Coronavirus Diary #24: Setting Intentions for 2021

As I was getting ready to write this post, I looked at back last year’s New Year’s blog post (link to post here) — what was I hoping for as I said goodbye to 2019 and looked forward into 2020?

I was fresh off the holidays. All of our people had gathered, and though we had had our tense moments, we had also had moments of mundane togetherness, laughter, and even joy. We were nearing the end of a long, long season of grief, and wanting to move forward differently, I took the year 2020 (20/20) as an invitation to think about vision and sight. I was praying to see things differently. I had missed so much in the soldiering years. Moving forward, I wanted to see — to really see.

I wrote:

In 2020, I’m praying for new sight. I’m praying that I’ll see what’s important, that I’ll notice what’s essential, and that I’ll comprehend what has meaning. I’m praying that I won’t focus so hard on potential danger but that I’ll keep my eyes wide open to possibility.

“Ask and ye shall receive.”

If 2020 offered us anything, it was an opportunity to notice the essential and to comprehend the meaningful. Yes, it’s been a year full of imminent danger, but if we dare, we can also see all kinds of possibility.

Remember how we were plodding through January and February, business as usual, unaware of the depth of the disruption that was about to occur? Remember how we grumbled about getting up early to scrape the ice off the car, about the extra slow commute, and about the coworker who just couldn’t seem to respect our personal space?

Remember how we would run to the grocery store over lunch hour and munch on a snack we’d just purchased on our way out the door? Remember how we offered an open bag of chips to a colleague who enthusiastically grabbed a handful and shared with the person standing next to her? Remember how normal this was?

And look at us now — even when we are wearing our masks, we find ourselves reflexively moving back to allow for six feet of space, we bump elbows if we dare to touch at all, and we glance at each other with suspicion, wondering if either is unknowingly carrying the virus, if this will be the interaction that makes us sick.

Why? Because we’ve seen like we’ve never seen before.

We’ve seen the destructive path of the coronavirus — the death toll in the United States above 330,000, hospitals across the country at capacity, refrigerated trucks serving as morgues.

We’ve seen, in the midst of this health crisis, the comorbidities of archaic infrastructure, financial instability, and centuries-old systemic racism. We’ve seen how quickly our supply chain can be disrupted, leaving us all wondering why we are out of toilet paper, flour, and personal protective equipment. We’ve seen the financial devastation as millions across the country apply for unemployment, wait in line all day to get food, and face imminent eviction. In contrast, we’ve seen the financial excess of our nation’s billionaires who’ve actually “increased their total net worth $637 billion during the COVID-19 pandemic so far” (Business Insider). We’ve seen people of color not only disproportionately impacted by this disease (Harvard Medical School) but less likely to get quality care and much more likely to be living in poverty, targeted by law enforcement, and incarcerated for the same crimes than white people.

If our eyes were opened in 2020, if our vision cleared, then what we saw was a country that has a lot more to worry about than the deadly virus that has traversed the globe. We’ve asked ourselves about the integrity of the news media and the reliability of science. We’ve wondered how much we value our health care workers, our teachers, our postal workers, and our other essential personnel. We’ve become more aware of how the structures of our country have shaped our ideologies, and we’re beginning to see our racism, our bias, and the ways that we ourselves perpetuate these systems and these beliefs.

And now that we have seen, what will we do? That, for me, is the question of 2021.

What do we intend to do about the things that we have seen?

This morning, as we have done most Sunday mornings since March, my husband and I logged into a Zoom room on one laptop while we streamed our church’s worship service on another. Members of our small group community meet in the Zoom room every Sunday to “go” to church. We sit in our own living rooms watching the service, singing, and praying “together.” Then, after the service, we unmute ourselves and chat over “coffee” as we would if we were physically meeting together.

Today’s conversation ranged from how was your Christmas to how are we managing the weather to when do we think we will get the vaccine. Finally, we landed on how we were feeling about life post-Covid. What will work look like? and church? and social gatherings? Will we go back to what we were doing before? or will we change based on the lessons we’ve learned over the last many months?

