Back-to-School, 2020 Teacher Edition

Each morning last week, I opened my laptop and clicked on a zoom link to join the team at my new school. In some ways this Summer Summit, the name my school gives to back-to-school teacher inservice training, is reminiscent of many other trainings I have attended. I’ve been learning about the school’s culture and procedures, getting familiar with faculty and staff names and faces, and examining curricula, assessments, behavior management plans, the master schedule, and school-wide protocols — all the regular details of back to school preparation.

However, in some ways it’s very different due to the added layer of preparing for teaching in the era of Covid-19. I’ve learned how to meet with kids virtually through Zoom, how to deliver and receive content digitally through Google classroom, how to maintain online investment and engagement and build relationships with kids who I’ll see only on a screen, and how to stay safe in the school building where I’ll be working while students work from home.

And, this year, I have one more layer that I keep trying to look at, assess, and interrogate — my deeply rooted racism. I know it’s there, and I’m trying to call it out and deal with it as much as I can.

The first time I saw it last week was when I noticed myself chiming in to provide answers during instructional sections — I knew the answers, so why shouldn’t I unmute myself? But then I heard a small voice saying, Hey, Kristin, why don’t you pause a minute and see if someone else would like to speak? I took a moment to recognize that as a white woman, I’ve had all kinds of opportunities to speak — in fact, I’ve been the leader at several back to school trainings like this — my voice has been heard plenty. How can I learn, in this setting where half or more of the staff members are people of color, to close my mouth and listen to the voices of people who have been in the setting longer, know the community better, and who might have something to teach me?

This realization may have been sparked by the fact that I recently started listening to the Podcast Nice White Parents. It’s a story of the history of “well-intentioned” white parents who have attempted to integrate black schools in New York City and who have often done so by plowing in, demanding their voices be heard, and failing to acknowledge the culture and values of the people of color who were in the school first. Instead, they have come in waving money and shouting loudly about what should be done with it, silencing those who’d been just fine thankyouverymuch before the white people showed up. I’ve been cringing through these episodes, seeing my own well-intentioned-ness in the rearview mirror.

Midway through last week’s training one of the leaders inside a small group of a dozen of us, posed a sharing question to check in on how we are doing and how we are managing stress. It was the day after a 17 year old white boy in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot and killed two protestors in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake on Sunday, but when I was called on to respond, Kenosha was not at the front of my mind. I said that I was doing well, happy to be part of the team, and managing my stress by taking long walks with my husband. I then sat and listened as the Black men and women in the group took their turns, mentioned their grief and fear in light of recent events, and their passion for caring for our students, 99% of whom are Black. I felt conspicuous. Of course I am there for these students, too, but my privilege, my racism, was exposed in that moment. I could easily share, untouched by the impact of such racial violence. Though I had just the night before been horrified as I watched the video of the shooting on national news, my feelings of injustice — no matter how strong they are — can in no way compare to the lived realities of many of my new coworkers, and I’ve got to acknowledge that.

I’ll be supported in the interrogation and dismantling of my own racism because the school’s mission is explicitly anti-racist. All week long I heard the refrain of ensuring access, closing the achievement gap, and providing resources to ensure that our students have everything they need to succeed. I completed an hours-long course on strategies and language to use to convey the importance of education to my students and the imperative for 100% participation and 100% success.

And not only did I hear the refrain, I saw the practices enacted in our professional development. Staff members were provided scaffolding and support as they learned to function virtually through Zoom. We were given step-by-step instructions and modeling in the use of Google Classroom. We were given breaks away from the screen and incentives like gift cards and fun games that encouraged us to participate. Every instructional practice I will be expected to use — from the technology, to lesson planning, to behavior management — was modeled for me.

I’ve been walked through how to set behavioral expectations, how to use Google Forms to create informal assessments that I will use every single class period (as will everyone else on the team), how to use Google Slides to guide my students through each lesson, how to use my language to encourage my students to show up, opt in, work hard, finish strong, and reflect. We’ve played games, we’ve had hard conversations, we’ve laughed, and we’ve worked!

Why so intense? Because it matters that we get it right — lives are at stake. Whole futures weigh in the balance. Over 300 of our high schoolers have been at home since March, with varying levels of support and resources. Many of them live in poverty in communities that are under-resourced. Many have been fighting to survive in ways that I am sure I will never fully understand. Because we want to provide them with opportunities and access, we are committed to giving high-quality instruction. Because we want them to be able to use their voices and to have choices to pursue education, to obtain employment, to follow their dreams, and to live their fullest lives, we have high expectations for engagement and achievement.

And if I have high expectations for my students, I must also have high expectations for myself. If I expect them to learn and grow, I must be willing to learn and grow, too. If I want them to invest in their education, I must first demonstrate my willingness to invest.

So, I listen to podcasts that make me cringe. I lean into learning about all the technology and all the evidence-based practices. I commit to learning the culture of the school and conforming to the way they do things around here. I acknowledge that I have deeply imbedded racist beliefs, I call them out when I see them, and I invite others to call out the ones I don’t see.

When we were broken into our departments to analyze assessments and do lesson planning, I was thrilled to see that my two English department colleagues are Black women. They will be my guides, my mentors, my supports. I have a lot to learn, and I am thankful for the posture of willingness they have greeted me with. They are sharing resources, answering my questions, taking my phone calls, and welcoming me aboard. The highlight of my week was the end of one of our departmental sessions when the team leader looked into her camera and said, “We have got a dope squad!” Guys, I’m part of a dope squad!

