46.

Being a professional educator has always

given me the advantage

of being reflective as the years pass by (too quickly). It is possible,

but incredibly difficult

to spend the majority of your days

with children and not constantly be

simultaneously living

in ways that consider the past,

embrace the present,

and look toward the future.

The tiny humans demand that I bring my best self

to the meeting areas

and u-shaped tables

where so much magic happens.

I don’t get up from the floor

in one quick movement

the way I used to. The little people I lean in to

confer with often mark the years with their words:

“You are getting more white hairs, Ms. J.”

If I’d stayed put in the place where I began,

retirement

would be as close

as all their lives are to my heart.

Am I old?

I don’t (really) think so.

I’m in better shape than I have been

thanks to the gift of ‘livabetes’.

My mind is

as

sharp

as

it

has

ever

been.

My heart is full of joy beyond words

and that peace that passes all

understanding.

It is well with my soul.

And. . .

I am half the age my grandmother was upon

her passing.

My time here is not up.

But time is not feeling

infinite.

Am I

making

every moment count?

Am I

living

in a way

that the only words I’ll be desperate to utter when the time for

my

eternal rest

is nigh

are something like,

“Thank you,”

“I love you,”

“I’m so glad I was here!”?

I’ve tried, dear ones. I’ve tried.

Every choice I’ve made doesn’t seem

like the best one

to the people I love.

But everything I’ve done was right

for me.

Perhaps only in the moment.

I’ve self-corrected.

If I have no other stance toward life,

I am a learner.

I am grateful to the Universe

and everything that inhabits it

for being a teacher.

For teaching me.

“There are years that ask questions

and years that answer,”

wrote dear Zora.

The years that do both are harrowing.

Chaos brings out the best

and the worst

in me.

45.

A pandemic. A cross-country move.

A new job. A place to call home.

An abundance. Loss after loss.

The sting of racism.

Again and again and again.

A new job. Again.

Racism. Again.

Abundance. Again.

I’ve had years like this before.

This time

something was different.

I was different.

The past made the present easier to see

clearly.

This too shall pass.

I have a

hope

and

a future.

I have a knowing.

I know how to heal.

Alone.

On land I’ve never traversed.

With my heart wide open.

With gratitude

for it all, but especially the abundance

that allows me to travel

from wells of pain to those of hope

and back again –

renewed,

ready to be present

now and in the future.

46.

“I’m a chain!”

Okay. Not really. But this quote from “Steel Magnolias” comes to mind every time I think about how I have arrived at this professional juncture. Integrity. Conviction. Ardor. COMMUNITY. All of these have played an integral role in the decisions that have led to the announcement I am proud to make today. Most of all, though, it is the children who have led me here. In my role as a staff developer over the past year, the best part of my job has been what I’ve loved most since I walked into my first classroom in Walnut Hill, Florida in 1998: the tiny humans. They are my why – and my how, when, and where, too. I am a classroom teacher at heart. I always will be. I believe this is why I am uniquely positioned to make a broader and more profound impact on children’s lives by embarking on a journey alongside the educators who serve them.

KINDER BENDER, which began as a quippy blog name, is now KINDER BENDER Consulting, LLC. I have felt both thrilled and terrified as I take steps to start my own business. More than any other emotion, however, I have felt loved. The universe has put so many brilliant and kind cheerleaders in my path who have convinced me that this is the time and I am an important part of a community of thinkers, writers, speakers, and educators who are rising up to dismantle all forms of oppressive harm in our schools and build anti oppressive systems that affirm the humanity of all children. I cannot wait to partner with organizations and schools working to align their actions with these values.

I will be a consultant focused on equity and inclusion, building joyful and meaningful learning environments for early childhood students and multilingual language learners, and literacy instruction. Additionally, I will be setting aside time to write professional texts that will help educators love children more deeply and embrace pedagogies of liberation, imagination, serendipity, and joy, beginning with finishing The Possibilities of Poetry with Clare Landrigan, which will be published by Stenhouse. I also want to be a children’s book author when I grow up!

