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

When Your Heart is Broken: Using Literacy to Heal with the San Jose Area Writing Project

*Caretakers, please take note of the letter to you at the end.

Dear SJAWP friends,

Hi. My name is Ms. J. I am a teacher. You may have met me before on a Super Saturday at the San Jose Area Writing Project.

This is me.

I have been experiencing lots of feelings since we have been sheltering-in-place to keep ourselves and our families safe because of COVID-19. I miss seeing my students and teacher friends every weekday. I miss teaching with my students sitting right in front of me. I can see them on my computer, but that is definitely not the same. I cannot give them hugs, high fives, or help them learn in the same ways that I usually do. All of this makes me feel heartbroken! And, honestly, sometimes I feel bored although there’s so much I can do.

Even though staying in my house makes me glum, I have also been doing some things that I normally do not have time for that make me feel better. I am cooking delicious meals. (I usually just eat tacos from the taqueria around the corner from my school.) I am hanging out with my friends on FaceTime and Zoom. I am watching movies that I have been wanting to see for a long time. I am reading lots of books! I am writing more, too! Having a little extra time to do some of my favorite things — especially reading and writing — makes me giddy with delight! But do you know what? Just because I get to do things I normally often have to give up in order to get my work done doesn’t mean I don’t miss my routine. I do! I wish I still had my schedule. It made me feel safe!

All these feelings don’t seem to go together, do they? Is this happening to you, too? I know it’s happening to my students. When I Zoomed with them on Friday, they told me that they were having a lot of feelings. Some of them said that their parents were having a lot of feelings as well.

It is hard to have our lives change so much at one time! It is okay to have strong feelings. But how do we work our way through them and help ourselves feel better? One way we do this in our classroom is by reading, thinking about, and writing poetry and lyrics. In fact, I did this with my class on Friday and we had the best conversation ever!

After we listened to Maya Angelou read her poem Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, we thought about what lesson the poet was trying to teach us. We took some time to think about that. We shared our ideas about the poem. We shared our feelings about fear. We shared our beliefs about fear. I wrote everything down. Then my students came up with a list of things they could do to help make life better while we are all quarantined in our homes. Our reading and writing are not complete until we act! Here’s their list:

  • hugging
  • loving
  • helping keep the house clean
  • being thankful for what we have during this time
  • taking care of the baby while my mom works

We all felt so much better after this! Earlier this school year, one of my eight year-old students said,

“When you are sad, your heart is broken. Poems glue your heart back.” 

I think she is right! So this week, I wanted to give you some poems and lyrics to listen to, and think and write about so you can take the actions you need to take care of yourself and your loved ones. Let’s let these wonderful words glue our hearts back!

Here’s a routine you might follow with an adult or another older family member (a sibling, cousin, etc.) who is sheltering-in-place with you (you can also establish your own routine. Do what works for you!):

  • Listen to the poem/song with someone. As you are listening, notice what you are thinking and feeling. Notice if you have any questions. Wonder about what the poet/lyricist is trying to teach you.
  • Talk to the person with whom you are listening. Share your thoughts and feelings. Ask your questions. Tell them what you think the message is right now.
  • Draw pictures and/or write words about your thoughts, feelings, and questions. Show and tell us what the message is with your pictures and/or words.
  • Listen to the poem/song again. This time you should notice any changes in your thoughts or feelings. Notice if your questions are answered this time. Notice if you have new questions. Notice if you think the message is the same, or do you have a different or deeper thought now?
  • Add more to your pictures and/or words about your thoughts, feelings, and questions. Show and tell us what the message is with your pictures and/or words. This time you should also jot down/draw some ideas about how you might act. What are you going to do because you listened? (Remember the list my students made?)
  • Talk to your person about your plans.

This routine is really just the first step to get your thoughts flowing. Save all of your work throughout the week because you can go back to it later to create a project. Some things my students have done after following this routine with all kinds of texts are:

  • painted
  • illustrated the poem/lyrics with any medium
  • created murals and collages with any medium
  • written their own poem/lyrics using the poem/lyrics as a mentor text
  • built a visual representation of their ideas with clay, boxes, blocks, and other materials
  • made puppets to act out the poem/lyrics
  • written longer pieces like stories, opinions/reviews, and informational texts (such as a newsletter, how-to, or all about)
  • filmed videos with a smart phone, tablet, or laptop

I bet you can come up with even more ideas using the things you have available at your house!

