Confrontations on S*#^ That Matters

It makes sense to start in a copy room — one of the only places where adults have contact with other adults during a busy day in a middle school. While I hate small talk and typically avoid it at all costs, it is indeed the only way to eventually break into real talk. What better time than waiting for 200 copies of graphic organizers to print is there to push past our silences as preoccupied educators and connect?
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That morning two years ago, it was just Mike and I. It was a well known fact that Mike did not appreciate the social justice slant of my pedagogy. Hence the professional dissonance between us.  I’m not sure when it all began — maybe when I said the words ‘systematic racism’ during a talk over troubling student data — but anyway, Mike was a bit of a prickly pear to me.

Rather than bottling up that morning as we awkwardly prepared for the day, I forged ahead, reminding myself to practice the traits that I try and instill in my students: openness, connection, and communication.

“Morning, Mike,” I said, “How was your weekend?”

“It was pretty good,” he replied.

“Cool,” I persevered, “What did you do?”

“I went hunting with my son.”

It is these niblets of human experience that I cling to like a life raft for humanity. I’ve never shot an animal in my life, and don’t plan to, but the conversation wasn’t dead (despite the fact he had decided not to ask about my weekend in return).

“Oh really? Where?” I asked.

“Southern Oregon.”

Yet another niblet (!) and on I went — a long jump towards personal connection.  I told him how I loved Southern Oregon, thought it was beautiful. And had in fact gone to some hunting sites with my college boyfriend because he also went hunting with his family from time to time.

I thought these comments would surely break down some barriers. He might guess that I don’t hate hunters, don’t vehemently oppose the second amendment, and actually respect the sport when done with integrity. I was further encouraged when he asked me, “Where did you go to college?”

“University of Oregon,” I replied, “I’m from Eugene actually.”

I barely had time to celebrate his seeming interest in becoming buddies before he responded, “Eugene, huh? Figures.” He collected his papers and walked out of the room, leaving me confused but then… fuming.

It was as if Mike was looking for one fact to confirm all of the assumptions about me he’d already had in place and justify his contempt of me. Here was this opportunity to find foundation as educators in the service of students and he’d destroyed it — we backtracked, in fact, and never recovered.

More recently, just over a month ago, after the Orlando shooting, I had another confrontation with someone else — this time a family member.  I had spent the week scrolling the list of people murdered for celebrating LGBT identity. I had spoken to my brother who is gay and he expressed his new fear of walking down the streets of New York City. As I repeatedly read through the list of victims in Orlando, I saw my little brother’s face on each of those young men’s faces, devastating that they were lost and at the thought of losing Neil to such hatred. Further, I was enraged by the silence of the high school where I teach, feeling that faculty and students had sunken into complacency and our LGBT youth were under supported at a time when they needed love and acceptance. Through it all I was spinning into a fit of fury, grief, and helplessness (like so many of us, I know…).

Because there was nothing to do, I just did whatever I could think of: attended the waterfront vigil, cried, and began sharing several posts on Facebook supporting gun reform. In response to one of my posts, I received a reply from my husband’s conservative aunt: “Let’s focus on the real issue here.”

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Candlelight Vigil – Portland Waterfront 6/12/16

I have a very long fuse, but this comment woke the dragon. Not only did I see the comment as an insulting assumption about what I may or may not have understood the “issue” to be, but it was also a gross misunderstanding of the reason for my call to action. I do not debate publicly on Facebook — I don’t believe in it. But several things needed to be addressed.

I sent her a message privately stating that I typically don’t engage with family members on issues of policy and politics when I know we disagree. We are family after all and I’d rather focus on what unites us. I also told her that since she felt the need to confront me on these these issues (this wasn’t the first time I’d received a negative reply from her) it was important for me to explain where I was coming from. I talked about the school shooting epidemic that has plagued my experience in education as a teacher and student since I was a middle schooler myself, I talked about my little brother who should never have to be fearful for who he is, and I talked about my students who crack jokes about every other drill besides a shooting drill because they know that its more likely that they’ll be shot in a classroom or hallway of their school than die from a burning building.

I shared my story. She didn’t respond. I haven’t heard from her on Facebook since.

The smug side of me wants to celebrate that I had the last word, but there’s a lesson for both me and my aunt here. I was shoveling out gun reform propaganda, with Orlando as my only perceived reason. But my post was an oversimplification of the passions which inspired it. For me, and for many of us, there needn’t be any more reason to act on gun reform than the murder of 49 members of the LGBT community or any other isolated event of mass shooting. On the other hand, for her and many others, Orlando in isolation wasn’t enough. Be it desensitization, or an affinity for right wing politics, the largest public mass shooting in recent American history was not enough of a tragedy for her and so many Americans to take action on gun reform. I’m not so naive or self-righteous to think that my Facebook message changed her mind. However, it didn’t illicit an immediate argument in response. I like to think this means she sat with my story long enough to honor my voice — albeit somewhat slacktivistic in nature — and consider the benefits of reform.

Some might cite this story as a justification for why activism on social media is a waste of time. We sum up deep sentiments, musings, and logic into snippets and expect to be understood.  Despite the fact that I do binge share articles, memes, and videos relating to education (an ongoing tragedy) and national tragedies (tragedies which I believe are stemming from the ongoing tragedies I witness as a public school educator), I too feel that activism by the majority on social media is not terribly beneficial for our social consciousness. I post and share not because it changes hearts and minds, but because a few likes here and there make me feel more sane. I don’t believe that apart from genuine human connection there is a lot that can change people’s minds… (Give this a listen — This American Life: The Incredible Rarity of Changing Your Mind).

