Category Archives: Current Events

Finding Resolution

It’s been years since I’ve made New Year’s resolutions. Like many people, I found the process to be at first disheartening and then borderline hypocritical as I fell short time and time again of my goals, then set the bar so low as to be almost meaningless if at least achievable, then gave up the process altogether – without, of course, giving up on the idea of trying to keep learning and growing every year. But somehow, this year, I feel the need to make some sort of year-long commitment. The question is, to what?

With that question still hanging over my head, I settled in on the evening of December 30 for #RuralEdChat on Twitter (archive here). We all exchanged greetings as people continued to join in while noting the various face-to-face goings on around them, and I commented, “Modern Family marathon here (with my family!). I’ll try and multi-task. ;-)” I did a reasonably good job of it, periodically engaging in short bursts of conversation or catching my son’s eye to smile at a particularly good line, while shifting my attention back to the chat and re-engaging frequently enough to read every post and maintain the flow.

The first real question from Tammy Neil, the moderator of the chat, was, “As 2014 comes to a close, what was your most successful memory of this past year? What made it so successful?” I wrote, “Realizing that my Humanities 7 students have focused themselves on social justice nonstop since September.” Indeed, as I’ve written here before, each of our first three units has had a theme question that focuses in one way or another on taking a firmly realistic look at the world and considering what can be done to make it better.

I realize, of course, this isn’t strictly speaking my own success as the kids themselves came up with the starter questions, discussed what their priorities were, negotiated, compromised, and eventually settled on the final theme questions. But before I could get too hard on myself, another chat participant wrote that she didn’t feel personally successful but enjoyed seeing the smiles on her kindergartners. I responded, “You’ll notice my ‘success’ was really my kids’ success. But I helped create that context – as you did in your room!” I think I needed to acknowledge that to myself as much as I needed to share it with her.

Question two was the one I’d been fearing, and for which I was hoping I’d have more time to prepare. I stared at my screen and reread, “Are you a resolution making educator? If so, what resolutions are you making for 2015? Why?” The first part of the question gave me a possible out – and I ended up deciding not to take it. At least, not entirely. I wrote, “Mixed feelings a/b resolutions. But to #bendthearc toward justice is an unceasing and daily priority.” The work I do with my students is indeed a huge part of that – ensuring they know themselves, develop their voices, and work to understand and respect diverse people with diverse perspectives.

But another huge part of bending the arc is constantly working to build a better world for my students to enter as they grow up and graduate. The rest of my day on Twitter speaks to that. I retweeted posts from Melinda D. Anderson (about José Vilson’s blog “We Can Never Turn Our Backs”) and Reni Eddo-Lodge (on an interview with rap star Macklemore) on the vast difference between reactions to black people and white people speaking out against racism and the role white privilege plays in that. I retweeted a post from Tracy Clayton that said, “okay white folks this is important. some of you may already know this and if you do please pass it on to people who don’t.” so that anyone interested in knowing what she had to say could go to her timeline (as I did, encountering a take on white privilege and appropriation that was to the point, thoughtful, and nuanced).

Additionally, I shared Parker Marie Molloy’s tweet grieving the loss of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen who had committed suicide and who wrote “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights.” In response, I shared out the names of Jazz Jennings and her mom as great resources (her mom additionally pointing people to her daughter’s excellent Facebook page), and retweeted this posting which was simultaneously heartrending and hopeful: “thank you to all the trans folk posting in #RealLiveTransAdult tag, you guys mean the world to us scared & closeted kids.”

The final question of #RuralEdChat was, “What will you do to make 2015 better (more productive, more positive, etc.) than 2014?” After quite some thought, I responded, “Listen. Read. Listen. Seek to understand. Listen. Clarify. Listen. Share. Listen some more.”And maybe in the end, that’s the key to a workable New Year’s resolution. I have no idea what the year will bring, and thus I have no idea what I’ll need to say and do. But I do know the values I live by. I know my family’s values. I know my school’s values. If I can live every day according to those values, if I can do what I can (no more, but certainly no less) to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice (to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), I will – hopefully! – be able to view 2015 as a success on the next New Year’s Eve.