I sat listening for a few moments, and then I thought out loud, “unless we are intentional, we won’t change. We’ve got to be making thoughtful decisions right now about how we are going to be on the other side of this.” I think we were mostly talking about whether people will continue to work from home, whether we’ll be comfortable physically re-entering our social circles, and how we’ll interact with medicine and business, but I think we need to also think — right now — about how we can intentionally start to shift our culture.

What is it that we’ve seen that we’d like to change? Are we comfortable continuing on the course that we are on?

If, having seen our weaknesses, our broken systems, our inequities, we do not intentionally make moves to right our ship, we will continue to head the same direction we have been heading. If we continue to turn a blind eye to the lack of freedoms in the land of the free and the fear-based decisions made in the home of the brave, we will remain a country that benefits the few at the cost of the many.

It took us a long time to get here, and we won’t immediately change course. We are all going to have to lean hard into the turn, pull on all the ropes we can grasp, and keep our eyes firmly fixed on the world we hope to create. And we’re going to have to hold that position for quite some time.

If we really want a society in which all men, women, and children are treated equally, afforded the same respect and consideration, and endowed with certain unalienable rights, it’s going to look different around here. And it’s going to feel uncomfortable. We’re going to have to make decisions we never thought we’d have to make — about our homes, about our jobs, about our politics, and about our money. And if any of those things seems too dear to us, that’s probably where we need to start.

I invite you to think back with me over the last several months, what did you see that didn’t sit right? What possibilities can you imagine? Are you willing to set an intention that will enable change? Are you willing to discuss your intentions with a friend?

Can you imagine what we might do if we, the people, would be willing to intentionally move forward together? What a more perfect union we might form? What justice we might establish? What common defense we might provide? What domestic tranquility we might ensure? What general welfare we might promote? What blessings of liberty we might ensure? Not only for us, but for those who come after us?

Are we willing to be transformed?

What are your intentions?

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12: 2

Writing Transformation

As I mentioned last week, my students and I have been writing college application essays. Yes, I said my students and I. For years, I’ve had a practice that whenever my students do a writing project, I do it, too. From the front of my class, or my shared Zoom screen, I work through the whole process in front of them. I show them my planning and my drafting. I let them see my struggle and my shitty first drafts*. When it’s time for peer review, I read my essay aloud and allow them to give me feedback, and then I revise based on their suggestions. I do this because I want them to see that writing is a process that can be done in community; I want them to see the transformation.

Early last week, we examined sample college essays and looked at a variety of prompts posted on college web sites and the common app. These prompts are intended to spark writing that will reveal something personal about the student. I coach my students to identify a strength such as dedication, creativity, or a strong work ethic, and to write a “highlight tape” that shows a moment or several moments in which that strength was on display.

This is all very conceptual, so I model. Last week, as my students and I walked through the prewriting process, we navigated to a list of prompts, and I showed them the one from the Common App that I chose as my starting point:

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

I chose this prompt, I told them, because one of my strengths is the ability to bounce back from difficulty. I am resilient. To show my students how I decide on what to write about, I think aloud, like this: “Hmmm…when was there a time in my life that I bounced back from difficulty? What example could I write about that would show someone who doesn’t know me that I am resilient? I know — I could write about the time that I had to stop teaching due to illness and how it took me six years to get back to the classroom. Yeah, I think I can share enough details about that.”

As I walked through this process, I displayed my planning on the screen while my students filled out a Google document for their planning. We walked through the process together.

The next step was to write a rough draft and bring it to class for peer review. I showed them how to get started then sent them on their way. The next class, I read my draft out loud, then asked them these questions: What did you see? What did you learn about me? What should I delete? What should I add? What made sense? What didn’t?