I want to be very mindful of the privilege I’ve been given here — the opportunity, after believing my career was over, to use my gifts of writing and teaching in a community that is committed to social justice and the dismantling of racist systems, working side by side with highly qualified people of color. I could never have dreamt it was possible, but I am thankful, and I am ready.

I’ll put in this hard work; this is what I was built for.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord.

Colossians 3:23

P.S. Many of you have offered support as I step into this work. So many of you have said you are praying for me and will continue to do so. I can’t tell you what that means to me. I will continue to take donations of surplus school supplies (I will never say no to all the surplus paper, folders, pens, highlighters that you have piled up at your house). I will always take book donations — particularly books that feature people of color and memoirs. Additionally, I learned this week that our school offers student incentives for showing up and working hard. I would love to have a stock pile of prizes for my students — I’m thinking small items like college logo cups, stickers, pencils, pens, etc. — think all those freebies you get wherever you go — or gift cards to Target, McDonald’s, etc. in small denominations such as $5 or less (free drink, etc.). I am open to suggestions, too! Thank you for all the support you have given me so far.

You want to go back to the classroom? Now?

I keep hearing this question (even if it’s sometimes left unsaid): Why would I leave a perfectly decent job to go back to the classroom? why now — in the middle of a pandemic?

It’s a great question, and the most honest answer I have is that, if it weren’t for the pandemic, I don’t know if I would be going back to the classroom.

After two and a half years at Lindamood-Bell, I was finally learning all the ropes, and I had finally been granted the opportunity to work with the Lindamood-Bell for Schools program in its partnership with the Fort Smith, Arkansas schools. I’d been learning to use Zoom to join a teacher and her class to provide instructional coaching and in-the-moment changes to instructional plans, and I was loving this collaboration. It was reasonable to expect that if I stayed with the company I would be able to do more of this kind of work, and I was excited about that. Also, I had a solid caseload of students (and their families) who I’d been working with for a couple of years — designing and implementing instruction and even collaborating with the schools these students attended. I was finding a way to use my years of experience and to continue to grow.

The pay was fine, the work was challenging, and my body, which had rebelled in my former life as teacher, administrator, mother, wife, and denier of emotions, seemed to be able to manage the pace and the stress.

I really had no serious intention of pursuing anything different.

And then, in mid-March, it became apparent that we were going to take all of our equipment and materials home and we were going to work remotely until further notice. This was actually fine, too. In fact, Lindamood-Bell, I felt, did a great job of getting us all home, digitizing all of our resources, and providing (ahead of any mandates) additional sick time and vacation time. I probably could’ve continued to work with students remotely — from my home office — indefinitely.

Like everyone, I shifted my lifestyle — wore more comfortable clothing (which I lovingly refer to as my Covid uniform), went for more walks, cooked more meals to eat at home, and watched more television including the daily news reports.

I (like most quarantined humans) watched George Floyd die, and it looked too much like watching Michael Brown dying. I saw Ahmaud Arbery get gunned down, and he looked like people I know. I saw Rayshard Brooks shift from a man who’d fallen asleep in his car, to a man aware that his life was in jeopardy, to a dead man through the lens of someone’s cell phone, and I was horrified by the world we are living in — where in the space of a few weeks we repeatedly bore witness to the senseless killing of black men — black men who didn’t have to die.

Night after night my husband and I watched news reports and protests; every day I saw friends, former students, and my own children, posting on social media and reminding me that this is not new. Senseless deaths, not to mention broad and systemic mistreatment, of people of color happen every day in the United States, and they’ve been happening since the first slaves were dragged off boats onto the shores of this sweet land of liberty and beaten if they did not do the work that their white masters demanded they do.

In many ways, a white police officer kneeling on the neck of a black man, smiling toward the camera, is just one more slave owner demanding that the black man do what he says or pay the price and be punished within the gaze of all the other slaves so that they will know their place and learn to comply.

In this climate I was sitting in my home office every day, meeting with students, doing interventions that enable them to read, chatting with their parents about how they are coping during a pandemic with all the kids at home, trying to get their own work done, and wondering when things will go back to normal.

And I knew that I didn’t want things to go back to normal — not if normal means that some kids get safe schools with excellent resources that set them up for success while other kids (for not fault of their own) get substandard materials, ill-prepared teachers, and less access to a quality education, while white folks who commit crimes often get the benefit of the doubt and minimum sentences and black folks who commit crimes often end up dead or incarcerated far longer than is necessary or humane.

The disparity between schools that are predominantly white and those that are predominantly black is not a new revelation to me — I’ve been aware of these inequities since long before I taught for one measly semester in the St. Louis, Missouri public schools, but somehow being quarantined during Covid, working every day with students who have been given every resource, and then being barraged by data about the inequities (a substantially higher incidence of Covid and deaths related to Covid among people of color, the number of underfunded and understaffed schools in urban centers like Detroit), along with a resurgence of activism, especially among young people including my own children, my coworkers, and many former students, created an atmosphere in which I saw the opportunity I had to step in.

Meanwhile, many teachers are feeling the need to leave the profession because of Covid — they feel they are unsafe in the classroom, that their communities are asking them to risk too much, that they can’t afford to put their loved ones in danger — and I don’t blame them. These are valid concerns. And if you’ve been in the classroom for years or decades and you are already tired, and you feel unappreciated because you are underpaid, under-resourced, and under-valued by your administration, your students’ parents, and your community, then being asked to go into a crowded space for up to eight hours a day, five days a week in the middle of a pandemic just might be the last straw.

So why — why? — would I willingly put my name in the hat?