Happy new year to all, and may you all find what you are seeking.

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Please and thank you

(Trigger Warning: discussion of suicide)

Although I didn’t grow up watching It’s a Wonderful Life, once I first saw the film as an adult, I could see why it’s become a Christmastime tradition for many people (including some who don’t personally celebrate Christmas). However dark the movie may be in spots, its ultimate affirmation of the notion that each life matters deeply is moving and appealing. As Clarence Oddbody put it, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” (wikiquote)

In the middle of holiday festivities, family gatherings, and time to relax, just as 2015 was fast approaching with the promise of a fresh new year, the untimely death of Leelah Alcorn at only 17 years of age left an awful hole even in the lives of people who never knew her. No angel was able to prevent this tragedy, and so at 2:30 in the morning, she set out from home, walked down the Interstate, and walked in front of a truck. Her grieving parents called for prayers and support, for them and for Leelah’s siblings left behind.

However, that sympathy has not been uniformly forthcoming. In fact, some people are calling for them to be prosecuted. Leelah was transgender and left behind a note indicting her parents for refusing to recognize her true gender and allow her to medically transition, furthermore progressively isolating her from friends and other potential sources of support. Statistics are clear that trans youth who have unsupportive parents are half as likely to be satisfied with their lives as those with supportive parents; only 13% report high self esteem (vs. 65%), while 75% suffer depression (vs. 23%) and 57% have attempted suicide (vs. just 4%). (transstudent.org; link shared by Sophia Banks) Leelah’s parents were conservative Christians, and her mom said in an interview that “We don’t support that, religiously.” (quoted by WCPO)

In no way, of course, do I think that Leelah’s parents represent the entire body of Christianity. Among the families in the Stoneleigh-Burnham community I know to have been most supportive of LGBT people are a good number of Christians. Both of my parents belong to open and accepting Christian churches. One of my friends from high school, a lesbian, is ordained by the United Church of Christ, a denomination that successfully won a suit in North Carolina arguing that same-gender marriage bans were an unconstitutional infringement of freedom of religion.

Neither do I believe Leelah’s parents deserve no sympathy whatsoever. Her mother has stated they loved her unconditionally, and there is no question they are in deep pain. As a parent myself, I can’t help but feel for them. Her father has asked that they be left to grieve in private, and I would never ever think of contacting them directly at such a difficult time in their life, never mind doing so to call them out as some have apparently done.

But the language Leelah’s parents have been using is telling. “We told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. (…) I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy.” (Carla Alcorn, quoted by WCPO) “We love our son, Joshua, very much and are devastated by his death.” (Doug Alcorn, quoted by WCPO) They have continued to misgender her, calling her a boy and their son, using male pronouns and her male name. In our society, your name and your gender are among the most fundamental parts of your identity – and Leelah’s parents continually denied and continue to deny her the basic human right to express that identity as she saw herself.

While suicide is clearly a deep concern specifically within the transgender community, it is also the third most frequent cause of death for all teenagers of all genders. It’s important to know the warning signs, and to be aware of resources on which we can draw, including suicide hotlines and trans support hotlines. Moreover, we need to be aware of the intersections between a given person’s gender, sexuality, race, class, age, and abledness, the better to clearly see them as they are and be able to listen to their story and give them the support they need.

Leelah’s note ended: “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. (…) Fix society. Please.”

And thank you.

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, On Education, On Parenting, Uncategorized

Not a Slogan, but a Lifestyle

Faced with recent events around the country in Ferguson, on Staten Island, and elsewhere, Stoneleigh-Burnham students are raising their voices in protest and in solidarity. During lunch yesterday, a group of students stood in the center area and suddenly yelled “I can’t breathe!” and then clearly and firmly shared their thoughts on racism and the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases as they held “Black Lives Matter” signs. Several faculty made a point of telling them they were proud, and Shawn Durrett, Dean of Faculty, added a note on the school’s Facebook page.

