Filled Up: Desperation & Hope

“Only the creative mind can make use of hope. Only a creative people can wield it.”  ~Jericho Brown

A dear friend recently texted a link to an episode of the On Being with Krista Tippett podcast to me. The episode features poet Jericho Brown. I was struck by so many things he said, but when he talked about the confluence of “love and brutality,” I stopped dead in my tracks. He expounds:

“So I’m interested in where love goes awry or where people use violence as an excuse for love. . . It’s something that I don’t understand. And I think poems are better built out of what we don’t understand, not what we do already know, but what we’re trying to figure out and better understand.”

What am I to make of this dichotomy? Are there other ideas that appear mutually exclusive that actually must coexist? Is poetry a space especially suited for the interrogation of thought? My mind wandered into an inquiry of its own as I listened to this brilliant man speak.

I eventually settled on thinking about dichotomies and whether or not the ones to which we most stubbornly cling might not be false. We Western-minded folks are so quick to create binaries — love and brutality, male and female, black and white. . .desperation and hope — leaving out nuance, thus the possibility of other and yet unfounded realities. But there is an exception: artists.

No matter the raw material, artists lay it in the cradle of their bosom and, through sheer will, nurture it. Jars of paint become masterpieces. Cacophonies become symphonies. Phonemes become morphemes become words become vows. Artists forge meaning out of that which is seemingly meaningless. Where most experience desperation, creative folks find a way to carve out hope and wield it.

A few days ago I posted a manifesto of desperation, Fed Up: A Change Has Gotta ComeI still stand by every word. I carried each one with me as I entered our classroom early this morning to prepare the third teacher for the arrival of the tiny humans. Classrooms are inherently hopeful spaces, though. So I found myself at the confluence of desperation and hope.

Because I am a teacher, I am an artist, a creator. Creative people are uniquely qualified to “make use of hope.” At this merger of my heavy-hearted desperation and the undeniable hope that is found in children and the spaces they occupy, I seized the opportunity to design an environment wherein hope could become a masterpiece, a symphony, a vow of joy unfettered.

When my darlings entered our classroom today, I wasn’t fed up. Instead, I was instantly filled up. Their uncontainable excitement about the changes in our classroom — new books on display, new calendar markers, Halloween decorations, fresh flowers, so many opportunities to notice and wonder — is just the reason why, the only reason, I barrel through the turmoil of teaching.

My students of the past, present and future are how I know that dichotomies are false. All things must exist at once if one is to exist at all. Teaching is both desperation and hope. It is brutality and love. I’m here for it all.

 

Fed Up: A Change Has Gotta Come

Twenty-one years ago, I naively stepped into a school ready to change the world. There I met a classroom full of rambunctious (and hilarious) middle schoolers with alleged special needs who would challenge me beyond my capacities as a first-year teacher, just barely in my twenties. The job was hard.

Since I was the only special education teacher in the building, I did not have a mentor in this tiny, out-in-the-sticks school. I sought the mentorship of professors and the classroom teachers who had mentored me during my field work. I problem-solved, stayed late — sometimes after midnight — and I somehow lived to tell the story.

I survived, but not without drawing a conclusion: You either have to be a martyr or an idiot to teach. I decided I was the former. I still am.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. I cannot imagine a life without teaching. It is my life, the air that I breathe. But every moment that I teach is a sacrifice.

In this country, you simply cannot teach well, really well, without losing, without surrendering so many parts of yourself, and so many of your possessions, that when you walk away for summer, or even just a week, you feel the pangs of emptiness. But you also mourn when it’s time to go back because you know what awaits you. Teaching is like being in an abusive relationship with someone you desperately love.

Does it have to be this way? No. Absolutely not. It’s not the children. It’s not their families. It’s not moral decay or the decline of the “traditional” family unit. It’s the system. It’s society’s expectations. It’s misogyny. It’s racism. This whole gig is a setup.

Anyone who truly wants to impact the lives of children in sustainable ways has to overcome so many obstacles, has to fight so many battles, has to slay so many dragons that, at the end of the day, scarcely anything remains for the people we love outside of our schools, ourselves included. In too many schools, teaching hurts (so good?). And in the places where it’s “better,” the likelihood that I’ll look at my students and see a sea of Black and Brown boy joy and Black and Brown girl magic is negligible. If I cannot teach BIPOC children, I cannot teach. Catch-22.

I don’t mean to be dramatic or depressing. I only mean to tell the truth. My truth. I am so tired of being tired. I am demoralized from expending so much energy and spending so much money to become everything that children need me to be, and continue to acquire everything they need to have, only to arrive at this destination more than two decades later and not be professionally respected enough give it to them.