I look forward to the future with anticipation and hope. Thank you to all who are with me on this intoxicating journey. . .

Untitled: I Just Don’t Have the Words

I have tried to say something meaningful here

dozens of times since I last posted.

All the starts turned into stops to catch my breath.

Every word typed was eventually

deleted because it wasn’t. . .

right.

I just don’t have the words,

but I will try:

I don’t quite have the confidence

or competence

to tell other educators what to do

when I myself am traipsing through this unknown terrain,

praying each step I take is safe for the children and me.

I would like to be able to say that I am going before them

like the protective Momma Bear I am inclined to be.

But that is a lie I cannot tell.

The truth is, we’re

lado a lado,

desperately holding onto one another

for protection from the dangers we can

and cannot see.

Separately, the children and I

cannot. bear. the. burdens.

Together, we are a force.

Contrary to what people

who do not work with children

would like you to believe,

my beautiful Brown babies are learning

— a lot.

They were offended when I told them

what the media was reporting.

And though when I ask them what about school brings them joy

they sometimes mention fractions

and books

and social studies,

what they mostly talk about is love.

They love themselves, just as they are.

“I love being a Mexican American.”

They love each other, fiercely.

“I don’t wanna log off. I miss you guys already.”

They love me, with a passion

I don’t deserve.

“I’m so glad you’re feeling better, Ms. J.

You’re the best teacher in the world.”

And they love the world in which they live

enough to want to change it.

“The past and the present are connected.

We should notice how they are.

If we look to the past

and bring what we learn to the present,

we can change.

I want to change.

I want to include people in things.”

We have faced many challenges,

personal and school-related,

together since we were rushed off campus

on March 13, 2020.

And though I know with certainty

we are better readers,

writers,

mathematicians,

scientists,

and historians

today than then,

what really matters is that we,

all of us,

are more compassionate human beings.

We live

and work

week after week

with the certainty

that our classroom community is. . .

fuerte,

that we are infinitely

better together than we are apart.

Each one of us has a lot to teach

as well as learn.

We know that the ideas of the child

who writes paragraphs at warp speed

are not more valuable

than those of the one who has to

“write in the air”

because they cannot yet

put pencil to paper in

conventional ways.

When they ask to speak,

they prove what we already know:

“I wrote thank you to Biden

for wanting to keep my family together.

Trump wanted to send my parents

back to Mexico.”

Palabras give us the gift of expression,

but being an emergent multilingual

does not mean

that your thoughts are not powerful

and your heart is not burdened,

that you do not deserve a place

at the table where we are all somehow

(be)com(ing).

I guess that’s the punto

I have been meandering toward

since the first words I typed and let

be:

I cannot tell you what to do.

I have no magic formula,

no silver bullets.

But I offer this advice to you:

In the midst of all this

stress,

confusion,

chaos,

and,

yes,

darkness,

do not miss out on the opportunity

to love the tiny humans

on the other side of the screen or plexiglass.

Welcome them with a smile.

Sing with them.

Laugh with them.

Dance with them.

Learn alongside them.

Make a fool of yourself for them.

Humble yourself enough to know

that school is not the only place where children learn.

Their families and communities teach them

the things most essential to their survival.

Many of our children are safer at home

where they can keep their identity

and dignity

intact.

And while I implore you to love them,

do not be confused about what I mean.

Love is not pity.

Love does not always make

hard things easy.

Love supports

and challenges.

Love makes us take

long, hard looks

at ourselves

and our biases.

Love tears down systemic barriers

— permanently.

Love prioritizes.

Love speaks truth to power

for the sake of our children.

Love finds a way

where there seems to be no way.

Love is a force.

Together, in love, WE are a force.

And though we may stumble,

and even fall,

we must continue to hoist one another up.

Meet Me. . .in the Bathroom

The challenges we professional educators are facing as we navigate serving children during a pandemic multiply by the hour. The media, the general public, parents, district office personnel, administrators, coaches, consultants — anyone who does not actually interface with children daily — all have an opinion. . . and a silver bullet. Turn off the chat box. (You already know how I feel about this.) This is the best videoconferencing platform of them all. Give them an incentive. . .

