Should I go into teaching? What should we tell the next generation?

Should i teach

I am a teacher in Michigan and these statistics have been floating around Facebook this week. These numbers are disturbing for sure and, as a parent, makes me worry about the quality of education my children will have access to in the next 10 years.

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Related to this, however, is another issue that I’ve been ruminating on for some time.  The question is, “If a student tells you they want to be a teacher, what do you say?” Over the past year I’ve heard co-workers passionately tell me why they encourage these students and also co-workers who believe these students should be discouraged from entering the profession. I personally love teaching, so when kids tell me their intentions, my gut reaction is usually excitement. But I’ve started to wonder if I’m doing them a disservice. Should I be discouraging students from entering this profession?

But first, a story….

When I was in college I had a job that allowed me to provide extra-curricular and supplemental activities for the students at an urban elementary school. I ran an afterschool program and one of the clubs I organized was called Girl Power. During one of the activities the kids were telling us what they wanted to be when they grew up. One girl said she wanted to be a host, like the host of a TV show. Thinking I was helping her, I said, “well you can’t just be a host. Usually those people are celebrities or go into broadcasting first.” Afterwards, a teacher who co-taught the club with me, pulled me into the hall and said, in no uncertain terms, “don’t ever tell these kids they can’t do something.” I tried to make my case (I really did think I was helping), but she insisted that it was not my job to shoot them down (something many of them were used to, thanks to life), but to build them up, support them, and encourage their ideas and dreams. Obviously, now that I’m older I agree and see the errors of my ways, but I remember this whenever I hear co-workers tell me that they always discourage students from going into teaching.

I went to college to be a veterinarian and it was there that I switched to English education and truly found my calling. Similar to the girl from my past, our job is to encourage them to take the next steps, to explore a road not taken. Maybe an interest in teaching gets them to college and maybe they follow-through, maybe they don’t, but college will certainly provide them many alternatives.

Additionally, one thing that drives most teachers crazy is the devaluing of the profession. Homeschooling offends me because it suggests anyone can do this job. Many people seem to think that because they went to school, they know what teaching is all about. If you aren’t a certified teacher, you don’t know the years of study about learning theories and the research about best practice. You haven’t been exposed to some basic brain development principles or developmental psychology. These things help to make good teachers. When you teach, you collaborate with other like-minded people and, as a result, you are always working to improve instruction. These are the things professionals know. When legislatures tell me that they’ll give certifications in exchange for service credit, or simply working the private sector, that is a huge insult to the years of hard work I’ve put in.

So when we say to kids, “You know, you can make so much more in the private sector.” or “You’re too smart. Use that science degree for something else” aren’t we doing the same thing? Aren’t we suggesting that education is a waste of intelligence or coursework? Aren’t we sending the message the using a science degree to work as a chemist or a math degree to work as an accountant are more noble or important than teaching?

This profession needs intelligent, passionate people and if we tell those types of students to follow a higher paycheck, we are ultimately hurting the future of education ourselves. Nevermind what the legislature does, we are the ones sending the message that it’s not worth it.

Now let’s be real…

I always get excited when kids tell me they want to teach, but they usually look at me like, “but should I? Really?” and I do think it is important that they know what they are getting into. One thing that veteran teachers forget is that the newest crop of teachers are not going to know any different from the status quo. So I cringe when I hear veteran teachers tell newbies, “it’s not like it used to be.” Well, that doesn’t really matter to (or help) a 23 year-old just starting out.

For example, I’m on my district’s negotiating team and every year the veteran teachers are discouraged and disgusted with the salary package we bring back. Certainly this is because they remember a time when teachers were well-paid and didn’t have to fight for steps, insurance, and cost-of-living raises every single year. But the new hires just look at me bright-eyed and say, “are we getting a step!?” and if I say yes, they are thrilled. Sure we all want to make more, but young teachers are not saddled with the burden of how things used to be. They are able to see the glass a bit more “half full” because they don’t know what the profession has lost. (and the conversation about teacher salary is one for a different post!)

I also think it’s important for kids to know what they are getting into. If one of my own kids wanted to be a teacher I would want to make sure they understand the lifestyle they are signing up for.

You are never going to get rich, you are never going to be celebrated by society, and every single day is going to be hard, BUT you will have some moments that are amazing.

You will laugh and cry and bang your head against your desk, but mostly you’ll laugh (if you’re doing it right).  I’d make sure my kids know that teaching now-a-days requires a lot of self-discipline. You must be able to turn things off. You must be able to compartmentalize. You must be able to look for positives. And you must develop a skin thicker than armor.  

Successful teachers today need to be smart enough to weed through the theories, the fads, the trends, and the hype. They must be able to really SEE what matters and they must be brave enough to fight for it. You must see every day as a chance to be a warrior for change and you must rise to that challenge. Then, you must find a healthy way to decompress, de-stress, and relax so that you can go in and do it again tomorrow.

You must remember that, whether you teach kindergarten or AP seniors, these are just kids. They are still learning, still growing, and still testing. They will frustrate you, but you will also love them. Some of them you can help, some of them you’ll never reach.  You must understand that society expects more of you. You will not get to do, say, or post whatever you want on social media, but the the tradeoff is that it is because you are leading the next generation.

And if you can do all of these things you will reap the rewards of watching kids succeed, grow, change, and grow up to become amazing human beings. It’s hard and some days you’ll wonder if it’s worth it.

That’s what I’d tell my kids, if I had time. That’s what I want today’s kids to know about teaching. Sure there will be salary fights, pension fights, standardized tests, rude parents, idiotic legislatures, long hours, and few thank you’s, but whenever I consider doing something else, I just can’t imagine being happy in any other profession.

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A Lesson in Clarity: the Limitations of Your Own World View

balance-1107484_1280Way, way back when I was in college, I applied for a job at a community center called The Black Child and Family Institute. The interview was tough and I was sure after I left that they hated me. Then a couple of weeks went by and I didn’t hear anything. I was young and not as well-versed in rejection as I am now, so I obsessed about it. I was sure they didn’t hire me because I was white, and I was okay with that because, I told myself, maybe there was a time when I did get an opportunity because I was white, but then they did call and I did get the job.

I taught a pre-kindergarten summer school program for 6 weeks. All but two of the students in my class were Black and about 95% of the staff at the center was Black as well. This was the first time in my entire life that I was aware of my race every single day. If someone didn’t smile back in the hall, I wondered if it was because I was white. If my idea was shut down in a staff meeting, I wondered if it was because I was white. And I didn’t wonder this because I thought my co-workers were racist, I wondered this because I was worried I didn’t belong there. This was a Black advocacy center and did a lot of outreach in the community. I wondered, every day, if my co-workers wondered why the hell I was there. I wondered, every day, if a member of the Black community should have gotten this job, not me. I wondered if the teachers were disappointed that their kids had, yet again, a white teacher. I enjoyed my time there and never had any negative moments with staff or parents, but I felt anxious a lot of the time. I wondered if everyone else noticed that I was white and I was conscious of my whiteness all the time.