The poems/lyrics for the week are:

Monday – Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou

Tuesday – Love by Matt de la Peña

Wednesday – You’ve Got a Friend in Me by Randy Newman

Thursday – Hug o’ War by Shel Silverstein

Friday – Turn! Turn! Turn! performed by Dan Zanes & Elizabeth Mitchell

Continue thinking and feeling with these additional poems/lyrics:

Gracias Thanks by Pat Mora

Things by Eloise Greenfield

GongGong and Susie by Janet Wong

All you have to do is click on the link and you will go straight to the video. I hope you will have a great time listening to these wonderful words! I hope they will help you think about and express your feelings. I hope that by Friday you will have some new ideas to help you and your family enjoy life even when you cannot leave your home.

I also hope you will email photos of your projects to me at aeriale.johnson@sjsu.edu. I can’t wait to see them! Here are a few things my students have made:

*A note for caretakers:

We know that you are excellent because you are here, seeking out ways to engage your child in literacy during this difficult time. Give yourself some much deserved praise for everything that you are doing to keep your family afloat. Offer yourself grace on the hard days. We are all having them right now. 

In addition to literacy projects that will help your child process their emotions, I wanted to share this incredible resource with you. Several play therapists worked together to create this interactive document to help families and children cope as we shelter-in-place to ensure our wellbeing. I hope that you will find its contents helpful. And, yes, I really do want to see the work that your child does. I would love to celebrate it by publishing it! 

Thriving at Home: A Mental Wellness Workbook for Children and Their Parents During Quarantine

Be well!

In solidarity and with love,

Ms. J (Aeriale)

 

 

 

 

14 days

The same butterflies I usually have on the first day of school fluttered in my stomach. I have been teaching for twenty-two years, but I still get nervous. I’d like to think it’s because I’m still vulnerable. I still have so much to learn. I still have so many risks to take to outgrow myself for children. I still have so much to learn from children,

And this experience, this #teachinginthetimeofcorona, has caused me to feel more incompetent overnight than I have felt in decades. So when I logged onto Zoom donned in a zebra costume, I took a deep breath and whispered a prayer that I wouldn’t ruin the first day of school we’ve had in 14 days.

My goal for today was for us to learn about the features of Zoom and lean into each other to restore the collective brilliance and humanity we’ve found in our classroom community all year long. We chatted. We giggled. We shared toys, pets, and our families. Then we listened to Maya Angelou read aloud her poem, “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me At All,”, while Jean-Michele Basquiat’s beautifully haunting illustrations flashed on the screen.

I told the children to use all the strategies they know to think about the poem as we listened. It was thrilling to see the excitement on their faces when I told them we were going to listen to a poem. We begin each day with a poem and I could tell the familiarity made them feel safe. When it was over, thumbs shot up all over the screen (I’m going to have to get used to this.).

“It’s again and again!” a woman child shouted.

“I wonder why the poet did that. I wonder what it means,” I thought aloud.

We thought about a time when we’d repeated that we weren’t afraid over and over again. A thumb shot up.

“I think the person is trying to convince herself that she’s not afraid. She probably is afraid,” said a man child.

Several children agreed with him. We discussed how this kind of self-talk is one way to get through difficult moments. We decided that it’s okay and important to experience our feelings. But sometimes feelings can overcome us and send us on a downward spiral into anxiety, stress, depression, and even physical pain. I told them that self-talk is a strategy that I use when I’m reading or watching news about COVID-19 because otherwise I become extremely anxious and my chest begins to hurt. One student typed a comment into the chat box, “My mom, too.”

“Have you been having strong feelings about coronavirus?” I asked.

Heads nodded and thumbs flew up.

Once we’d shared some of our feelings and our family member’s feelings, I asked the children how they could regain some control while we live through this pandemic. This is what they said:

  • hugging
  • loving
  • helping keep the house clean
  • being thankful for what we have during this time
  • taking care of the baby while my mom works

And that’s when I knew that everything is going to be okay, folks. Everything we have done throughout the school year prepared us to transcend physical boundaries and stay connected through our hearts and minds. Poems still heal and inspire us to think deeply and problem-solve. We are still us — individually and collectively. And I’m going to figure out how to be the best online educator I can possibly be — with their help.

It was a long 14 days, perhaps the longest I have ever experienced. But I can see the light again. It is the children. And in 14 more days, it will still be them.

COVID-19’s Got Me Feeling Some Kind of Way

I’m angry.

I’m shamefully content.

I’m angry that I live in a country where science is not heeded by government officials.