I’m not calling out any particular school system for which I have worked. It is all of them. The American school system is broken, from sea to shining sea. James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” So this is me no longer naive, in my twenty-second year in the profession, facing it.

I have outgrown myself personally and professionally over and over again. I have read. I have studied. I have reflected. I have earned some of the highest honors in the teaching profession. And, still, my job is just as hard in 2019 as it was in 1998. I still seek mentorship. I still stay late. I still problem-solve. These days it’s just a different kind of difficult.

I’m no longer willing to be a martyr. I’m fed up. A change has gotta come!

 

 

Those Are Our Treasures

Last Sunday I was in my classroom, rancheras blasting, sorting guided reading books. Our alarm system does not allow us much movement around the school on the weekends. Even though we are all in the same building, we have to text to communicate and walk a long, circuitous route if we actually want to chat face-to-face. It is rare that I see my colleagues at school on the weekend, though I know several of them are there.

When my outer classroom door flew open without warning, I was petrified. I slowly peeked around the wall to discover the San Jose Police Department had sent officers to greet me. I raised my hands in surrender, away from the books. No weapons here. Just a teacher and some books. A female officer of color and her white, male colleague walked into the room and she asked, “Is everything okay? Are you a teacher here?”

I’d pushed the wrong button and failed to disarm the alarm. They were following protocol to ensure that thieves weren’t running off with my miniature rocking chairs and Clorox wipes. We chatted for a few minutes and she finally asked, “What do you teach? This classroom is so cool. . .

I want to learn in here!

I take great pride in designing and maintaining a classroom environment that is beautiful, comfortable, instructive, and, most of all, reflective of the tiny humans I serve each day. I believe that the spaces we create for our students teach them as much, and at times more, than we do about our beliefs about them, the materials we offer them, and what our expectations are at that intersection.

Each year I listen for some confirmation that my efforts are not in vain. I know they are not, but every child responds differently to an environment and listening deepens my understanding of what speaks to them, how, and why. So much is implied by an environment and sometimes children do not make the inferences we intend. Sometimes they do.

Just the other day, as he sat down in the meeting area, one of my tiny human friends glanced at the contents of a beautiful wooden box that looks like a treasure chest that a volunteer gifted us and said, “Those are our treasures,” while grinning from ear-to-ear.  What’s in the box? Books. More specifically, all of those I have read aloud since school began a month ago. These books represent our first tears and giggles, nostalgia from our time together two years ago in kindergarten and the beginning of new memories, our burgeoning individual intellects and our collective soul. They are, indeed, our treasures.

Somehow I managed to disarm the alarm this Sunday. There were no surprise visits from police officers. But as I organized the space — arranging flowers, organizing books, shifting anchor charts — I thought about what the officer said. “I want to learn in here, too,” I thought. Actually, I already have.

***

If you’re looking for resources to help you think about your classroom environment, I highly recommend thinking deeply about your philosophy of education. Make a list of the values that are your highest priority, then ask yourself how the physical environment reflects and aligns with them. When I cannot find an answer, I know that it is an area of growth for me. The following texts have been essential to my thinking:

Working in the Reggio Way

The Third Teacher

 

 

 

 

A Love Stance

“Ms. J, you have a love stance!”

I was trying to help my students understand what it means to assume a particular stance as they prepare to read a particular type of text. I explained it briefly and then said,

“Ms. J has a way of seeing children that helps me decide what to do when I’m teaching you every day. If I don’t say to myself, ‘This is the kind of teacher and person I am. This is what I believe about children,’ I might not see you or the situations we find ourselves in each day the way I truly want to when things get tricky. I wonder what kind of stance I have. . .”

I imagined my students might say that I care about kindness and holding them to very high standards academically and behaviorally. And they did. But I was taken aback (I literally took a step backward) when my tiny human friend told me that love is what he sees in me as we grow together each day.

I am replete with faults. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t say to myself, “I really messed that up.” I recently read an article that said that current research indicates that elementary school teachers make an average of 1,500 decisions each day. How can I not fail at something despite my intentions to be the Mary Poppins of educators under that kind of pressure?! But I try. And my impact on this little boy’s life is clearly aligned with my intentions. Thank goodness!

***

Earlier today I was scrolling through Facebook and came across a post from a high school friend. He’d made an observation that most of the people he comes across who say that their parents spanked them and they still turned out okay are actually not okay. There were several interesting comments on his post and I decided to chime in.

(In full disclosure, I do not have any children of my own. I have been actively involved in the lives of several children of friends and family, including caring for them full-time in the absence of their parents. I have also been a teacher for more than half my life. This year is my twenty-second in the classroom.)