During my next semester at school I was in an education class and we were discussing issues of race and equality in the classroom. One of my white classmates said, “We’ve come so far, I just can’t imagine that racism is still a factor in this country.” And one of my Black colleagues said that, as a Black woman, she thinks about race all the time. If a waiter is rude to her at a restaurant, she wonders if it’s because she’s Black. She feels obligated to tip well so that restaurants don’t make assumptions about her race. She feels like she can’t afford a bad day or a rude moment in public because others may make generalizations about her race. When professors don’t call on her in class or value her contributions, she wonders if it is because of her race.

For a tiny moment, I understood her. However, I had ONE six-week experience where I felt this way and she has felt this way, possibly, her entire life. I could have exited my experience if I felt too uncomfortable, and her experience was HER LIFE. I was in college and able to understand and deal with my feelings, but she had, no doubt, experienced these feelings as a child maybe, or a pre-teen, and certainly as a teenager.

So I really didn’t understand. Sure I could sympathize, but I could not in any way assume that I understood her life or that we were equals in this manner.

This experience has shaped me in so many ways throughout my life.  If nothing else, it has helped me to remember that my world view is, yes a collection of my experiences and values, but also viewed through a lens very specific to me. My lens is white, female, heterosexual, and affluent, and no matter how I try, I simply cannot truly see through any other lens. Yes, I can sympathize with the stories and experiences of others, but I can’t really see through their lens.

Somehow, in my old age, I became complacent in my own lens. I was a fairly vocal feminist in college (who wasn’t?), but now I’m old and busy and have found new battles to fight. Things aren’t really that bad for women. Sure, we don’t get paid the same as men and, sure, I get mansplained pretty much weekly, but it’s not like innocent women are being shot in the street for simply trying to get into their own cars after dark, ahem.

Then, Saturday, the Women’s March happened and it was so inspiring. Courtesy of Pantsuit Nation my Facebook feed was literally filled with images of marches from all around the world. Many of my friends marched and the signs, and hats, and smiles were contagious and inspiring. I’m sure there were nasty ones, but most of the messages that were being shared were positive, pro-woman, and up-lifting. It was nice to be a feminist again. It was nice to remember those feminist lit classes I took and to feel, for one day, that my Facebook feed was all about the contributions MY gender had made on the world.

But Sunday I woke up to a much different world. Sunday I woke up to anti-march rants. I read through many Facebook conversations and participated in a few and some of the ones I read were so nasty and so disgusting. The things people were saying about the marchers, to the marchers and one complete stranger even felt the need to message me with an incredibly offensive rant. By Sunday evening I felt sad and angry and generally beaten down.

Saturday’s march resulted in no violence, no arrests, and, sadly, little media coverage. How could all of these people (both men and women) feel so threatened and angered by such a peaceful event?

Sunday evening I tearfully told my husband that I was embarrassed that I had let myself live in such a world of complacency. Simply the message was “respect us and treat us as equals” and the response was one of violent hatred. And this was the second moment in my life when I had a glimmer of what it might feel like to wake up, gay, the morning after the Supreme Court has legalized gay marriage. A thing that should be beautiful and celebrated, overshadowed by hate and fear. Or what it might be like to wake up Black the morning after a police shooting, an incident that should be met with sorrow and unity, but is instead met with finger-pointing and blame. Or what it felt like to be Muslim the morning after the Orlando shooting.

Let’s be honest. It might feel this way most mornings to wake up as a person of color of a member of the LGBTQ community. Maybe not, I wouldn’t know because that’s not the lens through which I view the world. But here’s what I do know: it feels like crap and if any of my friends or family wake up and feel this way on ANY day of the year, that’s not okay.

I haven’t seen the world through anyone else’s lens, so I cannot and will not pretend or assume I know what anyone else’s life is like. However, when any institution or person tries to speak or decide on behalf of another group, I can and will speak up. Many will view this as “negative” or label this action as “furthering this nation’s divide,” but I believe that it is the only way to help heal the divide. I might be wrong, after all, I can only understand things through my own lens, but on this topic, I’m willing to take the gamble.

 

A Rose by Any Other Name

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I’m a public school teacher and frequently find myself in discussions regarding the pros and cons of public vs. charter schools.  What’s hard to communicate is the larger impact these choice schools have on our communities. This is a much larger argument than just where you send your kids this year. This is about the changing of a system and the lasting impact of this change. What we are seeing is charter schools providing as an opportunity to segregate ourselves, avoid each other and completely ignore the poverty crisis in this country.

To better explain myself, let me to offer you this metaphor.

You’re going to have to imagine yourself as a gardener. A rose gardener, to be specific. You’re going to have to imagine that you love your roses dearly. In fact, you are growing a direct descendant of the very same roses your grandparents’ grew and their grandparents as well. Your roses are more than just flowers to you, they are family, tradition, and history.

Now let’s talk about one of these rose bushes. It grows and thrives and offers beauty and diversity to your garden. It provides nectar for bees and butterflies and they, in turn carry the rose’s pollen into the world allowing new, beautiful second and third generations of roses to grow. You provide your roses with food and water and appropriate shelter and
shade. You trim the roses as needed and they flourish. This one bush connects you to family and community as you bring cuttings to neighbors and family members. Over time, however, you begin to take the rose bush’s beauty for granted. You notice tiny flaws and you lose touch with its contribution to the local ecosystem. You water it intermittently. You provide food only occasionally. The bush remains alive, but its vibrancy has faded. It becomes a shell of what it once was.

One day you notice this and, while remembering what once was, you blame the soil, the weather, the neighbor’s dog. You blame changes in the neighborhood, pollution, pesticides, and new development. After all, you’ve provided it some food and water for the most part. Why can’t it grow as it once did? Repairing the damaged plant feels overwhelming. Where do you start? It may take years, generations, for the rose bush to be restored to its once great beauty.

Finally you decide on a completely different approach. Sure you’ll feed and water your rose from time to time, but you’ve decided to purchase a new rose bush, a potted one. This one will be kept in a greenhouse. This will eliminate its exposure to poor soil, the elements, and the neighbor’s dog. This rose bush will prosper.

And it does because you dutifully feed and water it. And this rose bush is beautiful. From time to time you look outside at your old rose bush and wish it could be better, like it once was, but you don’t know how to repair it, and the new one, after all, is right here and you do unwittingly enjoy its novelty. Maintaining something new feels easier than fixing that which is broken. This goes on for a while and is working out just fine. The new rose looks even more brilliant in comparison to the old bush outside.