I’m shamefully content that I probably won’t be the one to die because I am educated.

I’m angry that I live in a society that is so grossly inequitable that children who live on the margins of it have to worry about food security during a pandemic.

I’m shamefully content in the joy the unexpected opportunity to spend time cooking my favorite recipes has brought me.

I’m angry that my students’ hard-working families will struggle for ends to meet for a time yet undetermined.

I’m shamefully content that my paycheck will continue to show up in my bank account because a way for me to work from home is being made.

I’m angry that I have been sitting at home for over a week without permission to teach my babies as a solution is found for me to do my job without my input.

I’m shamefully content in the rest this time away has given me.

I’m angry that our school year was brought to a screeching halt right at the moment that children blossom in early childhood classrooms after months of lovingly nurturing them.

I’m shamefully content that if I fail at this juncture, families are places where children learn, too.

I’m angry that I am not learning from and growing with my school colleagues.

I’m shamefully content with the online content that is being created in the midst of this crisis and in my ability to access it when others cannot.

I’m angry that my summer plans will probably not come to fruition, that I will not build relationships or fulfill contracts that would have brought me emotional and financial overflow.

I’m shamefully content in knowing the meaning of enough and that I possess it in a time of scarcity.

I’m angry that I am struggling to read and write because I cannot focus.

I’m shamefully content knowing that when the anxiety wanes I have shelves of books and plenty of Moleskines waiting.

I’m angry that I have to distance myself from the people I love.

I’m shamefully content that I have found peace in the independence that over a decade of living in rural Alaska grew within me.

I’m angry.

I’m so incredibly angry.

I’m content.

I’m so shamefully, blessedly content.

I like America a little bit. . .

“I like America a little bit because I like school and my friends.”

A young child

Formerly detained

Found healing

Within our walls

They try to tell me

Teaching shouldn’t be

Political. . .

But they’ve never

Seen a tear-stained face

Brighten with a smile

Wails full of heartache

Turn to laughter

A Spanish tongue

Become bilingual

A bright-eyed boy

Offer a little bit

Of forgiveness

To a government

That held him hostage

Because he found love in

Our public school that

Belongs to everyone

Even

A young child

Formerly detained

 

“Get Love!”: A Review of Matt de la Peña’s Book, Love

“Twice this fall I was left speechless by a child.” Matt de la Peña begins his January 9, 2018 essay, Why We Shouldn’t Shield Children from DarknessIn response to a student’s question he cannot stop thinking about, he poses his own important questions:

How honest can an author be with an auditorium full of elementary school kids? How honest should we be with our readers? Is the job of the writer for the very young to tell the truth or preserve innocence?

Because of Matt’s picture book, Love, I too have been at a loss for words — until now, that is — reeling with questions of my own over the past two days. Really, it all began two years ago.

Matt and the illustrator of Love, Loren Long, came to my favorite local, independent bookstore, Hicklebee’s, to promote the book in January 2018. I got my autographs and photographs like any dutiful professional author/illustrator stalker would and walked into my kindergarten classroom the next morning ill-prepared for what was to come.

I gathered the children in a circle on the meeting rug, opened the book, told the children that I’d met Matt the night before, and how excited I was to read this absolutely beautiful book to them.

“It’s so beautiful that I experienced the kind of feelings that led me to cry,” I whispered dramatically.

To my disappointment, the read aloud was not evoking the same emotions I’d experienced during my own reading. Until I turned to this page:

Screen Shot 2020-02-27 at 6.26.52 PM

de la Peña and Long were asked to “soften” this illustration prior to publication because it was perceived as “too heavy” for children. Thankfully, they declined.

Upon seeing this illustration, the room filled with the buzz of comments.

“I see what’s happening,” said one little boy, “the mom and the dad had a fight. The dad
had a drunk. That’s why the mom was mad. The dad turned over the furniture and now
he’s leaving. The little boy is hiding under there because he is scared and he needs to be
safe. The dog is taking care of the boy. It makes him feel better.”

Other students made further observations and we finished reading the book. As we stood up from the meeting area to go to recess, the little boy made a beeline for me, wrapped his arms around my waist and buried his head into my soft belly. It was the first hug he’d ever given me.

“I love you, [student’s name],” I said, giving him my signature kiss on the crown of his head.

“I love you, Ms. J.”

I later discovered he’d been temporarily placed in foster care.

Love was a turning point in our life as an emotional unit that school year. The children spoke candidly about the domestic violence and verbal abuse that occurs in their homes and this vulnerability drew us closer together and gave us the opportunity to be one another’s healers.