This “easy, quick fix” mentality is not surprising to veteran teachers. (I have been doing this for twenty-three years, y’all!) It is the snake oil education reform has always been made of — by folks who do not truly know children .

While I do not believe that you have to be in the virtual classroom every day to have a voice, you do have to show up. And when you do, you need to log on with a learning stance. All of your preconceived notions about what school “should” look like have to be thrown away. These are not “normal” times. Children are not learning under “normal” circumstances. And “normal” wasn’t working for the majority of children anyway.

For so many of our dear children, normalcy was erasure. When we expect “normal” — which has always been a harmful social construct rooted in all forms of bigotry — we fail to see the bold brilliance and beauty of the actual children who are sitting in front of us.

When we fail to see children, we cannot possibly make them visible in our curriculum, libraries, instructional practices, or our individual and collective class and school hearts. Under these circumstances, children become invisible. This isn’t a pandemic schooling problem, but it is now exacerbated to the point that not acknowledging it is willful ignorance.

This week I had to administer a computerized assessment to my students. While I question the rationale behind standardized testing under our current circumstances (I’m just lying. I question it under all circumstances!), there are some battles I choose not to fight because I know I will become weary to no avail. So, I showed my students how to log onto the assessment platform and told them they needed to find the quietest place in their homes (babysitter’s, tio’s, or abuela’s homes, or daycare centers) to work:

“I am at school right now and no one is our classroom but me, so it’s quiet. But if I were at home, I would definitely take my iPad to my bathroom and shut the door to take my assessment. My bedroom is noisy because I live by the train station. The rest of my house can be noisy because I live with a lot of people. When I have to record something, I really do go in the bathroom and shut the door.”

Not only was this an intentional move, it’s the absolute truth. Every PD video I did this past summer was filmed in front of the cabinetry of my bathroom. (You didn’t notice, did you? It was the fancy lighting I rigged up.) No one who participated in my professional development was harmed by this “abnormal” behavior, quite the contrary. It got the job done! I wanted my kids to know that it was okay to live in a noisy house and to find “out of the box” solutions for getting away from the jubilation when necessary.

One of my loves said, “I’m going to take my iPad to my grandma’s closet. It will be very quiet in there and I can focus.” She headed for her intended destination, sat down, and got to work. When she was finished, I looked at her assessment report and the results were phenomenal. She, in defiance of the “learning loss” narrative that is being perpetuated throughout US schools, was right where she needed to be to begin the challenging work of third grade. And. She. Took. The. Assessment. In. Her. Grandma’s. Closet.

There are so many things we need to release to truly meet children’s needs as we embark on this school-year-in-the-middle-of-a-pandemic. But I hope we will all quickly come to understand that perhaps the first thing we need to toss into the basura is “normal.” We are not returning to “normal.” We cannot.

The past several months have laid bare the inequities that exist in our society. Turning off chat boxes, perfect videoconference platforms, and incentives will not erase them and make education equitable. Only dismantling this system that does not live up to its calling will do that. And this begins with deliberately meeting children, their families, and their communities as they are, right where they are (and not trying to “save” or change them). Even if that’s in their Grandma’s closet.

And you can meet me in my bathroom if you want to continue this conversation. I’ve been working there since I was a child, to be honest. . .

All Because I Trusted Them to Use the Chat Box

A week ago I viewed a professional development video that made me cringe. The presenters said that the chat box in our virtual classrooms should only allow students to communicate with the teacher, not one another. “They might be silly if you let them chat,” they suggested. I took to Twitter to express my very refined thoughts:

When we shut down schools in March, I had no idea what I was doing. I had never taught a class of elementary school students online and was not even sure it could be done effectively. But I’m the kind of person who does hard things. Always. I mustered together my resources, found other educators facing the same challenges, leaned into the ambiguity and discomfort of the moment, and radically imagined new possibilities.