However, there are problems. At first these are unseen. What you don’t see is that your new plant is isolated from nature and, therefore, is making no contribution to new generations. There is a lasting impact on the local ecosystem because pollinators have fewer options for nectar. The rose bush itself is suffering, though you can’t see it. What you don’t see is that, while this bush looks strong and vibrant, it is actually weak. Its stalk never has to toughen and thicken to keep it up in a stiff wind. Its leaves and petals have never known the feel of insect legs, seeking refuge from a sudden rain. It looks perfect, and yet, it is lacking. The rose bush outside is weather worn, and yet, it has survived.

You find, however, that most people can’t tell the difference and so you continue to purchase and grow your roses inside. You find that you are able to make a pretty good deal of money off these bushes, as they look flawless. The casual observer doesn’t recognize the weak stem or the lack of genetic diversity in your stock. It won’t matter anyway since the casual consumer is only interested in the plant short term. You’ll win flower shows and admiration from your peers because their roses, while beautiful, are grown outside and so their exposure to the elements has left them lacking in comparison to yours.

Many, many years pass and word begins to spread about the longterm impact of your plants. Consumers are upset that the once beautiful roses you sold them are not able to stand up to the outside conditions to which they are exposed. Sure these consumers are able to supplement their bushes with stakes and feed and extra care. And yet, that original bush, while haggard and worn and old, is still standing. You look at what’s left and tell yourself, “it doesn’t matter. What I did was beautiful and right and if people didn’t like, then they wouldn’t have bought my roses.” and you decide you’re more interested in vegetable gardening these days anyway, so you abandon your rose busy venture.

Your friends, your family, your neighbors are left to pick up the pieces. They realize now that you did not sell them rose bushes that could last for generations. Their bushes were unable to sustain transplanting. Overtime, the weaknesses of your greenhouse bushes were finally recognized.

Some people remember the past, however. There were members of the community, now old, who remembered how strong and beautiful your original rose bushes once were and they rallied people to come together to restore the past. They found that the best place to start was with that original rose bush, now barely standing. It hung sadly, petals wilted, leaves dying. They knew the process to restore this plant would be long and arduous. They knew they would have to rely on many different types of people: soil scientists, biologists, botanists, entomologists, and gardeners. They knew they would have to listen to the voices of the past and they would have to confront the choices they had made.

They learned amazing things. They came to realize that a rose bush is so much more than one can see with their naked eye. They came to realize that that original rose bush had evolved from years of change and struggle and it had been made stronger for it. They came to realize that that bush played such an integral role in the garden that all other plants and insects flourished because it was there. The people realized that that one bush had impact much greater than anyone could imagine.

It was a long and tedious process to restore that rose bush and throughout the people said, “Why did we let this fall into such disrepair? Who let this happen and why?” And there were many people to blame, but in the end, each person realized they played a role. They allowed for those greenhouse rose bushes to flourish. They purchased them themselves or sat back and said, “I’d never purchase one of those,” but did nothing to stop their spread. They hoped they were not too late, but it may have been that they were.

So this week, in honor of charter school-supporter Betsy DeVos confirmation hearing for Secretary of Education, I ask you to consider the impact of community schools. I ask you take in their crumbling facades and outdated color schemes and remember what’s happening inside those doors. I ask you to consider the fight this country had in order to ensure that everyone had equal access to a quality education. I’d ask you to consider those who are leftover when affluent parents cut and run and when schools are allowed to close or to fall into disrepair.

And then I’d urge you to get involved. I’d urge you to fight to keep your local schools open and thriving. I’d urge you to attend a board meeting, a parents group, or even a band concert. See with your own eyes the shoots that this school is sending into the community, into the future. I’d urge you to help fight to keep these opportunities available for all students, no matter their race or economic status. Let us not be a nation that follows the trend of the business insiders, but instead a nation that relishes in our history, learns from our past, and works together to forge a stronger, more equitable future for our children.

Sources to Consider:

A Sobering Look at What Betsy DeVos Did to Education in Michigan

What New Orleans Can Teach Betsy DeVos about Charter Schools

How the Systemic Segregation of Schools is Maintained by Individual Choices

Choice Without Equity:
 Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards

White parents in North Carolina are using charter schools to secede from the education system

Charter Schools and the Risk of Increased Segregation

 

Hey Moms, Don’t Sweat It


dont-sweat-it-titleIt was one of those Facebook “timehop” photos that started this. It was a picture of my now-seven-year-old back when he was only two or three. He was looking cute, as two and three-year-olds do, big smile, squinty eyes and in the caption for the photo I had written “never mind that he needs a haircut.” Then current self, as if I reading the work of some stranger, took a second look at the picture. Now, since I raised the child and remember how his hair grew non-stop beginning at birth, I could tell he was probably due for a trim, but as a person, many years removed from my old self I thought, “why the heck did you write that?” And this wasn’t the only time, I know I’ve added “ignore the mess” to many photos and I’ve added, “ignore my laugh” to many videos. I’ve seen others do it too.Nolan to magician.jpg

In fact, I’ve seen the apologies manifest in a more “don’t judge me” sort of tenor as well. Here’s little Johnny eating a piece of pizza and Mom felt the need to add “for a special occasion only.” Sometimes the captions include apologies for messy houses, messy hair, mismatched outfits, dirty faces, junk food, etc – all kid things that we know, in our right mind, are normal and not indicators of how well we are doing as parents.

And yet.

And yet we apologize for them because we feel that the world (or at least our friends on social media) expect better from us. We expect that just because we once posted an article about “Why Your Kid Should Not Eat McDonalds” means we should never be spotted eating McDonalds. We’ve seen the blogs about screen time and so we’re embarrassed when that tablet shows up on the lap of our angel in an otherwise photogenic moment.

Listen, moms, here are some realizations I’ve come to since my life has spiraled out of control (i.e. since the birth of my second child), none of this matters!  And really what we’re talking about here is the management to two types of critics:

  1. That friend who points these things out either because they are trying to be funny or they really are just snarking on you and, in which case, just own it. “Wow, I didn’t know you let your kids eat at McDonalds” just answer with “yep!” or not at all. Don’t feel the need to explain yourself, your parenting, or your decisions to these people. Just own it because we all know that a messy house does not make you a bad parent. So own it, laugh at it, and remind yourself that you are doing the best you can and, sometimes, you just don’t have time to get to that stack of laundry and, sure, it might sit in the middle of the living room for a day or two.
  2. The second critic is much more difficult to silence. This is yourself and the judgments you think other people are making. When you add the caveat “ignore the messy hair” or “don’t mind that pile of laundry,” you are, in effect, telling all of us to notice. And who doesn’t have laundry? Who hasn’t had a day where they look at a child’s rat’s nest of overnight hair and decide to leave it because you weren’t planning on leaving the house anyway. We all do it. This critic, like a sniper, voices your insecurities with laser precision.

nolan-playingI am thrilled when I see pictures that show these moments because it reminds me that we’re all in the same boat and these pictures are real. I love messy backgrounds, laundry baskets, and dirty dishes because it helps remind me that I’m normal. This is the narrative we must force feed ourselves. We must stop posting pictures and then spending minutes analyzing what others might think. We are our own harshest critic and when we feed ourselves these imaginary judgments we are only fueling our own insecurities. The reality (that we really do know in our heart of hearts) is that parenting is hard, confusing, messy, and sometimes no fun at all and everyone has felt this way – whether they post on social media about it or not.