Last night, Seniors emailed their Little Sisters to ask them to wear black today to signify that black lives matter. Those faculty who happened to have been aware of the event joined in. One senior followed up with an email to the whole school community in which she spoke of the power of that sea of black and the importance of choosing to stand up to racism and inequality.

HandsUp_sm

As it happens, I was at the March in Washington on Saturday, Dec. 13 (the title for this article is a quote from one of the speakers). I woke up at 4:00 the next morning unable to sleep, picked up my phone, and wrote the following reaction to the experience:

The man about ten feet away from me bent his head and laughed as he put up his hand. He was not alone in laughing, and certainly far from alone in putting his hand up. All black men present at the March on Washington had just been asked to raise their hands if they had ever felt nervous when stopped by the police, and in a crowd where it could safely be assumed most everyone present if not every single one of us knew in advance that every single hand would go up, it was possible to laugh at that question.

My wife and I had arrived at the March early in the afternoon, when the podium was being shared by member after member of families whose husbands, fathers, sons had been shot to death, taken too soon. And while I felt some of the same crushing weight I’ve been feeling ever since the accumulation of news about Marissa Alexander, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, there was also a sense of healing. These families were grief-stricken, and they were equally determined that we could not rest until no one else, ever, had to go through what they did. Many opened by saying “No justice,” and the crowd responded, “No peace.” And maybe it’s just because I’m a pacifist, but to me it came across as a feeling our souls could not be at peace until true justice was achieved for all in this country.

Meanwhile, on my Facebook timeline (as I would discover afterwards), some of my friends and family were posting messages in a sort of counterpoint. Two guns aimed at the viewer with a caption asking which one is the cap gun and which one is real, noting that making the wrong choice could lead to your death. A picture of a police officer captioned “Police Lives Matter.”

The thing is, I don’t think most if any of the people in attendance at that March would argue that police lives don’t matter. Of course there were signs all over that Black Lives Matter. But to say that is not to minimize the value of other lives (any more than saying Police Lives Matter). It is simply to affirm that when black people are many more times likely than white people to be shot during a tense situation, that is wrong. That is not justice as it should be. That is not how our country should and can be. Indeed, several speakers followed “Black lives matter” with “All lives matter,” and that seemed to be what our collective soul was feeling.

One speaker noted our goals have to extend beyond working with police departments to learn about community policing and building relationships. They have to extend beyond reforming our justice system so that people can expect police misconduct, should it occur, will be handled fairly. They have to extend beyond the elimination of racial profiling (all of these goals, it should be noted, held by many police officers as well). They also have to include equal pay, equal job opportunities, equal schooling, and more. Regardless of race.

My Twitter timeline spoke of the immense numbers present in New York and elsewhere, of signs people were holding seeking peace through unity, of arrests and people being beaten up. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the media’s version of the day, fearing it would focus on the negative, on anything that would create and exacerbate tension.

I am writing this at 4:00 in the morning on Sunday, and I know I will have to dive in to media reports later today in case my students bring up events of the weekend, tomorrow or later on. I don’t believe for a second teachers should be telling students what to think, but I do believe we owe it to our students to be able to guide them in thinking critically. And if what I saw and felt can contribute to that, I will not hold back. I won’t pretend for a second it’s the whole story. I won’t pretend for a second that my voice matters more than anyone else’s. I know and recognize this can not and must not be about privileging white voices yet again. But if using my voice helps students see nuance and layers of complexity, I will not hesitate to do so.

As the final speakers were coming to the podium, a black woman near us turned to my wife and asked if we were from around here. My wife shook her head and said, “No.” A few moments later, a blonde white woman stepped up and asked if she could help, and gave directions to 7th and Independence. The black woman gave the blonde women a hug and thanked her for coming, and then did the same for my wife, and me.

Somebody on Twitter wrote that evening that for them, the day was about a movement finding its soul, and my own experience mirrored that.

Black lives matter.
All lives matter.
No justice, no peace.