As I began to navigate this new territory, the thought of closing the chat box never crossed my mind. It wouldn’t. It is an instructional practice rooted in adultism and control. I believe in the humanity of children and their freedom. And they never, ever let me down when I maintain those values, even when the world seems to be spiraling out of control.

California is ablaze right now. The Bay Area skies are filled with smoke. When we returned from our lunch break yesterday, the children were filled with questions (and answers) about what is happening. So we skipped my intentions for our writing workshop and spent some time asking our friend, Google, our questions. We watched videos and read an article. As we came to the end of our inquiry, a message appeared in the chat box:

WHAT IS GOING ON WITH 2020?

I gasped.

“I know, friend,” I responded verbally. “This year does seem to be very difficult, doesn’t it?”

And then, the chat box exploded (correct spelling and punctuation courtesy of me):

I agree with you, (student’s name).

I know! First Kobe died.

What else?

BLACK LIVES MATTER!

Sad.

I wish I wasn’t born in this time.

I agree.

I agree.

I agree.

Am I going to die?

2020, why? Just why?

I agree.

*Hits 2020 and eats it!

We have COVID-19 and now we have wildfires? Jeez!

This is super scary!

How much more?

*Crying emoji

What’s next 2020? Just don’t make it bad!

I want to see 2021!

Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?

What’s next in 2020 that’s gonna be bad?

Please, 2020, make something lucky, not worse!

I’m going to 2021.

I agree.

Me too.

More like 2022!

No. Wait. Go to 2016. That was the best year!

I am going to 2019.

I hate 2020.

Bye!

Nooooooo!

Bye! I’m going to 2022.

I want to be a baby again.

I’m sick.

Every year except 2020 is the best year. You want to know why? Because there was no virus.

Take me with you!

Virus! Whyyyyyyyyyyyyy?

Oof!

*Forty crying emojis

My family’s still alive.

No, no, no! It’s like this. First Kobe Bryant dies. Then alarms go off on our phones. Then quarantine. Then fires! Like jeez! What else could be next?

2019, I miss you.

Me too!

Seriously!

This thread began at 12:39 and ended at 12:50. We engaged in deep dialogue orally as the children processed alongside each other in the chat box. Our conversation led us to make a heart map that posed the initial question: WHAT IS GOING ON WITH 2020? While we listed what was troubling our hearts, we also thought about the joy that the year has brought us as well. Our time was running short, so I offered a teaching point: Writers think about hard things and process their feelings in their writing. We spent three minutes quick writing from our heart maps and decided we would continue this work today.

These pieces are still working drafts, but let me tell you that I was blown away by the power of my third graders’ writing as they shared today. I didn’t teach any craft moves or require the writing to be done in a specific genre before the quick write yesterday, but appropriate ones for this topic — like poetry and narrative, and repetends and dialogue — surfaced naturally. I cannot wait for them to finish these pieces. Their drafts are already so good!

And now I have to wonder, would any of this have happened if I had limited their chat box use to communicating with me? You already know the answer. . .

Children might not “be silly.” Children will be silly. They are children. But they will also be brilliant if we stop trying to control them to accomplish our desired outcomes, which only serve to fuel adult egos.

I have said it a million times, at least. I will say it a million more. Children are the epitome of everything good in this world! It is children who will set us free. I feel more empowered to navigate this harrowing year already having had this incredible experience with them. . .all because I did not stifle their voices and trusted them to use the chat box.

Excerpts from Opal School Summer Symposium Presentation, June 2020

Any fellow educator who really knows me is aware of my obsession with Opal School, which is in the Portland Children’s Museum in Portland, Oregon. I know, right?! What a great place for a school. Opal is a Reggio-inspired elementary school that serves preschoolers through fifth graders. The work the educators there do with children is breathtakingly beautiful because it is rooted in a deep respect for children and their families and a firm belief that children are not becoming, they already are brilliant, capable human beings.