So Moms, I encourage you to stop apologizing. Own the fact that some days don’t look the way you imagined they would and that’s okay. We were all once young and energetic with sweeping statements and harsh opinions about the right and wrong way to raise our children. Now, however, we know that some days are about survival and few days look like a Pinterest post and that’s so very okay. Remind yourself that Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram feature only those moments that worked out, looked cute, and have been sharpened by a filter. They are fleeting and probably the reason that person posted it – a celebration of a moment when parenting was what we hoped it would be.

Finally, support one another. Share your stories of frustrations and failures. Don’t feel pressured to prove to Facebook that you know how to parent; we know you do, we’re your friends, and we’re rooting for you. And good friends will not only understand bad days, but will share their own as well. In fact, once a friend posted that she was feeling like the worst mom ever, so I wrote a Facebook post that said, “Let’s share moments of bad parenting to make her feel better” and the stories came out of the wood works and they were hilarious. In a few hours I had dozens of comments with stories ranging from, “that time I sent my kid to timeout and forgot about him for an hour,” to “that time I forgot to feed my daughter dinner,” to “that time I watched my son share his ice cream with the dog and I let it happen.” And I think I’ve decided that these are the real parenting moments. I think these are the things I will remember and laugh about when my kids are old and grown. I’m not sure I’ll remember that time we went to a function and everyone behaved perfectly and our outfits were coordinated. I imagine I’ll be much more apt to remember the time my son pulled down his pants in front of a room full of company and proceeded to do, as he called it “a wiener dance.” Sure my guests were horrified and imagined they were vowing to never let their own kids come over to play, but that’s probably not the case. And now, several years removed, that memory cracks me up and makes me want to hug my kid. We all have days with too much yelling, or too much screen time, or too much junk food. So let’s own this about parenting, share these moments too, and laugh about it because I worry that someday we’ll look back and wish we would have stopped trying so hard and, instead, would have just enjoyed it.

On Finding My Way Again

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“Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.” – Rebecca Solnit

The past month has not been an easy one for me. I can’t blame it all on the election. A week after the results I received some devastating personal news and that didn’t help, and since that time, I’ve had a hard time recovering. I don’t think it’s the losing that did it. I think it’s the general tenor of things. It’s the angry, frustrated, fearful posts from my passionate friends on social media. It’s more than the fact that Trump is nominating unqualified, sometimes dangerous officials to his cabinet. It’s the principal of all of this. While the President-elect is ignoring democratic tradition, policy, and Constitutional policy, my own state government is considering legislation to limit freedom of speech, destroy public pensions, and cut funding for public education. You see, it’s not the details that are causing me so much turmoil, it’s the impact of all of it. It’s the doomsday predictions, the alarmist, depressing, over-simplified news stories. It’s the talking heads; it’s those who are passionate and those who are apathetic. It’s just so much emotion, from both sides, and the emotion is real and heavy and powerful and it felt like I was carrying it all around, like an anvil, on my back. And the feeling was real, visceral.

I’m a bit of a news junky and have been for years, so I am no stranger to bad news, corrupt politicians, jobs reports, and the like.  I couldn’t figure out what was so unusual this time around. Why was it that day after day this weight followed me? I woke up with it. It pressed upon me when I picked up my kids from school, when I sat at the Thanksgiving table. And it boiled over. There were several days of crying. Crying over stupid things, crying for no reason. I felt hopeless and despondent and I also felt like I was being ridiculous. I knew in my mind that our American system of government was built with more checks and balances than I even know about or understand. I know that countries have ups and downs and I know that we, as a human race, have clawed our way through slavery, world wars, the Holocaust, internments, attacks, and more. And yet, I could not get out from under that oppressive weight. And yet, my gut just never got the message.

Then two things happened, within two days of each other, that gave me just a enough wiggle room to shift that weight a bit. First, a friend sent me a text asking if I was ok.  As a person who hates to ask for help or appear vulnerable in any way, I found myself unable to keep up the charade any longer and I answered with “no.” And then she listened (or read, rather) my flood of texts about how I was feeling and how I couldn’t get out of this funk. I literally typed while sobbing, as if – to use the cliché – a floodgate had opened. And she didn’t have all the answers. Or any, really, because there are no answers. There are no answers when someone is hurting, but she was there, she listened, she sympathized and I, finally, put what I had been feeling and carrying around for weeks, into words.

The next day we had an unusually warm afternoon with sunshine (a rarity in Michigan in December). I left work and, before picking up the kids, went to a nature trail and just walked. Simply being out in the sunshine helped immensely and I actually remember thinking how I just felt freer all of a sudden. I swear, from that point on, I felt clearer. Still bummed about the state of things, but my willingness to fight was creeping back. Little by little I found that remnants of my former self returned. 

9781608465767-2f1e8dbafb4b3334d0db297eed405179I then happened upon a book list online and ended up downloading the book Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit. The book, a small collection of essays, was written right after George W. Bush was elected to a second term. At the time, we were questioning the invasion of Iraq, anti-war protests were taking place, the country was still recovering from 9/11, and there was a great sense of despair and frustration for many. The book’s aim was to inspire and remind us that great moments of human industry, charity, and sacrifice can be found in the darkest of times. It aimed to inspire us to continue our work to make and keep this country great. It used history to remind us that there has been struggle in the past and there have been victories.

The book has recently been re-released with a new introduction from the author as she feels we are now in similar times of despair. There are many lessons from the book that have shaped my current mindset, but two are particularly striking.

One is an example Solnit recounts about Hurricane Katrina. She reminds the reader that after that tragedy, anyone who had a boat rushed to New Orleans to help search for and rescue survivors. She points out, no one said, “Well, we can’t rescue them all, so there’s no point in trying.” Instead the sentiment was, “If I can even help one person, I’ve done something.” And yet, in issues of politics and national strife we look at the enormity of the problem, shrug our shoulders and say, “it’s useless.” But if we just remember to work “one person at a time,” that is making change. Sure, that’s not large, sweeping reform, but it is still forward momentum.