They told me that they could see me when I left teaching and then when I was home in bed. They told me I was determined, and they remembered that my goal was to show that I was resilient. They wanted me to add more about how I felt now that I was teaching again. I thanked them for their input and then sent them to breakout rooms to repeat this process in small groups, reading their essays to one another.

They reluctantly went. Some shared their drafts, some felt their writing was “too personal” to share. Some showed up in my office hours later in the day — would I help them? They didn’t think they were doing it right.

One by one, they told me their personal stories of difficulty, of lessons learned, and of personal growth. One by one, I cheered them, assured them they were on the right track, and encouraged them to lean into the process.

Tomorrow, when we meet again, I plan to read them my revised draft, with their suggestions, to show them what the process looks like, to share a part of myself, which might prompt them to share a part of themselves with me.

Here’s what I’ll read:

On the last day of school. I took the items from my desk, placed them in a box, and carried them to my car. I left all my books on the shelves for the teacher who was taking my place. I wouldn’t be back the next year; I was going home to rest. 

I’d been teaching in that school for almost ten years. For many of those years, I joined the cross country team after school, changing into shorts and running shoes to run 4, 5, or 6 miles. After that, I would hustle home, make dinner for my family, do dishes and laundry, grade papers, and get ready for the next day. Day after day after day. 

Then, I started noticing pain and fatigue. I couldn’t easily walk =when I first stood up from my chair — my joints felt like they were moving through setting concrete. I was so tired at the end of the school day that I often couldn’t remember driving myself home.

I was exhausted all the time, and my joints ached. Just a few years earlier I had finished a half-marathon in under two hours, and suddenly I was finding it difficult to get out of bed and walk to the bathroom. Each step felt like I was walking on broken glass. I went to doctor after doctor and was finally told that I had an autoimmune disease —  I would have it for the rest of my life.

What? I would always feel this tired? I would always be this achey? How would I be able to continue teaching? 

A year later, I finally admitted it was time to step away. My teaching was suffering, and I spent all my time away from the classroom resting. Something had to change.

On my doctor’s suggestion, I would take six months, at least, to rest. It would be the first time since I was in high school that I didn’t have a job or children to take care of. What was I going to do with my days? I couldn’t go on long runs like I used to. I couldn’t write lesson plans or grade papers. I knew I was going to be bored, so I started writing. 

I opened my laptop and started telling my story. I wrote about that last day of school, about how sick I was, and about how I was spending my days — putting together puzzles, reading books, watching too much Netflix, going for walks, and cooking.

I wrote every day, and I spent lots of time going to doctors and learning to care for myself through yoga, walking, and changing my diet. After those first six months, I began experimenting with work, teaching a class or two at a university and tutoring. I found I was gaining strength and learning to manage the pain. 

Then, last spring, almost six years after I packed up my desk and left teaching, I was working at an agency when Covid-19 showed up and revealed our world’s brokenness — racism, inequity, hatred, violence. As protests occurred across the country, I watched from the comfort of my couch and shouted, “Something’s got to change!’ Then, I remembered how much change can happen inside of a high school classroom.

Maybe I was ready. Maybe I should try again.

And a few months later, I am sitting at my computer meeting with high school students every day, students who know a thing or two about bouncing back from difficulty. They are working through a pandemic and building strength for whatever comes next. 

It took me six YEARS to find my way back to the classroom and to this group of students  — I’m pretty sure we were meant to be together.

After I read my rough draft last week and asked my students, What did you see? one of my students typed in the chat, “I see a miracle.”

I see one, too, dear. I see one, too.

A lot of change can happen inside of a classroom — I am seeing it already.

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:2

*Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, one of my all time favorite books on writing.