Not yet.

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Filed under Current Events, The Faculty Perspective, The Girls School Advantage

Leading the Way

This year’s People of Color Conference (whose hashtag is #PoCC14), sponsored by the National Association of Independent Schools, comes at a critical juncture in our country’s history. I woke up on the morning of December 5 to read a tweet from @racialicious telling about what a good time they were having. Reading through their timeline, I discovered many powerful thoughts and ideas posted the previous day, and vowed to follow their live tweeting of the keynote address, to be given by Dr. Derald Wing Sue. Dr. Sue is a noted expert on multicultural counseling, and has written and edited several books including Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact.

As it happens, I have used Dr. Sue’s work in my own teaching. Two years ago, when I was teaching Life Skills 8, the students and I spent some time talking about prejudice of different types, how it operates in day-to-day life, and what can be done about it. We watched the video “Microaggressions in Everyday Life.” They learned that microaggressions typically happen when a well-intentioned person lacks knowledge of how specific expressions or behaviors might be experienced by a historically marginalized person. For example, if a girl likes math, telling her enthusiastically, “Wow, that’s great!” might actually be experienced by her as a microaggression, communicating the idea that it is surprising when a girl likes math. No offense was meant, but offense might still have been taken. Another approach might simply be to ask her what she likes best about it, which would still acknowledge and support her love of math without adding the element of surprise. Our class had some great discussions on the topic.

In reporting on Dr. Sue’s address to the #PoCC14, @racialicious wrote in part:

  • DWS: Master Narrative (White ppl talking); democratic society, post-racial, racism is thing of past, not responsible for past sins. #PoCC14
  • DWS: Master Narrative– Truth and justice will prevail, equal access is hallmark of society. #PoCC14
  • DWS: The Counter Narrative (POC narrative): Meritocracy is a myth, system rigged against POCs, white privilege exists, #PoCC14
  • DWS: The Counter Narrative: we are taught that some groups are lesser beings, no one is immune from inheriting biases from society #PoCC14
  • Master narrative is rehearsed in society, and taught in schools. Counter narrative is not. #PoCC14
  • DWS: The Master Narrative a) reassures whites they are good, b) prevents them from being conscious of biased conditioning. #PoCC14
  • DWS: c) Maintains their innocence and naivete, d) perpetuates the racial status quo. #PoCC14

All of this provides the context for microaggressions, which can lead students to question themselves under the daily assault (@racialicious).

So what should schools be doing? One obvious strategy is to present both the master and counter narratives. Whether we use that terminology or not, and of course maintaining respect for the full spectrum of political beliefs, we can certainly study and talk of varying visions of and for our country and how we self-define. We can also teach about microaggressions, how to respond to them, and how to respond if one has committed a microaggression and has it pointed out. In the videotape my students watched, Dr. Sue recommended people maintain constant vigilance, hold an awareness that different people may have different experiences of the same reality, not be defensive, remain open to discussion, and be an ally.

I have just begun reading If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson to my Humanities 7 class. As a multiracial high school couple falls more and more deeply into love, Ellie (who is white) learns more and more about how Miah (who is black) experiences the world and what that means for her view of our culture. I can not believe that students are not going to bring up the examples of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, though of course if they don’t, I can add questions into the mix that will at least get them thinking about the issues underlying those and countless other cases, in the process exploring their own thoughts on the master and counter narratives.

Chris Rock has observed that his daughters are “encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced.” If I compare my students (of all races) to my friends and me (of all races) at their age, they are certainly more aware and more accepting of diversity, if – to be fair – no less well intentioned. We are definitely making steady progress as a culture. Slow, but steady.

But slow.

The thing is, as Dr. Sue said, the master narrative can be used to justify inaction on the part of white people (@racialicious). Time and time again, we have raised our collective voices in national outrage at what is commonly perceived as injustice (many people across the political spectrum were stunned at the grand jury’s decision in the Eric Garner case), but time and time again, things eventually quiet down with no real change taking place.

That quite simply must not continue to happen.

