment, lack of surprise, all of those emotions and more as many of us attempt to get some sort of perspective on this moment when yet another young Black man is killed and justice isn’t served. 

I intentionally decided to limit reading of social media. I didn’t want people telling me how I should feel about the verdict, attempting to justify any laws, making dismissive comments about the values–or lack of values–of Black bodies. I also didn’t want to have to, as a surprising number of friends have been doing, un-friend folks for their comments and perspectives.

Not this week.

However, given that I’m teaching in my summer program, it’s not like I could stay holed up in my apartment during what has been a heatwave and refuse to engage with anyone. So, I began to process the verdict with people I trust, and showed up for school on Monday. 

The kids knew what had happened, but I don’t think they quite knew how to talk about it. Thus, I started with my own feelings, wherein I expressed my sadness, my feelings of hopelessness, my…worry that, as the aunt of two Black boys they might one day experience this. I recalled my student who was killed the first year of my student teaching and how the school essentially kept moving along while the teachers who loved him were left to pick up our own pieces. If anything, I was trying to feel hopeful when I was fearful.

Gotta tell the kids the truth.

They began to speak, and their responses were similar to mine, and different, close and far, but they were their responses, and they were real, and valued, and they mattered. 

Still matter. Will always matter, as far as I’m concerned. 

This is one of those difficult conversations that teachers can have with kids, or choose NOT to have with kids. Race is going to come up–it’s the axis on which everything turns, I’d argue–but these conversations are challenging, scary, and also easy to “convince” students what they should be thinking. I try not to do that, but that, too, is difficult to manage around sensitive topics. I do a better job of it sometimes rather than others.

Another group of student writers read King’s “What is Your Life’s Blueprint?” and had to write about the relationship between that text and another. Many of them chose this article, an apology to Rachel Jeanteal. The letter and Rachel are compelling to them. Like Trayvon, we know Rachel, too. And many of them are grappling with the bigger idea of what to do when your “somebodiness” as King defines it is challenged by forces over which you have no control.

I read this quote somewhere that said when times get tough, turn to wonder, and I’m really, really trying, but I am so very disappointed. 

Trying, though. Ever trying.

Then, it happens: I sit and talk to a young writer about the article, about quotes that stand out to him, about details that matter, and I realize that in those spaces, hope does exist. I do try to turn to wonder with them, and we marvel over the relevance of “Blueprint” to all young people, not just the underserved ones. I do think and believe, too, that they can be change agents in the world, and I say it to them, while swallowing my own worries of racial profiling, presumed guilt, other concerns that threaten to paralyze me if I sit and think about them too much. 

We’re going to see Fruitvale Station. Their decision. I read them a bit of the review from the New York Times and they said we should go. I suspect I’ll be chaperoning a trip once it comes to the city, then spending even more time afterwards trying to help us all figure out what it all means: to be people of color, living in a world where wonder is important, but is, at this moment, so difficult to find.

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Are We Tackling Race, Or is Race Tackling Me?

In the last three days, I forked over nearly $20 for chips and salsa at the overpriced market across the street from school without batting an eye, consumed half of that purchase before giving my dogs a half-a#@ed walk and throwing myself into bed, nearly the rest of the other half of the chips and salsa and a Grasshopper Sundae (size small, but that makes no difference at all) the following day, kept a 6:30 pm bedtime, and prayed to whoever runs the universe that tomorrow is a snow day.

My poor eating habits and sudden onset exhaustion are directly correlated to introducing issues of race in the classroom this week. Such an endeavor utterly wears me out–like so much so I will probably sleep all weekend to recover a bit of myself–and now, today, I realize why people just choose to avoid teaching race.

Cause to really do it, to go all in, particularly as a Black woman teaching mostly white kids, means I have to steel myself for the ignorance–because they really DO NOT know–while reminding myself not to react too viscerally (particularly hard today when one innocently remarked that he didn’t know why Black folks had problems with one picture of a lawn jockey that smacked of racist tropes) and to occupy the stance and the mantra: raise awareness, but don’t preach, as English educator Bruce Penniman suggested in his book.

Real talk. To even raise awareness is incredibly challenging, largely because if one is perpetually in the position of Colonizer, why should that person even care about the Colonized?!?

Therein comes the theory. Oh post colonial theory, you are both a conduit and a curse because when you give kids a different way to read a text and they start to think about what voices have been left out of the conversation and what that means?!? Get ready for the mishegas that follows. You can’t prepare yourself for it, actually. You will be bowled over (silently, of course, as you bite your lip to keep from reacting) at their comments about skin tone (and why and how people of color can be so many different…colors?!?), as they repeat the stereotypes as they try to present their views, as they make their classmates of color attempt to make the floor open up beneath their seats so they can stop having this conversation. You will step into the conversation gingerly, but confidently, as you give them the language to talk about what they’ve internalized for years and what they believe to be true. 

There’s a moment, sorta like in the Matrix, where I hear a bunch of students’ voices transposed over my own, another that’s not my own yelling you better right this ship, KP, and I step out of the room to gulp some air that feels incredibly stale and repeat 100 times, as fast as I can, itsworthititsworhtititsworthit.

I thank the universe again for a White male student teacher who isn’t afraid to speak truth and own his privilege and who spells me while I have a minor meltdown because this is so hard and why do I have to do this, all I wanted to do was give them a different lens for reading a text. I didn’t think THIS was going to open up so many doors that I knew were going to open but…all…on the same day?!

I’ve become increasingly more agile at talking about issues of power, race, privilege, equity with non-POC students, while positioning myself as a person who cares about my students and one who also considers it critically important that they understand–or at least wake up for a moment–why we live in a world that isn’t fair for everyone because others have particular rights and privileges that are unearned, closely protected, and unwilling to relinquish.

But all those thoughts go through my mind, as I stand in the hallway gulping (or am I gasping?) air, sipping water, getting myself together, reminding myself not to take it personally. Of course, I’m lying. I can’t help but take it personally. They are my students. On my watch. I have complete confidence that some of them might just run the world some day. I need to make sure they’re paying attention and actually doing some good in the world. 

This work with postcolonial lit theory is merely a crack in the door as we confront these big ideas and issues, and debate Okonkwo’s inflexibility, and question if Dolce and Gabbana bears any responsibility for sending their racist earrings down the spring 2012 runway. But I do know that they’re becoming more aware–and again, it’s incremental progress, but, in issues such as this, it’s best to take progress where one can find it–and questioning what single story/master narrative it is that they’ve been consuming for years and why we need counternarratives. 

I did sit at my desk for a good thirty minutes after my last writing conference today:  immobilized because it takes so much out of me mentally to talk about these issues. I do know that if more of us were talking about this stuff, then I could share the load and not feel so wrung out at the sheer amount of work required simply to raise awareness. I cannot even begin to fathom, at this moment, the next necessary steps that will help them continue making connections between these ideas and texts and what’s to come.

There it is. I used to be so skeptical–disbelieving is probably a better word–when people would tell me that they didn’t really “teach race” in their classrooms, thinking that they didn’t do it because they didn’t want to do it. I think, now, that there’s some truth in that. How do you initiate these conversations knowing that they will require far more of you as a teacher than drafting an essay assignment? That you’re going to probably feel wiped out as a result of those conversations for at least the next week? That you’re going to replay myriad comments and interactions for weeks to come? 

It can wear you out. It’s certainly worn me out.

 

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I find this an important way to continue the conversation about Trayvon Martin (or even to begin it if it’s not yet started, though I wonder how can one NOT start it).

Link to Christensen’s Rethinking Schools Article

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July 24, 2012 · 1:39 am