Coronavirus Diary #22 Family Medicine

Last Monday, I headed out for the first of three medical appointments I had scheduled for the day. Thanksgiving Break had given me a whole week to manage the myriad visits that I maintain as a person with chronic illness, and although I had been diagnosed with Covid-19 on November 3, I had been released from isolation by the county health department on November 13 to “return to regular activities,” so I assumed I could go ahead with my appointments. Nevertheless, as one does these days, I completed the online screening and walked into the first facility toting the QR code that I’d printed out verifying that I’d “passed.” Inside, I was greeted by two women who read through the current list of symptoms and asked me if I’d been exposed to anyone with Covid in the last 14 days. It was November 23, and I said, “no,” I had not been exposed to anyone, and then headed to the clinic that I visit several times a year.

At the entrance to the clinic, I tried to hand the receptionist the paper with my QR code, and she said, “unfortunately, we can’t accept those” before asking me the screening questions again. I confirmed that I did not have symptoms and I had not been exposed and then matter of factly said, “I did have Covid earlier this month, but the health department cleared me on the 13th.”

She looked up. “What day were you diagnosed?”

“November 3.”

“So it hasn’t been the 21 days?”

“Twenty-one days?”

“Hold on,” she said, “I’ll be right back.”

Other people started to file into the waiting area as I stood awkwardly waiting, standing on the sticker on the floor, 6 feet away from the receptionist, wearing my mask.

When she returned, she had to speak loudly so that I could hear her through her mask and across the distance, “so you tested positive on the 3rd and the health department released you on the 13th?”

“Yes,” I said, feeling the eyes of the other patients on my back.

“Ok, wait right there,” she said, and I continued to stand on the sticker, refusing to glance at the people waiting. Certainly they had all taken a step or two back by now.

She appeared from around a corner and said, “Follow me,” then took me down a long hall, around a corner, and past a closed door where we stood in a hallway and she considered which room to put me in. “Wait here,” she said as she scurried down the hall. Two professionals clad in scrubs and masks came through the door while I waited, asking if they could help me before she returned and opened the door to a room that was draped in plastic covers. It certainly had not been used in quite some time.

“You can have a seat, the clinician will be with you shortly.”

I checked my watch, it was 7:50am. I’ve been forgotten in an exam room before, and since this was miles away from the rooms I am usually seen in, I decided right then that I would wait until 8:30, and then I would leave. Around 8:10, I heard some shuffling outside my door before a woman clad in disposable paper gown, aqua latex gloves, and a plastic face shield came in. She glanced at me as she turned on the computer and waited for it to come to life. She introduced herself and then started clicking through screens asking me all the questions she was required to ask. I felt tension in the room, and I was starting to sweat, so when she began looking through the drawers for an instrument that she needed, I said, “I feel like I’ve broken some kind of rule.”

Her eyes opened wide as she nodded her head vigorously and confirmed that no one was supposed to come into the clinic within 21 days of a positive test.

“I didn’t know that. I pre-screened. Is that information in the online materials?”

“I don’t know about online, but they are supposed to screen you at the door.”

“They asked me about my symptoms and my exposure at the door,” I said, “but no one said anything about 21 days.”

“I will talk to them about that because they are supposed to ask,” by now she was visibly huffing, clearly upset that this mistake had been made.

“Well, why didn’t you guys send me away?”

“Because once you are in the building, you’ve already brought contamination with you; it doesn’t help to send you away.”

Her words struck me, and they hurt. I did not appreciate being the target of her wrath, and, of course, I was also horrified. After all the precautions we’ve taken to limit the spread including worshiping from home, avoiding visits with parents, and planning for virtual holidays, I had unwittingly exposed this health care worker. I felt guilty, leprous, and ashamed.

When she left, and my doctor walked in, he unknowingly diffused the tension by saying, “Sorry for all the overkill,” but still I felt rotten. He examined me, made his usual small talk, and even commiserated with me over an unrelated common ailment. Then, when he dismissed me, I scurried out of the building without visiting the check out or making eye contact with staff or other patients.

The clinician was certainly still upset, and I was upset, too.

