One Saturday a few months into last school year, I caught myself smiling as I thought about how completely happy I was at my new school. I was immediately suspicious. Me? Completely. Happy. Completely? Something had to be awry.
I am always blissful in the divine presence of children. Even when they’re driving me insane, as little ones are apt to do from time to time, being with my students brings me deep, abiding joy. I love them. Completely! They are my people.
The list of adults whom I claim, however, is almost always a short one. But something was happening to me at this new school. I was beginning to … enjoy all of my colleagues? Do I actually like all of them? This is strange! I needed to check in with myself. I had to figure out these uncharacteristic feelings. I needed to know why I was beginning to deconstruct the walls I’d so tediously built around myself … brick by brick.
* * *
Brick 1: Hello, Aunt Jemima.
Brick 2: You look so pretty when you straighten your hair. You look like one of us.
Brick 3: The KKK isn’t all bad. They began as a great organization that made strong white men.
Brick 4: What do you people like to be called these days? Is it still colored?
Brick 5: You’re just a one-woman show.
Brick 6: Check your ego at the door. The people at your school care about children.
Brick 7: I don’t like the way you ask so many questions.
Brick 8: If you want to be on my committee, everything you say must go through me or you keep your mouth shut.
Brick 9: *Did the superintendent really just hang up on me? Did he really just yell at me because I calmly cited research?
Brick 10: You need to get back in the box. You are too far out of the box.
Brick 11: Don’t get too excited about your students’ test scores. They are probably just a false positive.
Brick 12: Okay, I still don’t understand what you’re doing in there, but it works. Your scores are so high. Great job, Arielle!
Brick 13: *My name is A-E-R-I-A-L-E.
Brick 14: Did Martin Luther King, Jr. even earn a real doctorate?
Brick 15: There’s no such thing as black culture.
Brick 16: She is toxic. She has borderline personality disorder.
Brick 17: *Thank you, armchair psychologist. No, I’m not. No, I don’t. I just find the way you treat children untenable.
I could go on and on … brick by brick, but:
a) I have anxiety-induced asthma attacks and the administrators and fellow teachers who made these comments have already wreaked enough havoc on my body.
b) I could have stopped after the “Aunt Jemima” greeting and have provided enough evidence to prove that when I say that it takes courage, grace, and the patience of Job to show up every day to teach while progressive, black, and female in the midst of such, dare I say it, toxic whiteness and masculinity, it’s the whole damn truth.
* * *
And there it was. My aha moment! Almost every administrator and teacher in my new school is indigenous, black, or of color! Those who are not are allies or accomplices. Is that what this is? Is it possible that all of these years I thought I was mostly (“There’s no such thing as black culture” is pretty clear!) fighting the good fight for my students to receive the progressive, child-centered education they deserve, I should have actually been fighting against anti-blackness? Have I been wielding the wrong weapons all of this time? I texted my principal immediately.
Thank you for giving me an opportunity to work at our school. I’m standing, nearly frozen, in the middle of a sidewalk downtown because I just realized that I work primarily with teachers of color. I have never had this opportunity before. It already feels gloriously different! I know I’ve shared some of my trauma with you, but I think this is going to be okay. I think I am going to be okay. It feels like the next step in my awakening, my decolonization. The first took place in my friend Tiana’s classroom. I wrote about it here. Maybe someday I’ll write a piece called To Washington, With Love.
And so I guess that’s what this is.
It’s a love letter to my dear colleagues who accept me, embrace my eccentricities (even when I come in dressed like the Incredible Hulk because it’s ‘I’ day), and promote a school culture where staff and students alike experience a sense of belonging, just as we are.
It’s a celebration of the joy I have found in your divine presence.
It’s an expression of gratitude for this awakening, this decolonization, this realization of what can be when I can bring my entire being, including my blackness, to work with me.
Your acceptance has calmed me. Your hugs have brightened my days. Your language and culture have deepened my humanity. Your love has healed me.
I love you.
You are my people.
Gracias. Soy una persona nueva porque te conozco. Aquí no hay paredes.