I am taking time to share these stories, though, and the reason is because I hope to illuminate a simple, stark difference between them: with Mike my story was not valued, with my aunt it probably was. 

Mike had more reason to dismiss me. I’ve come to realize that I was a threat to his comfortable way of teaching and being. My staunch beliefs about the preschool to prison pipeline, the achievement gap, and the way we must adapt as educators, put him on the defense. Meanwhile, my aunt had more reason to listen. Firstly because we’re family, but also because I took time to elaborate on connections between issues within the context of my true experience.    

In this nation of injustices (that have always been there by the way) rising to the surface, what choice do we have but to somehow address the barriers to a better nation. But how do we do this? What confrontations make a difference? And are we even talking to the right people?

For my part, I sometimes feel I have my head in the sand. I encounter differing opinions in my classroom often enough, but other than that have a pretty homogenous circle of friends of the typical inner Eastside Portland variety (don’t get me wrong, I love them like family and more, but apart from a couple of us, the white perspective is the majority). Many of us come from middle-upper class families, are liberal, straight and college educated, and have the luxury of choosing whether or not to pay attention to the suffering of Americans. We discuss national tragedies from a distance, having never faced major oppression, or lost a loved one to maddening chaos.

I know I’m missing out on conversations happening in other communities, and I don’t know how to do a better job of accessing them. I feel thankful that as an educator I get to facilitate discourse between diverse students and become a fly on the wall. My career puts me in a position to understand more of what’s brewing in the consciousness of Americans. It affords me an empathy I don’t take for granted. Yes — even a deep empathy for students with whom I disagree (teachers I have a little less patience for because I truly believe that to be an effective teacher for ALL you have to “drink the kool aid” as my ex-colleague Mike would put it). 

I strive to teach my students to connect through story — be it verbal or written. We have differences that should be honored, yes. But we also share so much as humans. And the only way to reveal those connections is to share and really listen to those stories. This is not a revelation. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” poignantly speaks to this wisdom. Knowing this, however, I still question whether I am I doing it enough, with enough sacred time allowed and with enough adults. 

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Looking back on that moment in the copy room with my co-teacher, Mike, where I was belittled and reduced to a spot on the map, I realize that Mike had no desire to share stories. He didn’t want to know anything about me. He didn’t care about my story. He only wanted to tell himself the safest story. One that would affirm his own beliefs and in turn secure his own power over me — the kind of power that fuels all of the acts of injustice and hate that beget the need for confrontations in the first place.

It must be these small, subtle dehumanizing moments which leave us feeling discouraged and tired, less willing to seek mutual understanding with another human being we know is so different from us. Upon reflection, this feeling lies in noticeable contrast to my late teens and early twenties when I ran into and sometimes towards these confrontations.

I realize that there are people who never have and never will do this. Maybe Mike is one of them. And that’s probably because a real human with a family and friends, who has experienced loss and struggle becomes valid. They become a person with sensibilities and reasoning. They become someone you can’t ignore when you come to the table to discuss the harsh realities of underserved minorities in schools, for example. Suddenly, you have to have a real conversation about equity and racism and privilege. And then you might feel your power slipping away, or even realize the insignificance of holding onto such power — you might have to step into a space of cultural humility and become reflective, tolerant, compassionate. 

These deeper confrontations, ones that take time and slowly crescendo and decrescendo, seem to be just what is so desperately needed in our nation. Can I afford to be so passive in my semi-adult life of routine and privilege?

In the recent wake of Orlando, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I see and hear people in my life trying to grapple with what to do, think, or say about it all. Sometimes I hear people trying to process through conversations with others, and I’ll join them though I’m usually left speechless. Sometimes I have to say the phrase “I can’t talk about this anymore” to my husband because I truly can’t, my emotional energy for it is spent. I see folks posting their feelings and articles online which provide some comfort but also frustration because I worry about Facebook posts and Twitter tweets being the limits of activism in America. I sit in spaces where I feel silenced about these issues, knowing that to bring them up would create closed conversation rather than an open one. Short of taking to the streets with virtually no one because there’s just too much to be pissed off about, I join the ranks of millions, sighing and shrugging my shoulders. 

Though it was written in 2003, Kim Stafford’s reflection from just after George W Bush’s close victory over Al Gore, seems so relevant to our current situation. He writes:

The next morning, as it became clear there was no true winner, an odd idea came to me: The failure to elect a clear leader signals that each citizen becomes a leader. An election is a kind of abdication by each voter, after all, a handoff of responsibility from citizen to candidate. This system is insufficient, denying democracy rather than fulfilling it. Collectively, we all must lead.

– The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft

If you’ll remember, this is what Barrack Obama repeatedly tried to impress upon us even before he was elected as President. Isn’t this also what Bernie Sanders asks Americans to do?

This piece was written after weeks of musing, starting and stopping essays, becoming overwhelmed by the fragments of events and reactions. After it all, I still feel like a hypocrite, or just as helpless at the very least. I should be doing more. My comfort lies in the reality that it turns out very few people seem to know what to do for America and Americans these days, but from what I can tell people are paying attention, they’re speaking out. And if we can all do that with a little bit of patience, grace, and humility as we reach towards what makes us fundamentally human, we may just end up in a better place.

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