I fired off a text to our family group chat. We’d been sending messages back and forth for a couple of weeks. It started when I was diagnosed with Covid, and continued as others in the chat dealt with their own symptoms and diagnoses. I was looking for sympathy — I felt mistreated and ashamed and I wanted their compassion. I wanted to vent about my experience and receive justification for my feelings.

The health care professional in our family, who has been treating patients all throughout Covid, expressed empathy for my feelings and perhaps disappointment in the professional who might’ve done been better in spite of the circumstances. She gave me what I was hoping for, an “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”

I was just about to lean into that comfort when a couple others in the chat disrupted my viewpoint. Had I thought about the fact that health care worker has routinely put her life on the line? Wouldn’t I be frustrated if people didn’t observe the safeguards that had been put in place to protect me? Also, had I considered that as a white woman, I don’t regularly experience stigma in the medical office while “women of color are routinely treated like lepers and not trusted to know their own bodies?”

Well, I wasn’t anticipating that reaction. I had been hoping for sympathy and solidarity, and they were pushing back. They were making me take a wider view.

I sat with my now jumbled feelings for a bit as I called the other doctors’ offices I was supposed to visit the same day. “I was diagnosed with Covid on November 3,” I shared. “The health department cleared me on November 13th; do you want me to come in today? Or would you rather I reschedule?” I heard “Let me go check,” several times before all of my other practitioners confirmed that I could indeed be seen, as long as I didn’t have active symptoms or hadn’t been re-exposed. So, I sallied forth.

For the next couple hours, as I went from doctor’s office to doctor’s office receiving respectful high-quality care, the members of our family group chat continued to discuss the complexity of my experience — the uncertainty and fear surrounding Covid, the inequity in the health care system, the privileged experience of white people in America to not only receive care but to complain about any perceived injustice, and the stress that we are all under right now to move around in a world that seems uncertain, even unsafe.

It got emotional at times as rapid-fire and lengthy texts sometimes collided or overlapped, but it was thoughtful and informed, passionate and compassionate. It was a response to my experience, but it contextualized my experience inside a broader lens which is where I really needed to view it from.

And somewhere along the way, I realized that my adult children were choosing to engage in the kind of complex conversation that I’ve been promoting and dreaming of — they were holding competing truths and examining them from all sides. It was fine that I had an emotional reaction to the treatment I received, they acknowledged. It was also valid that the health care worker was annoyed by being put at risk at 7:45 on a Monday morning of a holiday week. It’s true that I enjoy high quality health care almost every week of my life from practitioners who believe that I have the symptoms I have, even with very little clinical evidence they exist, and it’s also true that many don’t have that kind of experience — particularly people who don’t look like me or have the same resources as me.

They identified my reality and then situated it inside the systems that exist in our country — they thought critically and communicated articulately. They weren’t always delicate — perhaps the time for being delicate in such matters is over. If we want to see change — if we want all people to have access to high quality health care, to be heard and respected and seen, then those of us who regularly receive it have to demand that they get it. We who have the privilege of complaining about inadequate care and even the minor lack of courtesies that I experienced need to raise our collective voices and demand better for those who can’t demand it for themselves.

I visited three offices last Monday, but the some of the best medicine I received came from my own family who was willing to meet me in my experience, have compassion for me, and challenge me to think beyond myself.

Now that was some high quality care.

Therefore, ridding yourselves of falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, because we are parts of one another.

Ephesians 4:25

Trying to be Kind

Always try to be kind to each other.

I Thessalonians 5:15

It’s really not hard — being kind.

It’s not.

For some of you, this is not a revelation. You’ve been being kind to others since your kindergarten teacher expected you to share and take turns: “First Johny gets to use the swing, then when he’s done, Susie can have a turn.”

Some of you said, “Oh, I get it!” and you went on to patiently stand in line at the drinking fountain, to raise your hand and speak only when the teacher called on you, to say “Please, may I borrow the stapler,” and “thank you for holding the door,” from that time forward.

You invited people to play kickball at recess, you put your arm around a friend who skinned her knee, you loaned a pencil to the boy who sat next to you, and brought an extra cookie in your lunch bag for a friend.