In my comment, I wrote about how long I had been teaching, the overwhelming number of children I had worked with (100+ when I was a high school assistant band director), and how I had never had the desire to use corporal punishment to discipline my students because those who struggle with behavior do not need violence. Children who fail to make the best choices in any context are first and foremost children, who by their very nature are in the process of learning how to navigate their way through a very complex world. What said children need most of all is relationship. They need LOVE.

It seemed easy enough to offer my two cents and move on with my day. But another teacher commented. Hours later, I cannot stop processing what she wrote. According to her, the foundational problem in education, the reason she has lost all control in her classroom, is because so many, though definitely not all, school systems and states have banned or outlawed corporal punishment.

Wait. What?! You want to hit your students? 

My heart is still somewhere on the floor of my bedroom where I was when I read her comment. That there are people who think like this teaching our most precious and vulnerable resource is unbelievable. And heartbreaking.

Children are the epitome of all that is right and good in this world, the embodiment of our dreams for ourselves and our hope for humanity. Everything that is to come is being nurtured in the wombs of their hearts and minds right now. And you want to hit them? Because YOU feel out of control?

Which ones will you hit? For what reasons will you hit them? How often will this happen? How hard will you hit them? What object will you use so that you yourself do not feel the pain you are inflicting? I have so many questions, but I have known this person since high school and suspect posing them would be fruitless. I have to expend my energy within my sphere of influence.

***

Our job is to guide children to their power, not wax nostalgic about the “good old days” when educators could abuse their power and enact violence against them. As Frederick Douglass wrote, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken (wo)men.” The only force in the world that builds strong children is love. Embracing love is also the only way any of us will ever feel in “control.”

Though I be but one little teacher, my love for children is fierce. I am so thankful that the students whom I am fortunate enough to have in my care find this love in me despite my imperfections. They make mistakes, too, even after they have grown beyond them. I love them still because that is what love is. . .

“All of me loves all of you. You give your all to me, I’ll give my all to you. . .”

“Ms. J, you have a love stance!”

Yes, I do, my darling. And I love you. . .

Noticing and Noting

Today I taught my students how important it is to write stories that really matter to us. “Stories that are important to us will move our readers because we will write with passion and conviction. I’ve been wondering if we used what we notice and note in the stories we read — if we used the signposts during writing time — that would help us find stories that really matter to us,” I told them.

“A long time ago,” I began my “signpost” story, “Ms. J didn’t have an afro. My hair was long and straight.”

They were floored. How could you just be revealing this to us when so many of us have been with you for so long? This is an important detail, Ms. J! How old were you? It was as if I’d failed to tell my very best friends my deepest, darkest secret. . .

“I had been thinking about growing out my natural hair for a very long time, years, but I was afraid. I hadn’t seen it since I was a child and my grandmother decided she was tired of combing it one summer. She let her sister convince her that a relaxer was what what I needed. I wasn’t sure what it would look like, so I hesitated. But, as fate would have it, one summer I was going to college (I was actually doing a summer seminar with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which is basically ‘going to college’ to seven-year-olds.) and my suite mate was a beautiful Gambian woman with an afro so beautiful it looked like a crown. One day I told her how much I liked her hair and how I wish I had the courage to grow mine out. That’s when she told me her hair story. She cut her hair very short, then shaved! her! head! And, you guys, you won’t believe what she said when she looked at herself in the mirror! She stared into her eyes and said, ‘This is the first time I have ever seen you, my face. I didn’t know you were beautiful.’ I could not believe she did not know she was beautiful not only because she was, but also because she had won beauty pageants. She was a beauty queen and she didn’t know she was beautiful. I immediately realized I did not have a choice. It was time to meet myself. I knew what I had to do. . .”

My students were riveted as I showed them photographs of my transformation from colonized hair to the powerful crown God gave me. I wasn’t sure it was working, that such tiny humans would be able to transfer what I was doing to their own work. But as children have been wont to do for the past twenty-two years, they showed me once again that they are the truth. I wasn’t prepared.

“I’m writing about a difficult question. My mom asked me if I wanted to move schools and I chose to stay here with you,” one of my former kindergarteners told me.

Another with a chronic illness said, “I’m writing about the day the doctor finally figured out what was wrong with me. It was an aha moment!”

“I had an aha moment the day my great grandmother died. I’m writing about that,” an old soul in a seven-year-old body told me.

As I walked about to confer with them, one child after another told me with clarity and brilliance what they were doing as writers. I couldn’t believe it, but I also could. Because. . . Because children are the most incredible beings. They are the perfect fusion of truthfulness and fearlessness. They just are.

As I think about the journey from “I went to the Santa Cruz boardwalk and it was fun” stories fourteen days ago to the stories they began to craft today, it all comes down to teaching children to pay attention to what is essential, ask questions about those things, and still more until we find our truths, however slowly. Children do not need their instruction scaffolded until they become helpless to find their own way. They need “stances, signposts, and strategies,” as Dr. Kylene Beers and Dr. Bob Probst wrote, to help them see the world (which is itself a text Freire taught us), notice its details, and name them, so that they can use that knowledge to construct their own knowledge and worlds.