I have learned so much from Opal School educators and children over the past several years. Every opportunity I have had to spend time at Opal School has left me overflowing with love for children and gratitude that I get to spend my life learning from them. Sadly, we had to gather online for this summer’s symposium. I missed seeing some of my favorite educators, but I was thrilled that they gave me an opportunity to be a featured speaker.

I wanted to share some excerpts of my presentation here to both give Opal a public shout-out and preserve the thoughts I am having in this moment. (And, if I’m being honest, to post without writing something new.) In case y’all didn’t know, this is really more of a public teacher diary than anything else. . .

I opened with a viewing of Keedron Bryant’s viral outcry:

“I Just Wanna Live”

Colleagues, I cannot protect your feelings or mince words with you today. The world, as my dear friend Sara Ahmed says, has given us a curriculum. It has been offering itself to us for an incredibly long time, actually. But the very system that purports to be the great equalizer, the foundation of our democracy — allegedly free and ostensibly appropriate public education — was never designed to listen to all of its stakeholders or serve all children. Our education system has always been, and currently is, a tool of white supremacy. Racism climbs inside fancy boxes that say “teacher-approved,” it slips between pages labeled “peer-reviewed research,” and hides itself between the lines of discipline referrals that read “non-compliant, disorderly, and distracting” in an attempt to dupe us. But those of us who refuse to be, at this point, willfully ignorant know the truth: For the Black, Brown, and indigenous children in our care, education requires assimilation to whiteness. And assimilation by its very nature is racist and stands in stark contrast to genuine listening. This dear boy, Keedron Bryant, every peaceful activist pounding the pavement, every author behind antiracist texts, every Tweeter, every artist, every anti-bias/antiracist teacher, even every brick hurler and every looter who are authentic protestors. . .all of these people who are crying out #blacklivesmatter, #mylifematters. . .are former or current students who have been systemically, perpetually unheard. I hope that you will listen to me today. 

I just wanna live.

I told a number of Black, indigenous, children of color’s stories before closing out the presentation as follows:

The trauma that the refusal to listen to and believe Black, Brown, and indigenous people causes has ushered our country into upheaval. And if we stop and do an honest analysis, we will discover that our classrooms are microcosms of society inclusive of the same problems. The only answer to the challenges we face is antiracism. Educators must become co-conspirators who actively work to dismantle a system that is oppressing all of their students. 

For Black, Brown and indigenous children, schools are places where they must shed their identities, and often endure affronts, in order to simply learn. Their schooling experiences are so contrived, so disconnected from the lives they lead in their communities, it is as if they are living two separate lives. This double consciousness weaves the tangled web of a colonized identity marginalized children will spend their entire lives untangling in order to “get free.” Surrendering ourselves is too high a price to pay for an education. 

I just want to live.

The centering of whiteness — a social, not a biological construct, designed for the purpose of subjugating people of color — is problematic for white children, too. What does it mean to grow up with your way of being in the world centered all of the time while you watch others get cast aside? How do you learn to listen to varied perspectives and live an inclusive life beyond Ethiopian food delivery if the world in which you live is always all about you?

The most powerful action we can take right now is to get proximate with our children and their communities and listen to them — both their verbal and nonverbal communication—with no intent to respond and without an expectation to hear what we want them to say. When educators truly listen, we develop the kind of empathy necessary to humble ourselves in the presence of our children and their communities. When we embrace a pedagogy of listening, we begin to see beyond our biases and the children and their communities begin to shed light on how we can be anitracist co-conspirators as they seize the power that Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as “our birthright as inheritors of the American Dream.” 

We just want to live.

“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”

I am so blessed to be able to think alongside the Opal School community. They have pushed me to continuously dig deeper and work harder to ensure that the children I am blessed to call my students never experience the tyranny of what Paulo Freire called “adultism” in our classroom. May the children in my care always know how it feels to be free. . .

Thank you, Opal School!