But some of us — some of us — lost our way.

Sure, we could wait for the swing, but when we got our turn, we stayed swinging a little too long. We didn’t care about those in line behind us and perhaps even found pleasure in making them wait. We blurted out our answers in class, talked over others, and pushed our way to the front of all the lines.

We had the answers, after all. We were strong, and we were right. We knew where we were going and what we were doing; why shouldn’t we lead? Why wouldn’t we speak? Why couldn’t we take charge?

It’s not that we were trying to be mean; we were just not trying to be kind.

We were doing what we knew how to do: answer the questions, get what we needed, take control of the situation.

But we weren’t always kind.

I, for one, confess to sometimes being downright mean. I’ve laughed at the expense of others and taken more than my fair share — of popcorn, of opportunity, of oxygen. I’ve been sarcastic, vindictive, and careless. I’ve shot off my mouth, sent daggers with my eyes, and literally shoved and swatted to get my own way.

When I could’ve — should’ve — been kind.

And when, after years of pushing through, overpowering, and taking more than my fair share, I was knocked down, benched, and sidelined, I sat there stunned, hurting, and unable to continue.

And what did I find? People who were kind. They showed up, called, sent flowers and food, listened, and cried with me.

And do you know what happened? I softened. I slowed. I began to discover myself being kind — finding space and time for others, sliding over, sharing my popcorn, shutting up, and listening.

It’s really not hard.

I find it quite interesting that the last two professional positions I’ve held have been with organizations that prioritize (even demand) kindness.

When I was hired by Lindamood-Bell, I was stunned by the celebratory and kind culture that I found myself working in. (I wrote about it here.) After having spent several months on the bench, luxuriating in the kindness of newly found friends, I found myself working in an environment where I was expected to practice kindness, positivity, and praise.

I’d lost my way through years of soldiering on, fighting my way through, doing what I knew how to do to make myself heard, get what I needed, and take control of the situation, and I was being given an opportunity to find my way back.

And I did find my way back. While working at Lindamood-Bell, my world crumbled apart. My family was in tatters, and I was lying amid the wreckage, wounded and weeping. I would drag myself out of bed, shower and dress, and autopilot my way into work, to find my colleagues cheering and supporting, offering gifts of tea and chocolate, extending a tissue for my tears, and rallying behind me as I healed. They modeled kindness for me and provided the space — and the expectation — for me to share that kindness to my students and coworkers. They helped me find my way back.

And now — now! — I find myself with Equity Education whose entire mission is to extend kindness to those who have been overlooked and marginalized. They do that by using a model called the No-nonsense Nurturer (NNN), which “empowers teachers to establish a positive classroom culture in which all students are set up to succeed.” Before I even entered the classroom, I received hours and hours of training in this framework which was then modeled throughout two solid weeks of collaborative professional development.

The NNN framework sets clear expectations and provides supports for students (and their teachers) to meet those expectations. It provides reinforcement for those who meet the expectations and firm but kind redirection for those who don’t. NNN is not focused on a few students getting what they need and rising to the top; no — its aim is to get 100% of students in every class meeting expectations that will lead to their academic — and later professional — success. It’s not for the few who would talk over the others and push and claw their way to the top. No, it’s for all. And any strategy that is focused on the achievement, the success, the well-being of all, is going to require kindness, patience, and encouragement.

Those who struggle won’t “step up their game” if they are brow-beaten and humiliated, but they will get off the bench and get back in the game when they are shown kindness — when others come beside them, encourage them, provide them tea and chocolate, tissue for their tears, and the practical and emotional support they need to take another swing.

When I was knocked down, no one shook their finger at me and told me that if I’d just tried harder I wouldn’t have ended up in that difficult situation. No one told me it was my own fault or judged me for landing on the couch, doubled over and in distress.

No, they extended kindness.