Because as dark as everything seems right now, I hold onto hope that this just might be the time for major change. Covid-19 might be providing us an opportunity to see — really see — racism, societal inequities, broken systems, and unjust practices. Because we’ve had to shut so many things down, we might be able to see different ways of doing things — ways to incorporate working from home, digital platforms, and content-sharing so that every American kid can have access to all the content and resources that are available in all the best districts. We can begin to imagine scenarios in which one highly qualified teacher in New York City, for example, provides a webinar on the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, which students across the country and around the world can stream at a time that works best for them, submit a reflection to a digital discussion board, and then work collaboratively with other students from different neighborhoods, states, and even countries, to create a YouTube video to link to the original webinar for sharing with countless other students. Imagine how that experience might connect students to one another and impact their view of the world, themselves, and each other!

How might we re-shape education so that the neighborhood you live in, the color of your skin, and your parents’ income doesn’t determine your access to high quality content and educational experiences? Is Covid-19 providing us the space and the perspective to do this?

I think it might be!

Now, do I think I am going to single-handedly change the American educational system. You know I’m gonna try, but realistically, systems that are as established as our school system (or our prisons, or our government) don’t change quickly. In fact, if they have any hope of changing, they need the investment of participants whose voices are unafraid to offer new ideas, to challenge long-held beliefs, and to believe that things can be better.

And I believe they can.

So that’s why I want to go back to the classroom right now in the middle of a global pandemic.

If not now, then when? If not me, then who?

The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.

Psalm 103:6

Note: If you’d like to support my classroom and the work that I will do this year either in that classroom or from my home office, I am currently collecting composition books (one per student to start), highlighters (a set of three — yellow, pink, blue for each student), index cards for vocabulary work, and other classroom supplies. As soon as I get my school-issued email address, I will be posting a link for those who would like to support from a distance. Thank you so much for following me on my journey in this next chapter.

Getting Here: Changing Course, pt. 4

I started teaching in the fall of 1989 at Lutheran Special Education Ministries (LSEM) in Detroit. I had a degree in Secondary Education with a major in English and a minor in psychology, and I’d taken a couple courses on the exceptional child, but I had no special education certification. I had at one time explored special education as a career, and my first job out of college was working as direct care staff at a group home for teenaged girls with emotional impairments, but I wasn’t really prepared for a self-contained classroom of 10 seventh-graders with diagnosed learning disabilities. I learned a lot from those kiddos; I can only hope they learned a few things from me, too.

I took a few graduate courses at the University of Detroit that year and the next when I moved to a resource room position at Lutheran High School North and Lutheran High School Northwest. And then, though my husband was thriving in a 3rd and 4th grade classroom and I was beginning to gain some skills in special ed, we abruptly changed course when our son, who lived with his mother and stepfather, relocated right before the start of kindergarten. Because we wanted to continue our frequent visits, we relocated, too. I started teaching middle school and high school emotionally impaired and learning disabled students English Language Arts in a residential school, The Manor Foundation.

While there, I took more courses toward special ed certification, this time focusing on emotional impairments. I stayed at the Manor Foundation a year and a half — until our daughter was born — and then I began ten years focusing on one, then two, then three young children at home.

When the youngest started preschool, I started substitute teaching; then when she was preparing to start first grade, I began exploring graduate school.

I landed in Michigan State University’s Critical Studies in the Teaching of English program. Writing had long been my passion — in fact, the whole time I was home with my young children, I had been working on writing projects: submitting small pieces to parenting magazines, writing devotions, songs, and chancel dramas for our church, and even writing all the content for a monthly newsletter for teachers. I felt strongly that I wanted to further explore writing and literature, but I had no idea how this one choice would impact the course of my life.

Through this program, my gaze was turned to African American literature, Native American literature, and the power dynamics that exist in writing, academics, and society. In each of my courses, I began focusing my projects on the ways language is used to assert power and gain access. The reading and writing I did for those courses laid the groundwork for the ways I have continued to grow in my understanding of academic language, home language, and the ways we navigate different settings through our use of language. I began to see the language of the home — whether it be African American Vernacular English, Spanish, or Chinese, or a mixture of many languages — as a strength and the ability to shift from that home language to the language of work or the classroom as an asset — a tool to gain access.

So, when I left MSU and taught first in a community college in Michigan and another in Missouri and began to observe my students who were struggling to make that shift day in and day out, I sought ways to provide supports and encouragement while also validating the strength of the home language. What this looks like is that rather than being the English teacher who corrects students’ grammar, I have become the teacher who instead invites variation in grammar, even trying it out playfully myself, and then modeling for students the times and places where making the shift from one language to another becomes a way to gain access and even power.

Over the next nine and a half years, both at Roosevelt High School and Lutheran North, these ideas that began to form at Michigan State became integral to my classroom. Through my collaborations with other staff members, I began to develop a strength-based approach to teaching literature and composition. My students walked in the door with strengths — their personality, their resiliency, the language that they used to navigate their lives in whatever contexts they found themselves in, and the fact that they had access to education. My job was to help them identify and articulate those strengths which often looked liked reteaching.

Some of my Black students, and some of my White and Hispanic students, reported that they spoke ‘bad English’ and they ‘couldn’t write’. Those messages are debilitating — they don’t provide a place from which to grow. In my classroom, I began to use language such as, “you use different kinds of language in different settings — the language you use gives you access to your community. Do you imagine that the language I use would give me access to your community?” When students pictured me trying to come to their homes or their neighborhoods speaking the way that I do, they could see that I would be at a disadvantage. When I played with their language, using phrases such as “See, what had happened was…” or when I asked my students to teach me slang using the strategies I used to teach ACT vocabulary, they saw me struggle to learn in the same ways that they were struggling to learn Standard English. We were all language learners; we were in this together. Students who said they ‘couldn’t write’, were affirmed by my words, “you are learning how to write.”