Thus bringing me to a second major take-away. We can never know the long-term effect we may have on this world. Even large, organized movements don’t always see victory in their own lifetime. Women fought for the right to vote for 50 years! We sometimes don’t see the fruits of our labors for years and years and sometimes we don’t see them at all, yet what we are doing still is sending a ripple out into the world. As a teacher I have the privilege of meeting hundreds of young people a year and watching them grow and develop over their four years in high school. And I stay in touch with many of them and I get to see them go on to become wonderful parents, doctors, athletes, writers, students, engineers, social workers, activists, and more. I see them travel and learn and question. I take no credit for these accomplishments, but I do like to remind myself that I was able to play one teeny, tiny role in their development.

So this is life and this is what we can do. Certainly we can and should get involved in large movements about issues we feel passionately about, but we can also begin sending ripples right now. My family was able to sponsor a child in Uganda who is attending a school that a former student of mine built with his own hands and hard work. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the number of children in this world who do not have access to education I can, at least, ensure that ONE child receives an education. And sure, in the scheme of things, that’s a baby ripple, but you really never know where that ripple may lead and how strong it may become over time.

And now that is what I think about before I fall asleep at night.

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists.” – Rebecca Solnit

How This Election Has Changed Me

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I’ve spent the week since the election in a limbo between shock and grief. I’m a pretty progressive democrat, so Tuesday night did not offer me a lot of good news, from a “winning” standpoint. Initially I was shocked that Trump was elected. But as the days passed and I read more, listened more, and spent more time thinking about it, I decided it really shouldn’t be that shocking. This nation has been moving towards change of some sort for a while now. Our national conversation about race has become emotionally-charged and explosive; our nation’s distrust in the “establishment” has taken center stage; we’ve become painfully aware of the rich-poor gap; the frequency with which we, as a people, have turned away from fact and science is overwhelming – yeah, in hindsight – this was coming. But none of that actually matters now, because, here we are.

I stayed away from social media for a few days because my liberal friends were posting about their own grief and disbelief as well as more anti-Trump articles and images. My republican friends were posting “get over it” type of things and both sides simply sent me into a deeper funk.

So here I am, one week later, still trying to decide how I feel. I still feel sad and down-trodden and can’t seem to figure out why I can’t shake it. Then I have a light bulb moment while teaching my freshman English class.  We are beginning A Raisin in the Sun. Before we begin the play, I have the students do some research about the time period, segregation in housing, red-lining and block-busting, Chicago’s “Black Belt” and the Fair Housing Act. As the kids share their research, I add on and find myself telling the kids that it can be hard to wrap our minds around legal discrimination. It can be hard to imagine the government passing outwardly racist legislation. In my mind I’m thinking, “And hopefully we won’t see this again with a Trump presidency”, but I don’t say that out loud, of course. Although, as I’m discussing the historical impact of segregation on the Black community, I find myself wondering if there are kids who are thinking to themselves “Blacks should be segregated.” I’m explaining that thanks to the Fair Housing Act you can’t be discriminated against based on race, ethnicity, religion, family status, disability, etc and I’m wondering if some kid is thinking “too bad.” I’m explaining how difficult it is for groups that have been subjected to discrimination to achieve or even reach for the American dream and I’m wondering if someone is thinking, “then they should go back to where they came from.”

This is how the election has changed me.

I don’t consider myself a Pollyanna. I consider myself informed and highly critical of the world and the systems that run it, yet I think I always assumed that when I was talking about segregation of the past, the kids were, for the most part, agreeing with me that it was wrong and that our country is better for having moved past it. Sure I knew there were a few narrow-minded students among each class, but I think I got complacent in my assumption that “those people” who are racist or bigoted are somewhere else (tho in hindsight, I don’t know where!).

Now I’m wondering if they represent the majority, not the minority. Were they always there, but just keeping their mouths shut? This election has made me second guess what the people around me are thinking. I keep telling myself that these students, my co-workers, friends, and neighbors are the same people they were a year ago, that this is all in my head, and yet, in the back of my mind I’ve become more suspicious of the true nature of those around me anyway.

And I’m white.

So I imagine what it might be like to be gay, or Black, or Hispanic, or Muslim. How might I feel about the people around me? Terrified, I imagine. As a white, U.S. citizen, I really have little to worry about. Sure legislation may be passed that I disagree with (as a woman, some of this may affect me), but even if the rhetoric of anger and hate continues, I feel fairly certain that I will not be a target. How must it feel to be a member of one of these groups that has been targeted though?

There has been much debate and discussion about whether or not these fears are justified, but that doesn’t really matter. When my 3-year-old is afraid of the dark, I don’t dismiss him simply because I know there is nothing to fear. I validate that fear. I comfort him. I offer support. The reality is, this fear, this paranoia, is real. It’s not about whether or not it should be here, it’s about the fact that it is.

And so, I challenge you to consider this viewpoint from a targeted group’s perspective. Whether or not this fear is justified, consider that members of the LGBTQ community may be feeling afraid, Blacks, Muslims, Jews, Hispanics, and women may be feeling afraid. You might not be afraid, but others are and, just as you’d comfort a child afraid of the dark, acknowledge this fear and bring compassion to the table, rather than judgement and hate.

As a warm-up activity, I asked my students to rank, the following in order of “most likely to hold people together” to “least likely”: family, shared interests, religion, race and/or ethnicity, and a student said, “You forgot to include Trump on this list. He brings people together.” Now I’ve been a teacher for 13 years, through other elections, and yet, this comment sent an emotional jolt through my body. I have a strong, personal opposition to the statement this student made and, while I’m used to this (I rarely agree with 15-year-olds) I rarely find it so difficult to respond in a neutral manner. Likewise another student in one of my classes has been an active Trump supporter all along and after the election he asked me, “Don’t you feel better now? You can breathe easy knowing that the country will finally be in good hands.” Generally I use humor to diffuse situations such as these, but this time around, I was speechless. I simply responded with, “I don’t know how I feel” and smiled. And that was the truth.

This is how the election has changed me.

I am a club adviser for my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and the morning after the election a student was in my room sobbing, absolutely sobbing. She was terrified about what this means for the LGBTQ community. I tried to reassure her, our country has been through tough times before, right? And she said to me, through tears, “But this time it’s so personal.” I felt like crying myself; not just because my candidate lost, but because this whole process has left her sad, disheartened and afraid.

And I might be feeling the same way.

In the meantime, I will work to find that fire that once burned so strongly in my heart. That desire to fight, to be heard, and to make change. That flame is weak right now, nearly non-existent. But I do know that giving in to fear will cause me to pull back from life, to push people away.  I’m sure my passion will return, but figuring out my feelings seems to be a place to start and fear is currently the most prominent.