Hopefully, my students will be among those leading the way. It would not surprise me one bit if they did.

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No One: Reflections on Ferguson

It’s about an hour since the grand jury’s decision in the Darren Wilson case in Ferguson was announced, and I’m still feeling sucker punched despite being among the millions who had anticipated the decision and the millions more who could tell it was coming once prosecutor Robert McCulloch began his bizarre preamble to the announcement. Besides sharing their own anger, anguish, sadness, or frustration, teachers on my Twitter and Facebook timelines have also been wondering what on Earth they’re going to tell their students tomorrow.

We’re on Thanksgiving vacation, so I don’t have that immediate worry, but I do need to think about what we might do upon our return in December. As it happens, one of the six students in my Humanities 7 class who still has to present on her second Focus Question after break wrote her essay on racism and white supremacy. She had been unafraid to tackle difficult questions, including white privilege. And her essay included a powerful moment when the white resident of a predominantly black neighborhood, made the statement that “There’s no need to be careful if you treat people as human beings.” At that point, she saw a black woman emerge from a nearby house and added, loudly, “As long as you don’t have a gun in your hand, I’m okay with you.” (Huber)

Okaaaaaaay then.

That alone should generate a fair amount of discussion in this class!

Today, we are also mourning twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, shot by Cleveland police officers while he was carrying a toy gun. Today, we are also reacting to the news that Marissa Alexander accepted a plea deal under which she will serve out the remaining two months of a three-year sentence, all for having attempted to defend herself when she feared for her life.

I may be sickened and saddened by all of this, but I also hold in my head and my heavy heart the realities that our justice system would treat me very differently if I were a person of colour and that white privilege may be, in the words of my student, “an unfair thing as it is something that is decided by something you can’t control,” but it is no less real for all that.

Leslie Carole Taylor, one of my friends from high school is a UCC minister, and she was posting an incredible series of quotes and thoughts on Facebook through the evening. As a Black woman, she no doubt was experiencing today’s events differently than I was, yet everything she wrote resonated with me. Among her posts was this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” I wrote back, “I share that belief. And I share responsibility for bringing that final word about.”

In meeting that responsibility, I would simultaneously be working toward my student’s vision: “Your race shouldn’t affect how people treat you or see you. In the end, I feel that no one should be judged because of their race.”

No one. Not Marissa Alexander. Not Michael Brown. Not Tamir Rice. Not Eric Garner. Not John Crawford. Not Ezell Ford. Not Trayvon Martin. Not Jordan Davis. Not Renisha McBride. Not…

No one.

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Filed under Current Events, In the Classroom

“Are you in or out?”

(title credit from a song in the Disney movie Aladdin and the King of Thieves)

It’s a question 90% of us or more never have to ask. People who are both heterosexual and cisgender (essentially, being comfortable in a gender identity that matches the sex written down on our original birth certificate) never have to go in the closet in the first place. For the rest of us, though, the question may be somewhat stickier. And on National Coming Out Day every year, while some people come out or reflect on and celebrate their earlier coming out, others contemplate it, and still others hold tight to the door’s handle to ensure it remains firmly closed.

It’s a given, of course, that absolutely no one has the right to force the door open for anyone else. And it’s equally a given that when a person comes out to selected people, they need to respect if that person wants to remain closeted in other places. Family dynamics, workplace atmosphere, local cultural attitudes, and more can all can make it more or less risky to come out, and none of those contexts is absolutely uniform across all members of a given community.

Robert Eichberg and Jean O’Leary founded National Coming Out Day on October 11, 1988, to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. (Wikipedia) On that date in 2013, The Atlantic published an article by Preston Mitchum entitled “On National Coming Out Day, Don’t Disparage the Closet.” He observed, “The coming out experience can be a precarious time in a person’s life, particularly when one belongs to multiple marginalized communities.” He acknowledges that “Ultimately, coming out is important because it makes the LGBT community more visible, particularly for black LGBT individuals…” but adds that “… focusing so intensely on coming out places the burden on the individual to brave society rather than on society to secure the safety of the individual.”