On Friday, I was in a Zoom Room with two freshmen. One shows up on time every single day with her work done and her questions ready. The other is late every time, has a young cousin raucously playing in the same room, has adults yelling in the background, and often needs me to repeat directions, support his work, and allow him extra time. I could take a hard line approach — I could say, “You’re late! Why isn’t your assignment done? Can’t you find a quieter room to work in? Come on, you need to catch up!” But wouldn’t it be just as easy to say, “I’m so glad you are here. Show me what you have. What do you need? How can I support you?”

Which way do you picture will yield the best results?

See? It’s not hard.

This lesson doesn’t need to stay in the classroom, does it? All around us are people waiting in line, crying on couches, and struggling to find the space to learn and to grow. It’s pretty easy to step aside, to let someone in, to offer a hand, to lend an ear, to encourage, to cheer… to be kind.

Doing Better than This

It happened again this week — that thing that feels like I’ve just walked out of the theater with a friend, we start to discuss what happened in the movie, and it’s like we were watching two different films.

Has this happened to you?

On Tuesday night, I stayed up to watch the presidential debate. As I watched, I came to conclusions about the two candidates and what I perceived to be happening.

The next day, as I scrolled through social media, it appeared that some of my Facebook friends had watched an entirely different debate. The conclusions they came to didn’t match the ones I came to.

How can we be all participants in the same story and interpret it in such different ways?

We talk about this in literature. When we read a text, we always have to consider 1) the actual text — the words on the paper, 2) what the author intended, and 3) the experiences that the reader brings to the text.

In this case, the actual text — the first 2020 Biden/Trump debate — was pretty hard to track. If you watched it live, you might have had a hard time hearing questions and answers because of all the interruptions. You might have honed in on a few words of one participant and either applauded or vilified that candidate. During the actual broadcast, because the participants talked over one another, it would’ve been difficult to weigh each comment and determine if it was an answer to the question, an intentional or unintentional disruption, or a failure to answer the question fully and completely.

Making sense of what happened in the debate isn’t much easier when you read an official transcript, because words in print don’t carry tone, they don’t convey timing, they don’t show facial expressions or eye contact. It would again be easy to isolate one quote from this transcript and hold it up as evidence of a win or a loss, of civility or disrespect.

Weighing and judging each speaker’s intent is also difficult. We can’t peer inside the hearts and minds of Donald Trump or Joe Biden to see whether they actually were trying to discredit their opponent, to avoid answering questions, or to genuinely answer questions. We have clues — word choice, tone, and body language — and we come to our own conclusions about those clues based on the lens we are looking through.

That lens is shaped by our own experience. Someone who votes Republican may see Donald Trump’s performance as strong — Trump didn’t let Biden fully answer many questions at all; he called out Biden’s track record; and he questioned his integrity. A person who votes Democrat might see Biden’s performance as strong — he spoke to the camera, answered the questions, and provided details, although few, about his plans. An expert debater would likely find fault with Trump — he didn’t follow the agreed upon rules, he didn’t wait his turn, he didn’t fully respond to questions, he interrupted his opponent and the moderator. However, the same expert might not have high praise for Biden either — Biden sometimes stumbled over words, had to search for a name, and responded to Trump’s jabs in frustration. Anyone who’s ever been bullied, was likely triggered by Trump’s assault on Biden’s son Hunter, his reference to Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas, and his continuous interrupting (over 70 times throughout the debate). However, folks who were hoping that someone might take the high road, would have also been disappointed with Biden telling Trump to “shut up” and referring to him as a clown. Certainly many were horrified by Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacy, but I think some (and not just white supremacists) might have found him strong in that moment — giving his answer boldly and without apology.

Because our country (even more so our world) is made up of people from so many different backgrounds, with myriad life experiences, it makes sense that people would walk away from the debate with varying opinions about what just happened, just like people have varying opinions about American politics in general and specific policies regarding health care, education, law enforcement, or the pandemic. This is America — where we value the freedom to have an opinion and to speak our minds, where we work hard to secure our right to disagree.