Fast forward two years and I have the great fortune of teaching many of the same children who were in the room the first time I read Love to students. They are second-graders now. I reread books we read in kindergarten to them regularly and am often amazed by the depth of thought living to the wise, old ages of seven and eight has given them.

We are working on writing book reviews with text evidence in our current unit of study and I thought Love was a perfect picture book for us to study together and write about for many reasons. And, once again, I wasn’t ready.

I gathered the children on the meeting rug in their writing partnerships ready to reread the book and gather text evidence.

“Oh, friends, I am so excited about writing a review of this book together. I think it’s one we all agree is wonderful,” I said, placing the text under the document camera.

To my surprise, there was no chatter, as there often is, about how we had read the book in kindergarten. Disappointed — I thought Love really meant something to us — I opened the book and began reading.

And when we arrived at the aforementioned page, which is pretty far into the book, there were audible gasps and what seemed like a million tiny hands flew up.

“Ms. J! We read this book in kindergarten!” one girl said.

“Yes, I remember this page.” a boy added.

“Me too!” said another boy.

“Wow, friends! I wonder why you just remembered this book when we got to this page?” I asked.

Another boy, the boy whose head is still imprinted in my belly from that hug we shared two years ago, said, “I remember now because I took a picture of this page in my mind in kindergarten. It’s still there!”

My eyes welled up with tears as I turned the page, and each thereafter, and finished Love.

This emotional moment was powerful, but it didn’t deter me from accomplishing our instructional goal. We had grand conversations about Love over a couple of days, wrote a shared review of the book, and then the children wrote their own. The boy had this to say:

One reason everybody should read Love is because it shows some sad stuff that can happen to you a lot. For example, when the mom was crying, the dad was knocking over stuff like a chair and leaving the house, and the son was hiding under the piano, it was 100% sad because that can happen. . .

In Why We Shouldn’t Shield Children from Darkness, Matt concludes by answering his own questions:

In the book world, we often talk about the power of racial inclusion — and in this respect we’re beginning to see a real shift in the field — but many other facets of diversity remain in the shadows. For instance, an uncomfortable number of children out there right now are crouched beneath a metaphorical piano. There’s a power to seeing this largely unspoken part of our interior lives represented, too. And for those who’ve yet to experience that kind of sadness, I can’t think of a safer place to explore complex emotions for the first time than inside the pages of a book, while sitting in the lap of a loved one.

Brené Brown wrote, “Everyone has a story or a struggle that will break your heart. And, if we’re really paying attention, most people have a story that will bring us to our knees. You would think the universal nature of struggle would make it easier for all of us to ask for help, but in a culture of scarcity and perfectionism, there can still be so much shame around reaching out, especially if we’re not raised to understand the irreducible nature of human need. . .  To know pain is human. To need is human. . .  Need is the most beautiful compact between humans. . .”

Experiencing adversity and processing pain are a part of the human experience. As much as many of us, myself included, deify them, children are human beings. Our classrooms must be places where children are permitted to experience, talk about, ponder, and heal from the trauma caused by “this largely unspoken part of our interior lives.”

I have said and written it a million times and I will do it a million more: Children are the truth! They are better equipped to navigate the emotional landscape of life with honesty than most of us. And books like Love create space in our hearts, minds, and classrooms and engender the vulnerability required for us to “reach out” and make that “beautiful compact between human beings” children need to experience to lay the foundation for living authentically their entire lives.

So, as a little girl wrote in her review:

“One reason Love is an amazing book is because there is strong feelings. For example, on one page a father and his daughter were practicing dance. This showed me that the father has a heart full of love for his daughter!

If you want to get a book that shows deep feelings, get Love.”

Inference, Empathy, & Erasure or Overthinking?

I recently attended professional development focused on guided reading, specifically how to teach young children to make inferences about characters’ feelings. It was great PD! The presenter gently pushed us out of the comfort zone of our school colleagues and embedded multiple opportunities to work with children. The goal was clear. Make children aware of the cognition in which they engage when making inferences by teaching them a simple, three-step strategy:

  1. Retell what is happening to the character.
  2. Think about whether or not you have been in a similar situation and how you felt or speculate about how you might feel if you were in a similar situation.
  3. Make an inference.

Easy peasy. I had no complaints. If I’d filled out an evaluation, I would have given the presenter (I love them!) 5 stars and lots of praise for providing teachers with meaningful, tangible PD that they could use the very next day to nudge children along the continuum of skill development.