And so I will leave you with these words from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi,

“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”

 

Saving Humanity One Comment at a Time

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As a comment on how things have changed since I started teaching English 10 years ago, my freshman now have to complete a blogging unit. As a blogger myself, this is one of my favorite units. I show the kids different examples of well-written blogs. We read some writing advice articles about ways to appeal to readers and organize thoughts.  I let the kids choose any topic of their own interest. I teach them how to upload images, links, and embed videos. They get to play around with photo-editing apps and catchy titles. It’s a fun unit and this year the kids really got into it.

Then we come to the end of the week.

Students have written 3-5 posts and they all upload their blog’s URLs to a google doc. I share the document out and they are able to read and view each other’s posts. This is a day that causes me much anxiety. I remind them repeatedly that what they are writing is public and others will be able to read it and yet, I worry about their emotional safety. Will they treat each other with kindness? Acceptance? Will they respond to each other in an intelligent and thoughtful way? Will this assignment empower their young voices or crush their spirits? So far, things have gone pretty smoothly, however, I notice that they only click on and read the blogs of their friends and, despite giving them specific guidelines for commenting, they still write general, “Great blog. I agree” types of things.

This year, as “read and comment day” approached, I considered nixing it altogether. Was there any educational value? Was it worth the 2 class periods it usually takes?  Could I trust them to just read each other’s’ work without the requirement of commenting?

As a blogger, I love comments. Nothing makes me happier than to hear feedback on my thoughts and ideas. I feel validated when readers appreciate my thoughts and challenged to think deeper when readers disagree. I wondered if they kids would feel the same way.

I was still mulling this over when I found myself in a Facebook thread with someone with a vastly different opinion than myself. This person was making the “all Muslims are terrorists” argument and I was making the “you can’t judge an entire faith on the actions of a few” and he responded with “Andrea, you are a dumb idiot” and then proceeded to berate my intelligence (which he attributed to public education – gasp!) and that’s when I knew that the commenting lesson wasn’t optional. In fact, as I prepared for the lesson I spent a significant amount of time reading Facebook threads and comments on a variety of articles from a variety of websites. This only reinforced the notion that we needed to have a conversation about this small section of human society.

For example, I read a story about a school that had recently been vandalized. I assumed the comments there would be generic and it was a topic teenagers could relate to and hoped I could find some examples to screenshot and use in a lesson. I shocked to find how many posters seemed to find this a place to unload some really awful, racist thoughts. Comments ranged from “Gee it happened after a basketball game…and we all know what kind of people play basketball. Why is anyone surprised?” to things like, “A perfect example of why inner city schools should not receive extra funding or grants – they don’t know how to appreciate nice things.” These forced me to reread the article about 3 times. The article said NOTHING about race or type of neighborhood. Unless the commenters knew something I did not, they were simply MAKING this a commentary on race and class.

Originally my plan was to set aside 25-30 minutes to discuss the “art” of commenting. I found a great article that listed some concrete guidelines and planned to screenshot some'I've found that I can get away with posting nasty comments if I end them with a 'wink' emoticon.' good and bad examples. Unfortunately, I found that most of the comments were not only bad examples, but they were so offensive I didn’t dare use them in class.

Instead, I recounted my experience. I told the kids how hard it was to find examples of quality dialogue. I told them that I read articles ranging from politics, to education, to celebrity news, to local events and that in most places I was overwhelmed with name-calling, hate speech, and general ignorance.

Look, I’m not Pollyanna, I’m not under any illusion that we, as a population, have solved racism, sexism, or any -ism for that matter. I understand that anger, hate, ignorance, and fear exist are are running rampant, especially during this current election cycle. And yet, even I was shocked, not so much at the subject matter, but the sheer quantity of awfulness.

So I asked the kids, “How many of you have ever posted something on social media that you probably should not have and that you know you wouldn’t have dared say in person?” About 80% of the class sheepishly raised their hands. And I did too.  I have found myself feeling pretty confident sitting safely on my couch, behind a computer screen. I have justified to myself that the person on the other end isn’t a “real” person anyway – just a name on a Facebook thread.  I’ve had moments where I’ve forgotten that we are all the result of a collection of experiences and that these experiences are what shape who we are and what we believe. I had forgotten that we as individuals come to the table (or computer) in different points in our own lives and that we sometimes, unwittingly, apply these feelings of frustration, anger, depression, and fear to our social media threads.

And the kids had their own stories. Stories of comments they’d seen, or been on the receiving end of, regarding sexual orientation, physical appearance, race, and intelligence. And the lesson that begin with my intention to tell the kids about a trend online, turned more into a round table discussion about a problem in our contemporary society. At the end of the hour one student said laughingly, “I love how we just spend an entire hour discussion internet comments.”

How this all played out, was the kids ended up with a day or two to read through each other’s posts and comment. This yielded A LOT of conversation. Many of them took disagreements, even respectful ones, personally and wanted to fire off snarky responses. Some were disappointed when they didn’t receive any comments at all. I was surprised how much conversation the kids had about the comments they received.

In the end, I decided this whole comments activity was worthwhile. I told the kids that their generation was inheriting the internet next and that maybe they could be the ones to change the comments sections from “place where society’s sludge settles” to “place of valuable discourse.”

THAT may be wishful thinking, but at this rate, I’m willing to take the gamble.

Through Toddler Eyes: All the World’s a Game

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Things can get heavy when you’re the adult. There are always bills to pay, things to clean, errands to run, and there are never, ever enough minutes in the day. Today I overheard one of my students say, “I wish I was in preschool again: snacks, games, and nap time!” I kind of had to agree!

So I took a minute to consider why toddlers are having more fun than the rest of us. It’s simple. Whereas we see the world as full of tasks and obstacles that must be accomplished or overcome, they see the world as one giant game.  

Here are a few of the rules I was able to ascertain while carefully observing my 3-year-old.

Open space of any kind
Whether it be a strip of grass, a nature trail, the aisle of a grocery store, or a semi-empty parking lot, open ground means run. Run full speed. This game is simply a test of endurance: how fast can you run and how much ground can you cover before an adult catches you.

A neatly stacked pile of…anything
The game is simple: tip it over! In fact, when you see Mom and Dad creating the stack, this should signal you to stay close and wait until the stacking is completed. Some stacks require several pushes or even kicks. Others are a breeze. For bonus points, yell something like “Tiimmmbber” to ensure Mom sees you.

Water of any sort
A dripping faucet, a puddle, a cup of water, a hose… the sight of water should signal one instinct: play in it. Splash it, drink it, tip it, doesn’t matter, but try and get water on as many different things as you can. Bonus points for getting the dog or the couch wet.

