Tag Archives: discrimination

Out of the Margins

“So how do your students look this year?” The question was asked not, as many people might expect, by a colleague or even a parent but by three of my former students who are now juniors as we found a chance to talk at the annual Local Family Picnic. “They look great,” I said. “Of course. You know! Given the emails they’ve been writing me about the books they’ve been reading.” One of them laughed and said, “Your favourite Humanities 7 class of 2014-2015?” I laughed in return, responding “Absolutely!” knowing she was secure in the knowledge they were all part of my favourite Humanities 7 class of… 2010-2011. (For the record, I only teach one section of Humanities 7 each year, so the “favourite Humanities 7 class of…” line is something of a running joke.)

As I prepare for the imminent arrival on campus of my brand new students, as the middle school team prepares to bring together and start building this year’s community, I find myself focused not just on what the kids might be thinking and feeling but also on the parents. My son attended boarding school for three years and is about to start his junior year at college, so I know firsthand what parents are going through. The level of trust we parents place in a school when dropping off our children is powerfully and deeply touching, and part of what motivates me to do my absolute best each and every day is working to meet that trust (not that I need any more motivation than looking out at my students looking back at me!).

So it stopped me short when one of my virtual colleagues on Twitter, another teacher who is also a parent, wrote, “My son had nightmares of police killing him….when he walks in your classroom how will you comfort him? #Ferguson” That I would do something is unquestionable. The harder part is the what. I wrote back, “I keep searching for the answer to that. Empathy and a hug only go so far. Think of concrete actions we can take to fight racism?” I believe that kids, perhaps even more so than adults, want to feel they have some degree of control over the world around them. While we will never live in a perfect world, we can certainly work to move society towards greater understanding, inclusiveness, and acceptance. And including my friend’s child in coming up with ways to do so would hopefully help him feel more empowered.

My imminent students may or may not have had such nightmares, but certainly they must have some level of awareness of and concern over what has been going on in Ferguson. And every year I’ve ever taught Humanities 7, whatever might have been going on in the world, stereotypes have always been a hot topic at some point in the year, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, and more or less any other type of ism of which you could think. With 7th graders’ heightened sense of fairness and drive to bring justice about, we always end up brainstorming and discussing what people can actually do. Knowing concrete actions to take can be comforting.

Another of my virtual teacher-parent colleagues is expecting her first child, and she found herself in need of comforting post-Ferguson as well. Among the links and resources we shared in reaching out to her was a video made by Glenn Singleton, “Courageous Conversations About Race.” It offers both some background information not everyone may know and a protocol to frame these conversations. The video, which takes about 22 minutes to watch, is an incredible resource for schools, other organizations, and people in general who want to help undermine the systemic racism that feeds stereotypes both deliberate and unwitting, people who want to move forward.

And really, moving forward is not an option but a necessity. That doesn’t mean it’s easy – besides systemic racism, we all have to deal with the effects of patriarchy on attitudes toward gender and sexuality, of classism on attitudes toward socioeconomic status, and so on. The intersections of all the various axes of privilege and oppression play out differently in different people, making each individual story matter deeply. So listening, learning, affirming, and acting are all important parts of the process. Moreover, as a global community wherein each of us is working to become our own best self, they are quite literally part of our school’s mission.

My friend who asked about her son wrote me, “thank you for the response. I appreciate it greatly. #village” It does indeed take a village. And that village is us.

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

Bending the Arc

It has been one month and one week to the day since the shooting at Sandy Hook, and still many of us are depressed and in shock. In quiet moments at holiday gatherings, online in virtual discussions on bulletin boards and through Twitter, many of my friends and family have shared that they felt subdued this year compared to in normal years. This is in no way meant to diminish, share, or hope to begin to understand the grief that parents and family members of those who died must be feeling; it is simply the truth of our reality.

Over the weekend following the news, one of my online friends started a private discussion about how best to react in public. Everyone agreed that this should not be about either appropriating grief or self-promotion. Everyone agreed that whatever happened in the short term, it’s what happens in the long term that really matters. For some of us, that translated to putting our voices out there. For others, it meant maintaining a respectful silence.

Another of my online friends brought up the fact that children are dying every day of gun violence, but the media – and thus the country – pays little attention. Indeed, Children’s Defense Fund has cited statistics showing that approximately eight children a day die by gun violence. That means over 300 kids since that horrible day, more than two Sandy Hooks every week.

It seems we are indeed embarking on a serious national conversation on gun violence. Gun control itself is of necessity part of this conversation, but so are many other issues – our culture’s attitude toward mental health issues, questions of insurance, what Gloria Steinem has called the cult of masculinity and the supporting cult of femininity, and looking at root causes deeper down: poverty, sexism, racism, and other prejudices.

And meanwhile, the issue of climate change hovers over us, casting its own shadow of uncertainty and doubt. It can all get overwhelming pretty quickly….