As one of my students wrote to Kylene last year, “I am so. . . happy you found a aha moment is a thing because if it wasn’t a thing I wouldn’t be thinking that hard when I read my books. . . Thank you for thinking really hard. Sincerely, B”

Same, mija. She’s (and Bob, of course) got me thinking really hard, too!

Black & White

Last week, our first full week together, my students and I explored the colors black and white and created gorgeous art using only those colors. It was an intentional instructional move. We will study primary and secondary colors next week. Tertiary colors will follow and on and on. . .until we mix the colors that are us.

When I thought aloud as we explored black and white photography, “I wonder why an artist would choose to use black and white when our world is full of so many colors,” a seven year-old boy said, “When it’s black and white, we know what to focus on. We could get distracted by all the other colors. You don’t know what to look at sometimes when there are a lot of colors.”

The wisdom of tiny humans never ceases to amaze me. Just as his eyes were drawn to the intimacy between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and Madiba’s triumphant spirit in black and white photographs, I too have been moved by what I see when I pare down, when I slow down, when I take time.

In these nascent days of the school year, when things are still relatively black and white, I am learning so much about my students — both those I’ve loved and those with whom I’m falling in love. The colors will come with time. Our classroom will become more nuanced and I will probably get lost in the details and lose focus on what is most important time and again. For now, though, I’m thankful that I can see.

As the week wound down, I became anxious to plan equally meaningful experiences for next week, but there was a Saturday commitment looming. I have to renew my National Board Certification this school year and, unlike ten years ago when I lived in bush Alaska, I have access to a cohort of educators with whom I can undertake this challenge. But the first meeting was today. On Saturday. The first Saturday after the first full week of school.

I’m tired. I have a million things to do outside of lesson planning and preparation. I don’t want to travel all the way to Stanford. I don’t want to talk to any humans much less strangers. I don’t want to get dressed. 

I was whiny when I woke up this morning, but something — maybe professionalism, or memories of how overwhelming it was to do it all alone the first time, or the pull of the Universe — something compelled me to will myself out of bed and go to that meeting.

The meeting was pretty standard at first. There were introductions. There was a presentation of slides. We read documents and asked questions. But as we wrapped up for the day and the presenter offered us future meeting options, one of the participants said, “I would like to meet every month. I need you guys. My husband, soon to be my ex-husband, asked for a divorce. He was cheating and now I’m a single parent.” Another chimed in, “I need you, too. I was just diagnosed with Parkinson’s.” She had driven two hours to join us today.

My eyes welled up, but I didn’t let the tears fall. . .

Teachers will barrel through any barrier to improve their craft and reach their students. Teachers are some of the most amazing human beings on the planet.

As I walked away from my new friends, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone living under such harrowing circumstances could find the strength to overcome them and travel such great distances just to be part of a cohort of teachers on a Saturday morning. I thought about this all the way home. And then I remembered what my tiny human friend said,

“When it’s black and white, we know what to focus on.” 

 

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Upon Their Return

Last school year was exhausting. Gloriously so. I didn’t write as much publicly for many reasons. I was helping children to reclaim their time. I was busy. I was tired. I was thinking.

Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.” In a classroom of thirty-one children with an amazing and overwhelming composition of demographics, strengths and opportunities for growth, I spent the 180 days with my tiny loves deep in inquiry. Three days into this school year I already know that this is a year that will answer.

I began this blog incredibly excited to have the opportunity to teach kindergarten during my twentieth year in the profession. I loved it. We had a great year. But as it was coming to an end, my principal came to me with a request, “I am wondering if you would be willing to teach second grade next year?” Reread the sentence with “overwhelming” above. I. Was. Handpicked. I am a team player. I obliged.

One of my principal’s arguments in her pitch was, “You’ll get to teach your kindergarteners again when they’re in second grade.” She knew how much I loved them. She knew I wouldn’t be able to turn that opportunity down. And upon their return, I am so glad I didn’t.

“It feels so good to be back in here with you.”

“I couldn’t sleep at all last night. I was so excited to see you.”

“When I saw you were my teacher, I was like, ‘YES!'”

These tiny humans, they are my people. They are my heart walking around outside of my chest. We haven’t been in school an entire week yet and our classroom is already so full of love, even for those who are just joining us this year.

I am on a bender again. It’s not a kinder bender. And second grader bender is not as cute. It doesn’t rhyme. But it’s just as intoxicating! I look forward to sharing all the answers this year gives with you here.

Love,

A