I wrote every assignment with them — from prewriting and journaling through revisions and final drafts. When we needed to understand a grammatical rule, we looked it up together. We practiced identifying adjectives, prepositions, and clauses in our own writing, and then we experimented with breaking the rules intentionally — for effect, to make a point, or to show emotion.

This is what gives me life — playing with language, learning how it works, breaking the rules, and showing my students that they have the power to do the same.

I didn’t get it all right. I am sure that I made mistakes such as — in the early days, insisting that my students speak Standard English in my classroom, but why? Isn’t the classroom the place where we are learning the purposes and audiences for which we need to use Standard English? where we gain the tools we need for whatever comes next? As a teacher, do I want to be the keeper of correctness or an agent of access?

I think you already know the answer to that.

I’ve spent a lifetime getting here — building this philosophy by way of special education, writing, graduate school, and hours and days and weeks and months in the classroom with students — students who come to the classroom with inherent value, built-in strength, and learned skills. Each kid I meet matters.

But many many students in Detroit and areas like Detroit, many of whom are Black, many of whom don’t speak Standard English, have received the message loud and clear that the ways that they arrive, the manner in which they dress, or wear their hair, or speak, are inadequate. They don’t match the Standard — a Standard that was created and is maintained by white people in positions of power. They’ve got to learn to match that standard, they’ve been told, or they won’t succeed. No wonder they feel angry, or rebel, or fight like their lives depend on it to deny who they are and take on what they believe will get them out of the spaces they are in. And what does that cost them?

I’m just one middle-aged white woman from Michigan, but if someone is going to give me an opportunity to step into a classroom full of kids, to play with language, to learn, and to break some rules, how can I refuse?

I’ve been preparing for this my whole life.

So, yes, I took a position in Detroit.

Yes, I’m going to be teaching English.

This decision meant saying no to my current coworkers, families, and students, no to another group of kids, and yes to another.

I’m trying to get to that. Maybe next time.

And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

Esther 4:14

Ready, Changing Course, pt. 3

During the twelve weeks that I was working remotely, my husband and I developed some rhythms to break up the monotony. We walked a mile or so every day at lunch time to get away from our desks, we walked again at the end of the day to get our mail and talk about the events of our day, and we tuned in each night to watch the national and local news.

We’ve watched the numbers of Covid-19 cases continue to rise. We’ve watched reports of businesses closing, of economic stress, of overcrowded hospitals. For weeks, we caught the daily White House Task Force briefings, and then, when the eyes of the nation turned to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Brionna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, our eyes turned, too. When we heard the nationwide sound of wailing and protest for the sake of Black lives, we leaned in to listen.

The sound was not new to us. We’d been aware of systemic racial injustice for quite some time — not because we heard it on the national news, but because the trajectory of our lives has given us relationships across racial and socioeconomic lines and we have seen the impact of school inequity, racial profiling in policing, red-lining in real estate, inequities in access to health care and quality food, and racist practices in institutional hiring. We haven’t done much about it, if I am going to be honest, other than bear witness and believe that these systems exist, but we have seen the impact on people that we know and care about.

So when thousands across the country took to the streets carrying signs emblazoned with Black Lives Matter, I Can’t Breathe, and Arrest Brionna’s Killers, we were not horrified. We were not surprised. We were looking for ways to support, ways to ally, ways to join their voices. How could we do otherwise? How can we sit quietly watching repeated senseless acts of violence upon people of color, knowing that these blatant killings and attacks are a symptom of a much more insidious disease. Racism in our country runs deep — it has surreptitiously found its ways into our thought lives as all ideologies do, so that even when we believe ourselves to be free of racism, we make judgements about others because of their language, their skin color, their clothing choices, and their hairstyles. We use people of color as it benefits us (for sports, for entertainment, and to prove ourselves to be non-racist), but we rarely come to their defense or speak up on their behalf.

So right now, when Covid-19 is disproportionately impacting communities of color, specifically because of the impact of inadequate access to healthcare, the wealth and educational gaps that keep people of color in service industries and on the front line, and the pre-existing conditions that disproportionately pervade these communities due to centuries old inequities, when even now people of color have to contend with incidents of injustice like the George Floyd killing, we must be moved to action.

So when my husband and I were standing in the kitchen one night in the middle of the stay at home order and he said, “Are you happy doing what you are doing right now?” I reflexively responded that what I really wanted was to be in a school where I could be part of the dialogue during this time that has potential for unprecedented transformation in the lives of communities of color. I felt ready. After a long journey back to health, I felt we were facing the moment I had been preparing for.

He said, “You’re right. Let’s do it. Toss your name in the hat. Let’s see what happens.”

I said, “Really? Even if it means I have to drive to Detroit?”

“Don’t be bound by geography. Apply broadly, and we’ll cross the next bridge when we get to it.”

Oh. My. Word. You’d have thought he had given me the keys to any car I wanted to drive off the lot! If he thought I was ready, then I knew I actually was ready!

I started combing Indeed and district websites like never before. I applied to positions in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, the Detroit metro area, and beyond. And though I’d been doing this to some degree for years, this time was different. Within a couple days of submitting applications early in the morning, on my lunch hour, and after work, I started getting phone calls and emails.

I was different. I felt different — healthy, strong, and impassioned like never before. While I had believed for quite some time that my career was over, I was beginning to believe that I might just have another round in me. Not only that, the landscape was different. Due to Covid-19, many teachers have been choosing to leave the profession, take a sabbatical, or move into a different sector — away from classrooms, particularly classrooms in hot zones like Detroit. While before I may have been passed over because my Master’s degree and years of experience put me a little higher on the salary schedule, suddenly I was a prime candidate. While many teachers were ill-equipped to manage the unavoidable transition from in-person to online learning, I have been using online platforms to work with students for the last several years!