But I’m Aeriale. I overthink everything. And I just couldn’t let go of a thought that came to me in the middle of the day. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, every day, for nearly a week:

What if the character doesn’t feel how you felt or might feel? Should there be an additional step that asks children to confirm their inferences with text evidence (the character’s behavior, dialogue, facial expressions, etc.)? If there is little or no evidence, do we teach children how to think about other possibilities or tolerate the ambiguity? And, finally, the question I really can’t let go of: What are we teaching children about empathy if we tell them that they can make inferences about a character or a real live person’s feelings based on their own experiences and interpretations? Is making inferences really this simple or am I, as I’m wont to do, overcomplicating this?

Empathy. It’s one of the laudable character traits our school teaches — and uses to select students of the week and month — based on Kristi Mraz and Christine Hertz’s phenomenal book, A Mindset for Learning. Well, most of us teach it. I don’t. (No shade thrown. I have talked with Kristi about this. I love her, too!)

Anyone who has spent any amount of time with me over the last few years knows what I’ve come to believe about empathy. It’s a feeling. Furthermore, it’s a feeling rooted in assumptions because it does not require interaction. Walking a mile in another person’s shoes doesn’t have too much of an impact if you don’t have to walk alongside anyone and you get to trade in said shoes for your own at the end of the journey. Empathy can easily become a form of erasure.

I have begun teaching children to embody compassion instead. Compassion was derived from the Latin word compati, which means to suffer with. Empathy sees injustice and thinks, “How sad! I’d be so broken-hearted if that happened to me.” Compassion shows up in the middle of the storm, remains long after it has passed, and centers the individuals having the experience, giving them space to identify their own feelings and solve their own dilemmas, be their own heroes.

We talk so much about how nurturing young readers helps raise up better human beings who are fully prepared to engage in our democracy. I wonder if this, too, is not a bit more complex than:

  1. Teach skills.
  2. Read books.
  3. Make a better human.

Teaching children the skills of reading — decoding and comprehension — is critical. Reading skills are, after all, thinking skills. If they master the strategies we teach them, children will indeed be readers who get it — inferences and so much more — “right” much of the time. But will those strategies lead them to be the kind of citizens whose life lives, and ultimately those of others, are galvanized by their reading lives if we fail to teach them to dig deeper and see beyond themselves to other possibilities and move beyond empathy to compassion?

In an interview with Education Week’s Larry Ferlazzo, Dr. Gholdy Muhammad talks about the equity framework in her book Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy and in it, I found my answer. About Part Four, Criticality, she says:

“Criticality is the capacity and ability to read, write, think, and speak in ways to understand power and equity in order to understand and promote anti-oppression. I define oppression simply as any wrongdoing, hurt, or harm. This can be racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, or any other oppression. In my work, I discuss the difference between lower case “c” critical, which is just deep and analytical thinking. But Critical with a capital “c” is related to power, equity, and anti-oppression. It is helping youths to be “woke” socio-politically. Criticality calls for teachers to connect their teaching to the human condition and to frame their teaching practices in response to the social and uneven times in which we live. This means helping students understand content from marginalized perspectives. As long as oppression is present, students need spaces to name, interrogate, resist, agitate, and work toward social change. This will support students toward being critical consumers and producers of information. It will also help to build a better humanity for all. With each lesson or unit plan, teachers should ask, How does our curriculum and instruction help us understand power, equity, and anti-oppression?” 

When we teach children to read with criticality, we help them understand how power works. Empathy has long been used as a tool of oppression, a way for the haves to wield power over the have nots by “helping” while maintaining control of resources and perpetuating erasure. In fact, many components of the US school system are built exactly this way and, often, for this very purpose.

If we want our children to build a new world order, we have to teach them to consume, ideate, and create with criticality. This doesn’t begin once they learn to decode or when we adults deem them ready. They are already doing it right now, as they read the world and the word.

So let’s ask children to retell, yes. And they should think about how they felt or might feel in a similar situation. But after that, let’s ask them about what they are noticing in the text that might confirm why the character might have the same feelings. Let’s help them ponder what other feelings the character might have. (They might even get these ideas from their peers who have divergent thoughts about the same character.) Let’s talk to them about who has the power to decide how the character, their friend, their family member feels and what happens when we make these decisions for others. And, finally, let’s think alongside them about how the inferences people make, sometimes with false information and biases, impact the past, present, and future.

Or maybe I’m just overthinking. . .