… and then I step into my classroom. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, my Life Skills class was talking about microaggressions, those subtle moments when a person, generally oblivious and well-meaning, insults you or otherwise makes you feel marginalized – for example, asking someone who, unbeknownst to you, is lesbian if she has a boyfriend. They had a great discussion about the role of intention in such moments as well as how the comments are received regardless of intention, and quickly saw the connection to stereotypes (which they articulated) and privilege (which they didn’t articulate but understood at a gut level). Several of them said they have never really experienced microaggressions, and one of them said she wished the world were more like Stoneleigh-Burnham. I told her I was actually working on a blog on just that very topic.

Similarly, Carroll Perry, a newly retired teacher at my son’s school, said at their baccalaureate service last spring, “There has been progress, and there will be a lot more. The cynics forget that people like you are coming on to the scene, and that you view today’s challenges not as insuperable problems, but as your stewardship.” I look out at you students here, and I completely agree.

Today, for the second time in history, we hold the inauguration of a Black president. President Obama‘s re-election, as he himself has said, proves that 2008 was not an anomaly. Earlier in his career, when he was still a Senator and candidate for president, he had the opportunity to speak at a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He noted, “Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice…” (Obama, cited by Howe) When a 7th grader says “When you start to get interested in boys or girls or whatever you find interesting,” when another 7th grader says “I just don’t see what the big deal is if Black and White people go out together,” when I suggest to the drummer prior to an Upper School Rock Band performance that I wouldn’t drum in a skirt and a Senior comments without missing a beat, “But we wouldn’t think any less of you if you did,” you can feel that arc bending.

The long struggle for social justice may get overwhelming at times – of course it does! But as long as we are in it together, as long as we see steady improvement, as long as there are people like you taking your place in the world, there will always be hope.

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Filed under In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

The Necessity of Maladjustment

My shoulder grew progressively numb as my friend, convinced that everyone who claimed to be a pacifist had a breaking point, kept hitting it over and over. His face began to contort, and through gritted teeth he hissed, “I’m going to make you hit me.” But I didn’t hit back, and eventually he walked away in disgust. I’ve always wondered what he took away from the incident. Me, I took pride in having successfully maintained my principles of non-violence, though as it turned out I couldn’t have moved my arm if I had wanted, and it hung uselessly at my side for at least five minutes as I walked to my next class and took my seat.

Several years beforehand, when I was in eighth grade, I first read Daybreak by Joan Baez. In a series of poems, dreams, vignettes, and essays, she explored her own pacifism and the principles by which she unflinchingly led her own life. It was one of the most influential books of my childhood.

As I grew in adulthood, though, I couldn’t help but think that it wasn’t always as simple as Ms. Baez made it out to be. One evening, not long after I began teaching here, we invited Andrea LaSonde Anastos, then co-minister of First Church in Deerfield with her husband George, to talk about her life and work. Among other subjects, she touched on her own pacifism, inspiring a question from one of the students as to whether she could ever conceive of a situation where she might choose to use violence. She said before she had children, she would have said absolutely not, but that she now realized that if someone went after her kids and she had the chance, she wasn’t sure but what she would take them out without hesitation. Oddly, I was comforted by her admission. I believed (and still do) there was a big difference between personally suffering for one’s principles and watching others suffer, perhaps even die, for the same reason, and I myself wasn’t sure what I would do in the same situation. She made it safe for me to feel that ambivalence.

One month ago today, a gunman broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School, and you know the rest. This country has a history of mass killings, and so often the initial shock and outcry subsides after a few days or maybe weeks and nothing ever changes. But there is some evidence that things may be different this time. Here at Stoneleigh-Burnham, our Student Council has written all students “[inviting] you all to wear GREEN and WHITE to commemorate the one-month anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, CT.” (Claire L.) No doubt, we will be just one of countless schools doing so.

And this doesn’t even take into account the many individual actions private citizens may be taking, such as writing their Representative or Senators, or engaging people in conversations both face to face and through social media. In a country far too often divided along partisan lines, I feel like I’ve seen more sincere effort to reach across those lines and find common ground than with any other issue in months if not years.

As many people are saying, this is going to be a marathon and not a sprint. Meanwhile, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, an average of eight children die each day due to gunfire. That’s 56 kids each week, and nearly 250 since Sandy Hook. This lends a certain sense of urgency to the marathon.

Martin Luther King, Jr. has written, “There are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and to tragic militarism. I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things.” (King)

I hold out hope that our country has finally become permanently maladjusted to events like Sandy Hook. I hold out that hope not only because I see Dr. King’s ideals in my students but also because I know so many people across the political spectrum who have been deeply moved by Sandy Hook and who sincerely want to leave a better world to our children. It will not happen on its own and it will not be easy. But the alternative is simply unthinkable.

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Filed under On Education, On Parenting, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School