As the interviews started, I could hear the skepticism in the voices of those questioning me. What is your experience with urban schools? Why are you interested in this position? How would you build classroom culture among students who are 99% Black? 99% of whom receive free or reduced lunch?

I could hear the subtext, “I can see, even over this video interview, that you are a middle aged white woman. Are you sure you are up to this? Do you know what you are getting into?” But guess what, kids, I’ve heard these questions before, and I was ready for them.

What I wasn’t ready for was learning that many of the schools I was applying to had been operating with long-term substitute teachers in core subject areas, because they could not find highly qualified teachers and they had to fill slots. I wasn’t ready to learn that many of the students in these schools did not have devices or internet in their homes when the stay-at-home order began. I wasn’t prepared to realize that because 5,000 people had died in Detroit and a disproportionate number of them were Black, chances are high that the students in these schools have experienced loss above and beyond the loss of their routine, the daily contact with teachers and friends, and life as we once knew it. They’ve likely lost people they love.

However, I was excited to learn that several of the agencies I was interviewing with were working to meet the needs of these students. They were delivering devices and personal hot spots — teachers and administrators getting in their own vehicles and driving to student residences across the Detroit metro. Not only that, all of the schools I interviewed with were still providing food to families — five days a week. One school was providing food not only to their own students’ families, but to anyone in the community who pulled into the parking lot to receive it. They were also working hard to secure more devices for the coming school year and making plans (state-mandated) for how to return to school fully in-person, fully online, and a hybrid option that would allow families to choose.

I met dedicated educators who care about kids — inner city kids, kids of color, kids who matter.

And one of these schools made me an offer.

And then another one did.

And I still had my position at Lindamood-Bell.

I had a decision to make, and it wasn’t going to be easy.

But I was ready. More on that next time.

He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.

Psalm 33:5

Coronavirus Diary #12: Taking Risks

We’re still here. We’re sitting in the midst of 2020, continuing to daily discover the elements of this new reality, and starting to take some risks.

I met a friend at a park yesterday, to share a cup of coffee, to chat, to get to know one another a little better, and to discuss challenges and opportunities we have encountered in writing and in education. I walked up to find her sitting at a picnic table, mask in hand. I’d left my mask in the car, absentmindedly. We agreed to situate ourselves at a table “six feet apart” which feels awkward. We find ourselves willing to taking a risk to sit in that awkwardness in order to be together, to build relationship, to share life.

My husband and I were in a similar situation last week when we met with the members of our community group outside. We hadn’t physically been together since early March, and we were excited to see one another, but what would’ve have been hugs turned into awkward negotiations of space as we gathered around a picnic table to chat and catch up. We all agreed to take some measured risk, to share space, to hear one another’s voices in person, to build community.

Yesterday morning, after my meet-up at the park, I was driving to my first Hellerwork appointment since March 24, when I passed a large group of people gathering to walk to mark the celebration of Juneteenth and to acknowledge that though we’ve come a long way from the days of slavery, we have a long way yet to go before people of color experience equity in America. I saw many, most wearing masks, walking in groups of two or five or eight, carrying signs, wearing T-shirts with messages of unity and support. They were willing to take a risk — to come outside and gather during a pandemic — for the sake of racial equity.

https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2020/06/hundreds-gather-in-ann-arbor-to-celebrate-juneteenth-march-against-racism.html

On Friday night, my husband and I watched Just Mercy (streaming for free right now), a story that horrified me when I read the book several years ago, but doubly horrified me at this watching as I got a deeper realization of the hatred and harm that has been inflicted on Black bodies over the course of our nation’s history and that is still happening right now. We risked feeling uncomfortable on a Friday night, when we could’ve chosen yet another comedy or feel-good drama — either of which might’ve distracted us from this current reality. We took this risk to acknowledge the truth of our nation’s history and to realize the value of celebrating Juneteenth.

I walked into my practitioner’s office on Saturday wearing a mask; she was wearing one, too. In order to treat me, she has to be up close and personal, touching my body, sharing my space. She manipulates my fascia, kneads my muscles, coerces my IT band, and tries to convince my SI joint that it can indeed function according to design. She’s taking a risk to care for me, and I’m thankful. I’m taking a risk to see her, to allow her to get back to work after three months at home, and she’s thankful.

I head from that appointment to the pharmacy to pick up a medication that keeps my ocular herpes in check, to pick up a birthday and a graduation card, and to purchase more immune support tablets. The pharmacist is behind a sheet of plastic, but she takes the items I have touched, scans them, and hands me my bag. She’s taking a risk to support my health. I’m taking a risk, too. We both wear our masks; our eyes meet. I thank her; she thanks me.

From there I walk next door to the grocery store. I get two of every item on the list, check the stock and price of toilet paper (even though we now — finally — have a two-month supply at home), and stand on the X that keeps me 6 feet away from the next person in line for the cashier. I give the person ahead of me plenty of room to make his purchases and then move forward when it’s my turn. I swipe my card, place my bags back in the cart, and then take the receipt that is handed to me, knowing it has been touched by other human hands. Those hands have taken a risk to serve me, and I have taken a risk to be served.

Every day right now, it seems, comes with a level of risk I had not been aware of before. It’s a risk to buy groceries, get gas, see the doctor, or visit a friend. Activities that were previously mundane and performed without much thought now take a measured intentional approach, which I am willing to take for the things that I need.