Writing utensils
Once found use quietly and immediately. Let the world be your canvas and discover how many surfaces you can decorate: walls, cabinets, end tables, the couch, your parents will thank you later for your contribution to their decor. Bonus points if you can get your hands on a Sharpie.

Mail
Whether it’s already opened or not, mail can be the source of great delight. Mail can be ripped, thrown into the air, jumped on, crinkled, and folded. Bonus points if you can find crevices in which to stuff it. Ideas include (but are not limited to): under the couch, in a closet, in the bathroom or kitchen drawers, or under the refrigerator. Bonus points if you can combine with game with water in some way (think toilet).

Hot surfaces
While you can’t really be sure what they are or what they do, you do know one thing: if you go near one, Mom and Dad will flip out and this can provide you with great entertainment. See how many times to can illicit a response while mom cooks dinner.

Grocery carts
These. Things. Are. amazing. They can be climbed on – jungle-gym style- they can be ridden in, you can hang on the outside, climb underneath, hang on to the side. If you can dream it, you can do it! Bonus points if you execute any of these maneuvers while the cart is in motion.

Toy bins
Now this one seems obvious because toys are meant to be played with, but the real fun mostly lies in dumping the toy bins out. Sometimes, kicking the displaced toys around the roomroom can be a nice change of pace, but dumping as many toy bins as you can get your hands on is very therapeutic. Dumping is noisy, so challenge yourself and see how many bins you can dump before an adult stops you.

Getting out of bed
There are a lot of ways to get out of bed: sliding off the side, sliding off the end, jumping off, rolling off, dangling your legs until you just can’t balance anymore and ultimately fall off. Once you’ve exited the bed in some way, see how far down the hall you can get before Mom or Dad sees you. They’ll join in too and come after you, making for a really fun game of chase. (Bonus points: be sure to giggle loudly when Mom returns you to be for the 500th time so she knows you’re enjoying the game)

Big brother/sister’s stuff
This is like the holy grail of entertainment. Have you seen the kinds of things big kids have? Books with rip-able pages, knickknacks and toys with movable parts! There are containers to open, dump out and investigate, papers from school, and all sorts of trinkets. This, however, is a game of risk and skill. You must do it on the sly and get into as many things as quickly as possible because getting caught may mean certain death!

Random flailing
Sometimes you are forced to turn lemons into lemonade. When there is just nothing else to do, you can always resort to random flailing. This may mean sliding out of seats at restaurants or church. It may mean just flailing your arms wildly in the air. This game may also include (but it not limited to): jumping up and down, rolling around on the ground, wander around the room crashing into things, collapsing in the center of the room, and laying on your back while kicking your legs wildly into the air.

 

And, finally, always keep in mind that the key to good sportsmanship is a positive attitude as as you complete these games, be sure to fill the room with your cries of accomplishment. Pump your fist in the air, smile big, and let the whole world know what kind of toddler champion you truly are!

 

Remember the Boys

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The students in my freshman English class have been working on a poster the last two days in class. They could choose to work with a partner or by themselves. Things were going along fine. This year’s freshman are unusually polite and hardworking and I’ve really enjoyed the first four weeks of the school year.

Then, at the end of the hour on Friday, one young man approaches me. Let’s call him Cam. He’s flustered, talking fast, trying to explain to me that something happened with his partner and what I can make sense of is the phrase “not fair” as he rushes to vent about his partner over the chaos of the hour. So we step out into the hall, and there, he calms down a bit and tells me that he is not happy with his partner, but he’s worried that it’s too late in the process to change. As he tells me, his cheeks grow red and tears well in his eyes. Cam tells me that he processes slowly, that’s just a thing about him, and the partner he’s working with is faster and more confident. Cam is upset because he’s trying to contribute, but his partner is just kind of bulldozing past him. He didn’t agree with all of the answers, but his partner is treating him like he’s dumb and even made a comment that if he waited for Cam to catch up, he’d be waiting all day. His voice is shakey, he’s shifting his weight, his eyes dart around. “Look,” he says, “I’m not dumb, but things take me longer and I hate the way he’s treating me.”

I’ve had many of these moments with kids over the years. I’m going to generalize here and point out that this is only anecdotal, but generally when I’m in the hall with a student on the verge of tears, it’s a female. Males tend to bottle things up, or explode (in my classroom experience only). Seems like either I know something’s up, but can’t get them to tell me, or all of a sudden there’s a screaming match or some pushing. When I’m in the hall, one-on-one, with a female student, I try to put my hand on her shoulder reassuringly. Sometimes I offer a hug (not often, I’m not really a hugger).

As I stood in the hall with Cam I considered how this was different with a male. He’s 15, not 7, and hugging doesn’t seem appropriate. I feel obligated to clean the mess up quickly so he can compose himself and not risk embarrassment (for him) if someone walks by – something I never think about when comforting a female student.

I thank him for being honest with me and sharing his struggles. I encourage him to continue to do so so that I can help him be successful this year. I tell him it’s no problem to part ways with his partner and we come up with a modified assignment. We discuss the seating chart, does he need to move? Is this a symptom of a larger issue between the two boys or a one-time thing? The bell rings, students spill into the hall. He says thanks, he says he’s ok, and I tell him to try and let it go for now and enjoy his weekend.

 Then I drive home and think of my own boys. I wonder if teachers will treat them with compassion, or will they tell them not to be a wuss (either implicitly or explicitly)? Will the teacher, either consciously or unconsciously, devalue their concerns because they are male? I wonder how I would feel if one of them came home and recounted this story. Would I be happy with how the teacher ) handled it? And I think about how things are different for males and females in high school when it comes to emotion. And how stifled males must feel at times.

It may be 2016 and we may like to tell ourselves that we’ve become a modern society, but gender expectations run deep. I wonder if there are more boys who have these feelings, but keep them in because they feel like they can’t express such frustration or feeling of hurt in public. I imagine there are. Secondary teachers spend a lot of time attending to crying students and 95% of them, in my experience, are girls. As a result, we might assume the boys are handling things better. Are maybe less dramatic? Maybe less emotional? And in the meantime, bullying may go unchecked. Feelings of struggle, inadequacy, and fear may never be addressed.

I think of my seven-year-old who, currently, is very emotional. He’s very tuned in to the subtleties of interactions and conversations and I worry his feelings will be hurt, but he won’t feel free to talk about it.

When I look around my classroom the boys do seem to have an easy nature about them. They talk about sports, video games, and girls. They make gross jokes and they rib their friends. Maybe it’s because I’m a female, but the girls are much more likely to plop themselves near my desk and unload all their stressors for the day (or week). As a teacher, this makes me love the reprieve the boys offer: just jokes and silliness with them, but as a parent, this makes me wonder if we just aren’t seeing the whole picture. I hope I am able to create an environment at home where my boys feel comfortable at least talking to me about their stresses.