So how do we secure the safety of the individual? In particular, how can that happen when some religious traditions believe homosexuality is a sin and we also want to respect each person’s individual freedom of religion and their personal beliefs? The question takes me back many years ago to when I was teaching elsewhere, and one of the teachers assigned a project in which kids were to make a poster showing their own personal nine circles of Hell. One student placed homosexuals in her fifth circle, and as several of the students had gay or lesbian parents (no student had, to my knowledge, come out at that point in time), the faculty were concerned. One teacher agreed to talk to her, and it turned out that, while she did indeed hold the religious belief that homosexuality was a sin, she also felt (again, for religious reasons) that every single person deserved to be treated with love and respect.

We have seen the benefits over time of gays and lesbians coming out, serving as examples, and clearing the way for others, and we are currently seeing what seems to be the beginning of such a pattern among the gender non-conforming. Yet, not all of us were cut out to play that role, and we each need to make the best possible decision for ourselves in our own personal circumstances. With that in mind, if our entire country can agree to hold the core values that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and everyone is also entitled to be treated respectfully, that can be the starting point as we move forward toward the ultimate goal that all of us act upon those core values to the very best of our ability.

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Nuance Matters

(an address to the school on Columbus Day)

“Why do we celebrate Columbus Day anyway? Weren’t there already people here when he arrived?” One of my Humanities 7 students several years ago looked up at me expectantly, but as I took a breath to answer, someone else jumped in and said, “Yes, and he was really cruel to them.” Someone else quickly said, “And he didn’t even come here.” A brief but passionate discussion ensued, following which I said, “I can just add that all the facts you’ve brought up are absolutely true, and they are nothing at all like what I and many thousands of people my age and older were taught when we were in school. And maybe if the full story was more widely known long ago, whenever Columbus Day was declared a national holiday, it wouldn’t have been.”

Which raises the question – how did Columbus Day get to be a national holiday? According to History.com, Tammany Hall, an influential (and, to some, notorious) political organization in New York, organized the first known celebration of Columbus in 1792, to honor the 300th anniversary of his voyage. One hundred years later, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation that said “On that day let the people, so far as possible, cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life.” (History.com) Fifteen years later, Colorado became the first state to make it an official holiday, and in 1937, 445 years after Columbus’s voyage and only 77 years ago, within the lifetimes of many of your grandparents, President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday, “largely as a result of intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus.” (History.com)

Recently, the city of Seattle took an important step in the opposite direction, officially declaring the second Monday in October to be “Indigenous Peoples Day.” David Bean of the Puyallup Tribal Council felt it affirms the city values tribal members’ culture and history, and Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, echoed his sentiments, stating, “This action will allow us to bring into current present day our valuable and rich history, and it’s there for future generations to learn.” (quoted in The Guardian) On the other hand, many Italian-American residents of the city felt that the day should not have been scheduled opposite what they see as a day to celebrate Italian heritage. In the face of the controversy represented by these perspectives, one of the co-sponsors of the resolution, Bruce Harrell, said that that while he understands the concerns of members of the Italian-American community, he feels that the city won’t be successful in its social programs and outreach efforts unless and until it recognizes the past. (The Guardian)

Our past does inform our present and thus influences our future. City Council member Nick Licata, himself Italian-American, captured this sentiment in expressing the hope Indigenous Peoples Day would become a tradition in which “Everyone’s strength is recognized.” (The Guardian)

In that Humanities 7 discussion, one of the students asked, “But wasn’t Columbus still brave to set out on that trip? Couldn’t they all have died?” I responded that of course they could all have died, and that arguably that meant Columbus was in fact brave to set out on that trip. And I pointed out that just as Columbus wasn’t necessarily the paragon of virtue that had been presented to me in school, neither was he all bad. He was, in the end, an imperfect human, sharing that trait with all of us.

Nuance matters. Perspectives matter. Respect matters. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the arc of the moral universe is indeed bending toward justice.

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