Am I willing to take risks for others, too?

Am I willing to speak out against injustice? Am I willing to say — and post — that Black lives matter? Am I willing to walk in a protest? Am I willing to challenge the misconceptions of others? Am I willing to risk friendships with people who disagree with me?

Am I willing to point out the audacity of a president who encouraged thousands of people to gather on his behalf — to sit side by side in an enclosed space — not six feet apart around an outdoor picnic table? Am I willing to be outraged at the language he used to threaten those who might protest such a gathering?

Am I willing to risk examining my own beliefs, my own thoughts, my own choices? Am I willing to see my own prejudice? My own selfishness? My own fears? My own mistakes?

I want to be willing. I want you to be willing. I want us to be willing.

It’s scary, knowing the risk of danger, of infection, of change, of progress.

We step out carefully, wearing our masks, looking in one another’s eyes, keeping a safe distance, listening carefully, examining our hearts, interrogating our motives, and willing to exchange the ways we have known for a way that will ensure the safety, livelihood, and freedom of others.

It might be uncomfortable to do things differently — maybe even a little bit risky — but as one Black life after another is cut down before our very eyes, as they have been being cut down for hundreds of years, the risk of staying silent, of continuing in the path we have been on, is greater still.

I’m ready — are you ready — to start taking some risks.

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.

Isaiah 1:17

Coronavirus Diary #11: Do Black Lives Matter?

Since the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, “Black Lives Matter” has been the rally cry of all those who seek equity for people of color. Some who are seemingly unfamiliar with America’s history of systemic racism, who minimize its impact, or who openly oppose broad cultural change often answer this cry with “All Lives Matter”. Right now, these battling cries are resounding, the latest shouting match between two sides dug into opposing positions, unwilling to budge.

This is happening, of course, in the midst of a global pandemic, where I find myself in the seat of privilege, safety, and comfort. I’m not feeling threatened or oppressed: I’ve continued to work from home; I have a solid health care plan; I’ve remained untouched by Covid-19 and by racial inequities.

I’ve been sitting here for almost six years now in an idyllic little house by a quiet little river. I’ve got acres of campus to roam, someone else to mow the lawn and repair the broken faucet, and I have little to no concern for my safety. I came here hoping to heal after years of soldiering — fighting my own internal battles, injuring others unintentionally, and sustaining my own soul-impacting wounds.

As I’ve healed, I have realized that although the soldiering years were tough on me and those I love most dearly, they were also some of the richest years of my life, mainly because they were lived largely in spaces of cultural intersection where my world view was challenged and expanded.

Shortly after we moved to St. Louis in 2004, I took a position teaching at Roosevelt High School. This enormous structure in the central part of the city was built almost a century earlier (1923) and was intended for the overflow of white students from two nearby high schools. By the time I walked in the doors, the once-majestic building was in poor repair and all but a few white students had begun learning their lessons in other, cleaner, brighter spaces.

At Roosevelt, most of my students were Black and Hispanic — born into a centuries old system in which they had limited access to cleaner, brighter spaces and from which they would emerge successful only by some mystery combination of hard work, miracle, and chance. They walked into my classroom exhausted from the struggle against poverty and the public gaze of suspicion, to find me — a thirty-something white woman in khakis — handing out overused and outdated textbooks and insisting that they engage in stories of American literature. I mean, I’m not insensitive. I saw the irony of teaching early American stories written by white men, many of whom owned slaves and engineered the system that would keep nonwhites in their places, of having my students read how Frederick Douglass gave his bread to poor white children so they’d teach him how to read, of showing my students how to analyze MLK’s dream of white children and black children playing together as they themselves sat in a school that was almost completely Black. I saw the irony, and I was uncomfortable.

The very structure they walked into every day, the materials they used, and the constantly revolving staff gave my students one message loud and clear: their Black lives did not matter.

I was there only a semester, not nearly enough time to build relationships founded on trust that might’ve led to educational transformation. I was one more teacher who left them to go work with students who were better resourced.

I, too, unwittingly, affirmed that their Black lives did not matter.

And, just as the principal who hired me away from Roosevelt promised, within the school that was well cared for, supplied with high quality materials, and staffed with well-qualified and committed professionals, I was able to build relationships with my students in classrooms that were a mixture of black and white. I was able to build trust and foster safety in my classroom. I was able to point out the irony in documents like the United States Constitution that declared all men to be free and equal, as long as they were indeed men, had white skin, and owned property; I was able to examine with my students the deep generational grief in the writing of Native Americans and Black Americans who had been denied their freedoms — their livelihoods — for the sake of free white men; we were able to interrogate the voices of white writers who seemed oblivious to the lived realities of their ‘darker brothers’; and we were able to dialogue about how our lives fit into the American story.

I was able to communicate — at least I hope I was — that these Black lives mattered.

When health challenges and a relocation took me away from those students, that community, that mission — I landed here in a nest of comfort, safety, and security.

I needed it. I really did. I’ve spent the last six years getting my health on track, experimenting with different ways of continuing my teaching career, of connecting with students through their reading, their writing, and their thinking. I’ve explored ways that I could continue the work of hearing, respecting, and valuing the lives of Black students, and yet, in this critical moment in our nation’s history — a moment that seems full of promise for change — I find myself working mostly with white children of means, whose parents can afford the one-on-one instruction that my company provides.

It doesn’t feel right.

Yes, I was able for a short time last spring, to Zoom into classrooms in another state, to provide remediation for students of color who were several years behind grade level, but it was just not the same as the day in and day out relationship-based journey that I was once able to take with a room full of students. Those students challenged me. They changed me. They won’t leave me.