In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye on Cam. He came back from the weekend break still a little subdued. He was not his same self Monday morning, but he assured me he was fine.

I’ll keep an eye on him.

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Facebook and Our Emotionally-Charged Nation

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I named this blog “My Tangled String” because that image is representative of what’s going on inside my head. I use this space to unravel those thoughts. Lately, however, I haven’t been able to successfully find a lose end on which I can begin tugging. It’s cliche to say it’s this political climate. Sure I’m disturbed by it, but I feel like it’s more than that. It’s related, sure, but different. There have been changes in the way we communicate with and relate to each other, as people, and I’m not sure we can blame all of that one two individuals running for president.

Nowadays we are exposed to so much information – and so much bad information. There is a pervasive mantra that the mainstream media can’t be trusted, and yet, where do we find news? In this time in the the world we have access to more news and opinions than ever before, and yet, how do we weed through it? My fear is that, as a whole, we aren’t doing a very good job. We’re sharing things on social media without fact-checking and then, what’s worse, is we believe these faux news stories. This is the age of the headline. Write a catchy headline, and people will share it. We aren’t reading; we are trusting the headlines. We aren’t looking at the source or the dates; we just click “share”.

And I don’t mean to say we are all dummies. I feels like we’ve become a society that acts on our emotions, and this makes sense because we are inundated by headlines, videos, and posts that are designed purely to pull, no yank, at our heartstrings. Crime rates are down, way down, nation-wide. That’s a fact, and yet, the rhetoric of today has many Americans feeling afraid. In fact, I just heard a man being interviewed on NPR say, “you go to a movie theater; you’re likely to get shot. You visit a big city; you’re likely to get shot.” It’s no wonder a person might feel this way. Scroll your Facebook feed and it’s inundated with videos and news of horrible accidents, murders, robberies, and assaults. Now, statistically, these violent crimes are down; however, our exposure to tragedy, is way, way up.

Think back to when you were in high school (I’m assuming many of you are pre-Facebook age, ha!). Pre-facebook we knew what was on the local and nightly news. Notable crimes made newspapers and magazines, but not at the rate with which we are exposed to news stories today. The fodder of local news is now national news. A singular person’s bad experience at Target becomes the rallying call of shoppers everywhere. All of these things accumulate in our guts, this is why we feel emotionally-charged all of the time. Just in preparation for this post, I kept tabs on some of the stories that rolled through my news feed in the last day or two and by far the most disturbing, alarmist headline I read was, “With tears overflowing, this mother tries to re-attach her child’s decapitated head”. These are things I never click on, but I did, for the sake of this post. It led me to a short article written by an ambulance driver about an accident he was called to that had been caused by a drunk driver. In the accident, the two children in the backseat did not survive. The story was not graphic at all and the point of the piece was really to point out that there are innocent victims when you choose to drink and drive. The headline was obviously clickbait and, even though I agreed with the anti-drunk driving message, I wasn’t sure the whole thing was an effective strategy. Nonetheless, we scroll, day by day, through our feeds exposing our minds and our psyches to these devastating and disturbing messages. 

And then we get distracted. We remain subtly emotionally charged and then something comes up, and it causes an explosion. Colin Kaepernick takes a knee. Starbucks releases a new logo on their cup. A gorilla is killed to save a child’s life. And suddenly, we funnel our fear, anger, and frustration towards these symbols because it is easier to fight about the National Anthem or a gorilla than it is to ask the really tough questions. It’s easier to be angry at a Black Lives Matter crowd when they become destructive than it is to ask the real questions about race and equality in our country and why the group is so angry and frustrated. It’s easier to argue about what the National Anthem really means than it is to evaluate whether or not our country really does offer equal opportunity for all. Facebook threads have become a battleground, yet the opponents are our friends and family. Almost daily someone on my Facebook feed announces that he or she will be unfriending or unfollowing those with opposite and obnoxious opinions. Daily I read arguments that turn nasty in just two or three exchanges. And the thing is, if you’re connected on Facebook then you are friends, family, or acquaintances in some way.  If we are unable to be respectful of our own friends and family, then what hope does this nation have?7969003a49be87b104b5afcfbc5b4afb

And just as we had worked ourselves into a frenzy, along came this election cycle. We, as a nation, are questioning the business-as-usual democratic process, which is great, but we seem to have lost the ability to do so with any sort of intellectual capacity. I do believe Donald Trump has stirred up a lot of anger and fear, but he’s not the cause of it. He has simply coaxed to the surface that dark reality that our country still has a lot of work to do. In the few short months he has had access to microphones and the media, he has capitalized on these feelings we’re harboring of fear and anger and he’s made it okay for us to act on them.

Now I don’t have any answers and I also have a lot more to say. This is only a start. However, I don’t know how to say the rest. I don’t know what can be done and I don’t know who (if anyone) can do it. I do know that things will absolutely get worse if we cannot come together as a nation and own up to our flaws. We have a serious racism problem. We might have legalized gay marriage, but we have a long ways to go towards gender and sexual equality. We absolutely must address poverty. We must fund education. These are issues that we must come together on for the future of this country.

Maybe an elected official is not the answer. Maybe that answer is each one of us in our everyday lives, every day. Here are some simple places to start:

  • Fact check the articles you share on Facebook. Think that’s time consuming? Then post less.
  • READ. And I’m not just saying this because I’m an English teacher. READ the articles you post. READ the articles your friends post. Go out into the web and find some interesting news sites and then READ. A great place to start is Flipboard.com. You can set up your interests and you’ll get daily articles to peruse. Maybe if we all start reading more, journalists will stop using such ridiculous headlines!
  • Remember your manners. Sure your comment feels like a body-less entity, but it is attached to you and it is directed towards another human being. Engage in intellectual debate, rather than name-calling and insulting.
  • Ask questions. Recently I had drinks with a high school friend. She’s made a career in the military and I’m a shameless pacifist. However, I had the most enjoyable evening asking her thoughts about foreign policy and gun control. She has knowledge and experience in these areas. I can and should listen to her experience. She and I don’t have to agree, but we can absolutely share our experiences with each other.
  • Stop focusing on yourself. What if the point of Facebook was to connect and converse rather than a place to project your highlight reel? What if you spent less time declaring your own opinions and more time asking other people about theirs?

On the one hand, I feel at a loss for words and on the other hand, here I am 1300 words later. I have to go to work again tomorrow and look nearly 120 15-year-olds in the eyes and prepare them for their futures. All I can do, so that I can sleep at night, is try to encourage deep thinking, critical questioning, and compassionate behavior. Because maybe, just maybe, those things will help turn our country around.