Sometimes Grief Comes in the Middle of the Night. . .and I Cry

Tonight as I tried to fall asleep, these beautiful souls came to visit me and would not let me rest. To all of my dear students who are still living who happen to read this, I hate it when people say this, but there really are no words adequate to describe how much I love you and how grateful I am to have been given the blessing of your presence in my life. God forbid anything should happen to you, but if something does, I want you to know that I’ll be sitting on this side of eternity clamoring for answers as to why I was not taken instead. I would gladly take any of your places. You have given me life. I would be happy to offer it back to you!

Dear deceased ones,

How’s it going over there, yo? That’s a really dumb way to begin this, but I don’t know how else to greet you. Our relationships were characterized by a ton of silliness. All of my relationships are, if I’m being honest. But I have always been more of myself with kids than anyone else. My classroom is a stage and you were my captive audience. I think you liked the show, though. You came back ready to join in the dance every day. . .

Bernard, I remember the day you were overwhelmed by your physical inability to raise your arms above your head to dance with us during morning meeting. I had no idea what to do, but I knew I couldn’t take something away that brought you so much joy that you wept at the thought of not being able to do it fully. I understand aching. So we kept our dance routine and your peers and I gave you an assist, helping you raise your arms and pushing you around in your wheelchair. We all need a little help sometimes.

I know I never told you this, Bernard, because it would have been inappropriate. But my dear friend, Pat, a woman I called my Arctic Momma, was slowly releasing her grip on life here on earth at the same you were. She had brain cancer, too. Loving you through your battle taught me how important it was to love her by keeping our friendship exactly as it had been with perhaps a lot more openness about how grateful I was to have her in my life. You wanted nothing more than to feel “normal.” You showed me how to offer normalcy to a friend who had given me so much in my time of need. Thank you for the assist.

I wish to God I had been able to help you, Moosta. I often wonder if I would have seen your pain if I’d been searching for what was troubling you as relentlessly as I was pressuring you to return the iPod you stole from me. I can still see the smirk on your face now as I shouted my last words to you over the engine of your moped: “Give me back my iPod, you punk. I know it was you!” You giggled, eyes smiling, and took off waving goodbye as if you’d see me later. You knew. You hanged yourself that night, but months later you came to visit me at school.

Your niece, who was in pre-kindergarten by then, was in my music class. As I taught her to dance to the call and response song, “Che Che Kule,” which hails all the way from Africa and found its way to our tiny Alaskan village through me, she shouted, “Ms. J! Ms. J! Moosta has this song on his iPod.” All I could do was giggle and thank you for stopping by. I’d missed you. Did you see the new iPod I was finally emotionally ready to purchase a little over a year after your death? I had it engraved in Italian so we could keep our little secret:

Se lo rubi, ti preghiamo di non suicidarti.

As if unexpectedly losing you were not painful enough, we lost your competition in getting under my skin, too. I can still hear you rationalizing your love for me, Gunner. “Ms. J, you are cheap, but you are not as cheap as the other high school teachers, so I like you.” I liked you — so much! Your humor was the gift that kept on giving. I can visualize you now, laid back in your desk, wondering aloud how I was going to make your life miserable today by asking you to choose a book to read that you’d eventually have to admit you enjoyed because it, too, wasn’t as cheap as the others.

You didn’t make me earn your respect or affection the way the boys did, Marisa. You sat down in our classroom with your partners in tomfoolery, Lexy and Jaclynne, on the first day of school and it was instant, mutual shenanigans. The teasing began the moment we met and it never let up. We were an odd pair of friends. (I have to call us that because as you became an adult, that’s exactly what we were, though you still called me Ms. J.) You were a baller. I’m as clumsy with or without a ball as they come. You were a tomboy. I am currently shopping for the perfect summer purse. You parted your hair straight down the middle. I begged you to let me part it on the side just once so you could see how beautiful you would look. But you were never swayed. You were as loyal to that part as you were to your friends.

After I touched your hand and felt that all the warmth that was you had left your body, I went home and looked at every single picture we took on the senior trip to Europe. In every one we’re both in, you were right by my side. Who stands by the chaperone in every picture? Who leaves their dorm room and picks up their former teacher while she’s having an asthma attack and takes her to the hospital? Who is a friend whose kindness surpasses expectations? My Petunia, that’s who. (Did you actually like that nickname or were you just being nice?) I’ll never have a better, more selfless friend.