I see them on social media — business leaders, heads of school, social workers, doctors, nurses, government workers, entrepreneurs, and educators — living testaments of what can happen when a student believes that their life — their Black life — matters.

They are having hard conversations right now — they are taking to the streets — they are raising their voices. They are shouting “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!” because they have too often seen their brothers, their sisters, and their friends on the ground, a knee in their backs or on their necks saying, “I can’t breathe.”

They, too, have found themselves in spaces occupied and controlled by whiteness where they felt they could not breathe.

I’m having a hard time sitting here in my safety, in my comfort, in my privilege right now, knowing that I care about Black lives, knowing that I know how to communicate that, knowing that I have what it takes to educate, to advocate for, and to elevate the voices of Black lives.

Because here’s the thing, all lives can’t matter until all Black lives matter.

When all Black students — even those at schools like Roosevelt — have the resources, the committed and well-compensated educators, the clean, bright spaces, and the opportunities to succeed without a miracle; when all Black students are educated with respect; when all students regardless of income, Zip code, or race, are given access to accurate histories, equitable opportunities, and even reparative measures to make up for all the time that has been lost; when all Black students have the opportunity and the supports to graduate from high school and even college and the freedom from worrying if they will be unjustly pulled over, arrested, or killed by police, then you might be able to convince me that all lives matter.

Until then, I’m gonna be looking for opportunities to walk beside and join the cries of those who are shouting as though their lives depended on it, “Black lives matter!”

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and the needy.

Proverbs 31:8-9

If you are interested in learning more about school inequity in America, check out this resource list published by Teach for America.

If you would like to read more about the Black Lives Matter movement, click here.

If you’d like to dig deeper into the history of racism in America, check out the New York TimesAnti-Racist Reading List.

Coronavirus Diary #10: Demo and Rehab

How are we all doing? I feel like we need a check-in, because this has been some kind of year — we’ve got a pandemic going on (US fatalities have surpassed 110,000), unemployment continues at record highs (it’s improving, but at least 13% of Americans are still unemployed), the US economy is far from recovery, and protests continue across the country demanding a dismantling of systemic racism.

It’s a lot. So, how are we all doing?

Me? I feel hopeful, passionate, energized!

I told my mom that the other day. She asked if I’d see the news — what did I think of all the protests.

When I replied, “I’m excited!” I heard silence on the other end. I think her filter was firmly in place, or she might have said, “Have you lost your mind?”

So I said, “I know it sounds crazy, but this could be the moment that we’ve been waiting for — this could be the chance to tear it all down and rebuild.”

I’m not sure that comforted her.

I mean, tearing it all down does sound kind of scary…unless you’ve watched HGTV.

Every show starts the same — the hosts walk into some flea-ridden, dilapidated, mold-encrusted, falling down structure; they survey each room discussing what needs to be done and what it will cost; and then they get out their sledge hammers and start tearing out all the stuff that can’t or shouldn’t be salvaged.

Transformation always starts with demo.

It’s the only way. Putting new over old or propping up an existing structure is only a temporary fix. Duct tape can only hold for so long. If you want to see new life inhabit a space that has run its course, served its time, and is badly in need of rehabilitation, you have to do a total gut rehab.

And it’s time.

Our foundation, built on the backs of slaves and designed to perpetuate the wealth and success of the few, was faulty to begin with, and now the earth has shifted. What’s held in place for almost 250 years is showing signs of age and decay, and we are sorely in need of renovation.

The cost of this remodel is high — higher than any of us can imagine — and all the guys in suits are looking at the existing structure and the suggestions for change, shaking their heads, and saying, “it can’t be done!”

But here’s the thing, it can’t NOT be done. We can’t push these repairs off any longer, or the whole structure is going to crumble under our feet. The foundation is cracked, the supports are wobbling, and one strong wind is gonna topple the whole thing to the ground.

I can hear the storm rolling in. And it just might be a perfect storm.

We all had to slow down sometime in March when we got sent home from work. Forbidden from socializing, we all started watching the news a bit more because, um, our very lives were at stake. And it was at the moment when we all recognized our mortality that we tuned in and watched a white man kill a black man right in front of our eyes.

And, because their very lives were at stake, people of color and many, many allies, stood up, walked out of their doors, and said, “Enough is Enough!” A whole nation had already come together to battle Covid-19, so it was already positioned to come together against another enemy. The masses were connected on social media, meeting through Zoom calls, Facetime, and every other platform known to man, so it was a only small step from, “Hey, could you and your people sew up about 1,000 masks,” to “Hey, could you and your people make a bunch of signs and meet us at the steps of the capital, outside the White House, on Washtenaw Avenue, or on Forest Park Parkway?”

And didn’t they show up! Across the country and around the world, people are showing up, in the midst of a pandemic, despite instances of continuing brutal policing, spraying of tear gas, and countless arrests. People are showing up!

People are showing up on social media, in the streets, with their money, with their signs, on their feet, and on their knees. They are demanding a gut rehab, chanting, “Tear it down, tear it down, tear it down, tear it down!”

And doesn’t that energize you? Doesn’t it energize you to think they if we eradicate all the mold, tear out all the termite-eaten boards, and break up that cracked up foundation, we might see possibility?

The demo can be jarring, but what comes next is invigorating.

I always love the part of the rehab show where the designers walk into the newly configured blank space. They stand amid the bones, gesturing and pointing, deciding together, “what if we opened up this wall? how about a large window at the back overlooking the yard?” It’s at that moment that any possibility exists — the broken, the outdated, the filth has been removed — a fresh start lies ahead.