In the literature classroom, when I teach literary analysis, in addition to discussing the three texts as above, we ask the question, what is the author doing here? How or why is he or she doing it? Because my students see each piece through their own lens, we don’t have to all come to the same conclusion, but we do have to support our opinion with evidence from the text. I tell my students, “You don’t have to agree with me, but you have to make me believe in the validity of your opinion — you have to make your case.” Maybe Harper Lee is exposing the racism of the South, maybe she’s promoting a system that would put an innocent black man in jail — you can make either point if you back it up with evidence.

What I’ve seen too often lately is a failure to make a case. I see too many people saying what they believe in general terms — “My candidate is the best, yours is the worst!” “My candidate clearly won the debate; yours lost!” — without building a substantial argument based on evidence. I hear sound bytes — “He’ll make America great again!” or “He’ll build back better!” but I don’t see the depth and detail of support that I would require in a high school essay.

More often, I see a devolving into name-calling — “Those left-wing liberals!” or “Those Trumpsters!” — where even long-time friends get down in the mud to fight dirty.

And what does that get us? Dirty clothes, scratched faces, bruised egos, and broken relationships.

I wonder what would happen if we took a different approach. Could we do better than those who spent 90 minutes sparring on stage the other night? Could we step away from our social medial accounts, call each other on the phone, and try a different way?

Could we greet one another? Hi, friend that I usually only interact with on social media? What does your life look like these days? What is important to you? How is your family?

Could we raise questions? How do you feel about health care? Why do you feel that way? What data supports that opinion? How do you imagine we could improve the safety of our communities? Have you seen any research on that? What might we have to sacrifice for that cause?

Could we listen? That’s interesting. I never considered that stance before. Your statistics are convicting. That seems reasonable.

Could we push back respectfully? I can see what you mean about the failures of the Affordable Care Act, how would your suggestions play out in the long-run? I understand your reasons for wanting to ensure Second Amendment rights, how could we keep them while also decreasing incidences of gun violence?

Could we be open to change? How could you and I work together on this? Who else might find these ideas interesting? How can we make our ideas known to governmental leaders?How can we get involved?

Am I too idealistic? Perhaps.

But here’s what I know — it’s very easy to sit on my couch at home slinging one-liners on social media. I can put you in a box pretty quickly, label you according to what I interpret your posts to mean, and dismiss you as being out of your mind. Such behavior keeps me in my lane and keeps you in yours. We continue going our own way, convinced that we are right and the other is wrong. And it’s an angry, lonely existence.

We can do better. We are all capable of examining a text — a debate, a news show, an article, a press conference. We are all able to consider the author’s intent, and to interrogate the lenses through which we view the world. We are all able to research complex issues — educational disparity, income tax law, military funding — and to find evidence that will help us develop an informed opinion. We are all able to pick up a phone and engage in a two-way conversation with other humans. We are able to consider other points of view, to compare them with our own, and to think critically about which views hold the most merit.

Folks, we’ve got to begin doing this hard work. Too much is at stake for us to continue to voice our opinions only on social media. If we really care about the issues we are spouting off about, we need to take action.

Many are right now calling us to vote, and that is of critical importance. And, before we vote — before we check those boxes — let’s spend a little time asking questions, searching for answers, having conversations, and thinking critically.

Let’s not blindly follow a party because we always have or because others say we should. Let’s not be careless with the freedoms and the privileges we’ve been given; let’s do our part to secure them for those who will come behind us.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

James 1:5

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.

“Both Sides”, one more time for the people in the back — Next Chapter

I wrote this piece last summer, and I ran it as a ‘re-visit’ in January, but as we head into the Democratic and Republican conventions over the next two weeks, perhaps we can take a moment to remember that although the US is largely a two-party system, the complexity of beliefs and political viewpoints in […]

“Both Sides”, one more time for the people in the back — Next Chapter