I remember exactly where I was when I found out every one of you died. And though the locations were different, I wailed every single time. It didn’t matter that I was in the middle of a restaurant in New York City or that I was in Houston preparing for an important presentation. Losing you stopped me in my tracks. My grief heaved out of me with the same passion and precision that your loving presence had infiltrated my being: it didn’t miss a cell.

Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?

Oh, God, s/he is juuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuust a CHILD!

Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?

I still do not know how to live without any of you. I am writing this now because I could not stop the tears from streaming down my face tonight. I had to talk to you. I needed to let you know how much I still love you. How could I ever stop? You are my reason for being. You are the people who taught me about the infinite capacity of my heart for love. You are the reason I have not settled down or given up. Because of you, I cannot live a lie. And as long as I live, you will remain a living, breathing truth. My humanity is inextricably tied to yours. God I love you!

Forever,

Ms. J

grooming

eyebrows waxed

hair cut

external flaws concealed

even online teaching has found a groove

distracting and deflecting requires more effort now

because the only struggle that remains

(the one she has never been able to overcome

the way she conquers everything else —

sheer will

sheer will

sheer will—)

is with the woman reflected in the mirror

whose brushes cannot powder over anxiety

whose scissors cannot cut off the naysaying voices

and whose wax leaves behind the sticky residue

of always believing she’ll never be enough

#31DaysIBPOC: An Open Letter to Black Joy

“To be Black is something so special.”

Dr. Bettina Love
Dear Black Joy,

Thank you. 

You have nurtured and sustained me my entire life. 

Before I could even name you, you showed up 
in Grandma’s slender hands 
as she cut articles about my first love, 
Prince, 
out of the newspaper for me to keep. 

When Bobbie Lee’s hands 
clapped in church on Sunday mornings, 
you showed up in fresh-pressed suits 
straight from Uncle Willie’s dry cleaners, 
and the tightly braided, 
fresh out of a bonnet hair of 
little girls like me 
who could not sit still.

You were in the harmonies 
that ushered the Holy Ghost 
into Hurst Chapel A.M.E. Church
and sent church mothers running 
up and down the aisles
to convince us all to 
lift our hands in praise 
and join them in singing 
that we don’t feel no ways tired.

I’ve come too far from where I started from.

When we were all spent,
you awaited me in the church kitchen 
in heaping mounds of macaroni and cheese,
crispy fried chicken, honey-baked ham,
collard greens, green beans,
peach cobbler --
food that seemed to have no beginning or end.
(Everybody knew this alpha and omega 
was Mrs. Moore, though.
We don’t eat just anybody’s cooking.
We don’t know where they’ve been.)

Grandma’s been gone almost four years, 
but you, Black Joy, survived 
in the old Ebony and Jet magazines 
she proudly displayed in her Florida room,
an orange and green sanctuary 
reminding us to give thanks 
for our family’s legacy
at the university on Tallahassee’s highest hill.
My grandmother, Bobbie Lee Mitchell McKennie, graduated from
Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University in 1946.
You outlived the one 
person I thought could look 
death in the face and tell it to 
get to stepping.

You defy all odds!

That a people could rail against 
the horrors of chattel slavery 
for centuries, 
spend every moment since emancipation 
fighting for our humanity 
and have you remain, 
unspeakable, 
in our hearts 
is nothing short of a miraculous
gift from the ancestors.

L
 I
  B
   A
    T
     I
      O
       N
        S

When I left your sacred arms and refused 
to give you the time of day, 
because I was out there 
contorting myself and my dreams to 
please the white gaze, 
you paid my infidelities no mind
and passionately pursued me anyway.
 
You crushed yourself up -- 
like momma used to crush aspirin 
into orange juice
because I didn’t know 
what was good for me -- 
so I would still take you. 

I’m so sorry. 