Visionaries are right now tossing their blueprints on the table — plans for changing the ways communities are policed, how we respond to crisis, how we elect our leaders, how we organize education. And, maybe because of the pandemic, our schedules, our pace, our regular work flow have been interrupted, and we all suddenly have the time, the space, the capacity to imagine a new way. I mean, since March, we’ve been literally living a new way, so it’s not a huge stretch to re-imagine all kinds of different ways of living our lives, organizing our days, and restructuring our communities.

This could be the perfect time — and it’s long overdue — for a gut rehab.

The cost may be high, but our combined wealth should be able to manage it. We have the ingenuity, the resources, the creativity, and the passion. Why wouldn’t we pool our resources, and invest in the future of our country? After all, the return on our investment might just be that more perfect union with liberty and justice for all.

Doesn’t that get you excited?

 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

Romans 12:18

I’m reposting this today with a few resources tacked on — I know that I feel inspired and compelled to learn more, do more, and in some way contribute to the rehab of our country. If you, too, feel inspired, check out these resources:

He who watches over us doesn’t slumber, a re-visit

I wrote this piece when citizens were demonstrating in Ferguson in the wake of the Michael Brown killing. Looking back now, I feel so naive. I believed that change was happening, that finally we would see an end to racial violence. Today, in the midst of nation-wide protests over the murder of George Floyd and countless others — I am feeling hopeful again — hopeful that change is gonna come and that the endless disregard for the lives of black and brown people will be something we talk about in history classes and not see on the news. I know that the God who holds us all — the black, the brown, the white — in the same hand is able to bring peace and reconciliation. I want to be part of that change.

I was sound asleep just a little while ago. Something woke me. I reached down to check on Chester, my Golden Retriever who sleeps on a doggy bed on the floor within arm’s reach. His bed was empty.  

I don’t know why I reached under my bed, but that is where I found him. In his six and a half years of life, I have only found Chester under the bed one other time…shortly after our son left for the Army. He could sense our distress then; was he sensing distress now?  

I checked my phone. Maybe one of my kids texted in the middle of the night with some sort of emergency…I mean, the dog was under the bed…something was not right in the world.  

My news feed told me that once again teargas was used in Ferguson, Missouri. In fact, a ninety-year-old Holocaust survivor was arrested for protesting.

What is happening?

From 2005 to June of this year (2014) I taught in a small Christian high school on the north side of St. Louis — two miles from the QT that was burned down in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown. At the time, the school had approximately sixty percent African American students and thirty-five percent white students; the remaining five percent were Asian, Hispanic, or otherwise classified.

The North side of St. Louis has a reputation for being violent and racially divided. Some people are afraid to go there. Some people wondered why I taught there. 

But in that space — at that intersection of white and black, urban and suburban, conservative and liberal — we had an opportunity.

My students and I were able to discuss issues in my classroom with humor and candor that might not be discussed outside those walls. The school fosters an open dialogue that values Christian unity amid diversity. My students taught me so much about dispelling stereotypes and respecting difference. They changed me forever.

I am not teaching there this year — the year of a violent police shooting — the year that many of my students go home at night to a broken and hurting Ferguson, the year that some of my grads are demonstrating every night, the year that neighboring public schools have closed in response to the violence. I am not there. 

Instead, I have started a new chapter in Ann Arbor, MI — which has a reputation for being inclusive, liberal, conscientious. This morning I went to the post office and was jokingly reprimanded by the African American postal worker who didn’t like me calling him ‘sir’. I smilingly explained to him that I had just moved back to Michigan from a place where using ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ is respectful and expected. He smiled knowingly and we wished each other a great day. Then, I exchanged pleasant conversation with the African American cashier at the grocery store who didn’t need to check my ID when I purchased some wine because it was her ‘job to know’ who to card. My nails were done in a salon staffed exclusively by Asian American women who joked with me and my daughter and exchanged smiles with us. I came home to a campus that houses a small but diverse population that, at least on the surface, seems to be respectful and equitable. I didn’t have a hint of racial tension in my day.  

Before I went to bed I checked the news and saw peaceful protests in Ferguson, an upbeat interview with the new chief of police there, a statement from President Obama encouraging open dialogue and peaceful resolution. I wanted to believe we were moving in the right direction — that all would soon be right with the world. I went to sleep with Chester on his doggy bed by my side.  

But several hours later, I am aware that all is not right in the world tonight — Chester is hiding under my bed. The dog who follows me everywhere, did not budge when I came to the living room at two in the morning to write. He, like many tonight, is distressed. 

I, too, am distressed. This — racism, violence against people of color, inequitable policing, systemic disparity — has gone on too long. People I know and love are hurting, protesting, putting themselves in harm’s way for the sake of change.

Like Job, I “weep for those in trouble.” As I “hope for good, evil comes,” As I “look for light, then comes darkness” (Job 30:25-27). 

But even in trouble, even in darkness, God is still God. He is in Ferguson; He is in Ann Arbor. And “He who watches over us will not slumber” (Psalm 121:3). Right now He is keeping watch. I pray that Ferguson, and those that I love there, will one day feel free to sleep in peace.

Resources for learning about/building racial equity:

Teaching Tolerance – free resources for educators “to supplement the curriculum, to inform their practices, and to create civil and inclusive school communities where children are respected, valued and welcome participants.”

Anti-racism Reading List – from Ibram X. Kendi’s

Also, there are many places that could use your donations right now, but I’ll suggest two schools that I am aware of that foster racial dialogues and provide strong educational opportunities of students of color:

Lutheran North, St. Louis, MO – the school mentioned in this post

Elan Academy, New Orleans, LA – an elementary school started by one of my former students, who is also a graduate of Vanderbilt University