They taught me all about you,
Black Joy, 
but nobody told me 
white supremacy 
is insidious, 
that it comes, 
like a thief in the night,
to kill and destroy.

I nearly died 
trying to appease it.

But you never stopped 
calling me in (not out)
and I found my way back to you --
the only venue that could host 
all of me,
just as I am --
and relearned how to live 
in community
with people who can 
wholly reflect who I am,
people willing to die 
for my liberation.

Thank you for escorting me 
through doors of return:

the words of the ancestors --
Love makes your soul
crawl out from its hiding place --

the poetry written on my heart --
I rise
I rise
I rise --

the song of my soul--
Shadowed beneath Thy hand
May we forever stand
True to our God
True to our native land --

and those actual doors.
Door of Return in Elmina, Ghana (No, there are no better photos. It was hotter than Hades!)
Thank you for saving 
my place at the table. Thank you
for helping me return -- 
to the coil of my hair, 
the curves of my body, 
the sass of my mouth, 
the music that seizes control 
of my hips and emotions,
the literature that feeds my soul, 
the comedy that conjures 
full-bodied laughter, and the
peace in my heart.

Thank you for giving me back 
vibrant head wraps, 
hoop earrings that touch my shoulders, 
brightly-colored lips,
sister friends, 
and men 
who don’t need the manual 
about how to love a Black woman.

The epitome of Black (educator) joy — love, laughter, and liberation
Thank you for making me love you
so fiercely, so palpably,
that a Mexican little girl
reads "Black Teachers Matter" 
on my t-shirt, rolls her neck,
and says, "That's true!"
in solidarity.

Thank you for drawing me
so close to you
that my rendering of
The Undefeated
touches a young Mexican boy
brimming with machismo so deeply
that he ducks
behind a bookcase
to hide his tears.

Thank you for liberating me.

Thank you for giving me life.

Thank you for reminding me of
how blessed
I am to have overcome
it all
and have the luck
to be
Black and proud
on this Saturday morning
with my vow to you
tattooed on my mahogany skin:
Sankofa.

Love,
Aeriale
Sankofa is a Twi word meaning “go back and get it” and an Asante Adinkra symbol
often associated with the proverb
“It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”
This blog post is part of #31DaysIBPOC. Click here to read the previous post in this blog circle by Dr. Kim Parker, and here to read the next post by Dulce-Marie Flecha.

For Dr. Jonathan Lovell: Peacefully Sheltering-In-Place

Dear Jonathan,

The last time I posted here, I shared a part of the work we are doing to support SJAWP’s teacher, parent, and student community during the COVID-19 pandemic, the invisible thief that ripped you away. You were so complimentary, sharing my work with your network. Making you proud always brought me joy. It could have been your brilliance, which was co-signed by your Ivy League degrees. Who wouldn’t want the vindication of such a smart man? It might’ve been because as I gained my footing as someone who is trying to make a broader impact on the profession we both love so much, you were my North Star, the one who guided me in every aspect from which jobs to accept to how to manage finances. But these were not the reasons why I longed to be found worthy of your praise. The best part of pleasing you was the gift of your smile.

From the moment I met you, you started tearing down the walls I keep around my heart to protect me from any man, but especially father figures. I remember spending our first week writing together wondering, “Why is this man so nice? Is he for real?” You were for real. Your kindness toward me never wavered under any circumstances. Not even my crass humor, sassiness, or penchant for misanthropy could make you stop caring for me. You came into my life at just the moment I needed an unconditional source of fatherly love and remained. . .

I’ve cried every time I’ve gone somewhere — well, virtually anyway — you are supposed to be, Jonathan. The heaviness of losing you has taken up residence in my chest. I’m thinking of asking our dear friends to cease using your name as an email title. My teary eyes cannot make a distinction between from Jonathan Lovell from whom I long to hear and about Jonathan Lovell who is never going to write me again. I know the healing will only come when I fully allow myself to grieve, but reaching for you and finding you absent still feels like gasping for air. I’m finding peace sheltering-in-place right now. There is no return to normal in a world that does not have you.

Love,

Aeriale