How Will It Be?

When I think

of my friend Will,

a lightness crawls across my face

and pulls both corners

of my mouth

upward.

When I think

of my friend Will,

a pride swells in my heart’s place

because of all

the since-healed crashes

that propelled him

forward.

When I think

of my friend Will,

a frivolous dance stirs my feet

to the tune of many

a fond, silly memory.

When I think

of my friend Will leaving

my heart aches, but mind is at ease

because new family he will surely find.

The boy has trouble making

an enemy.

#baldisbeautiful #noshameMcVey #belovedbrother

You have GOT to be kidding me. In Oklahoma?

I sat there watching in horror as we watched the video during homeroom.  What happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma?  And this was recently covered by CNN?  How had I never heard of this?

I grew up in Oklahoma and I can sum up what we learned about our history in two phrases: Land Run and Trail of Tears.  Oh, and we memorized the counties.  That’s it.  There was nothing about this.

First the good news: there was a Black Wall Street in a specific neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the early 20th century.  What?!?  We had one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of African-American businesses in the country.  After statehood in 1907, Oklahoma came to be seen as a place of new opportunity for families of former slaves who wanted to move away from the reminders of their formerly difficult past.  Around 10,000 congregated in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, which began to boast doctors, lawyers, salons, and theaters.  Soon, there was a thriving community that made some of their white neighbors jealous, which meant things there were too good to last.

In 1921, the situation came to a head.  An assault accusation from a white young woman directed at a black young man ignited the city.  Thousands of citizens came to demand justice for both sides, even though the woman never pressed charges.  The white citizens demanded a lynching.  Some of the crowd came armed, and a gun went off in the ensuing arguments.  All of the sudden, the city became a war zone.

The white citizens marched toward the Greenwood district, and though the black citizens initially built a barricade to halt them, they eventually broke through.  What resulted was nothing less than a massacre, with possibly thousands of black men, women, and children killed, although the records are sparse.  Families were separated from each other in the chaos.  The few witnesses that remain remember planes actually dropping bombs in the area.  The white citizens burned 35 city blocks to the ground, including most of the businesses of Black Wall Street.

After learning about this, it’s no wonder why I was never taught about it as part of Oklahoma’s history.  What could have been a source of enormous pride turned out to be a horrific tragedy for our state.  Thankfully, there are those trying to collect information and eyewitness accounts from the few remaining survivors before it’s too late.

It got me thinking about history and who controls it and who writes it.  This is why I never really learned anything significant about the Vietnam War or Watergate or all the terrorist attacks in the 70’s when I was growing up.  History is controlled by those in power, those who won or outnumbered the others, and they can tell it however they like.  They can highlight the great triumphs and whitewash all their transgressions, even if it happened in their own backyards.

But what about all these buried stories of the others?  What about the stories of those who were not in power and haven’t had a voice?  What about the stories like Black Wall Street and the Greenwood Massacre?  This is why months like Black History Month really matter – we get to hear the untold stories that are part of our collective history as well.

 

Resources for further information:

http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=GR024

 

Does Black History Month Matter?

I know what you’re thinking – reading some white dude analyzing the importance of Black History Month is exactly how I want to spend my Saturday.  But before you tune out, you might want to read on.

I grew up in a very white town.  I could name all the black students in my high school class because there weren’t that many out of around 300 of us (I forget the exact number who graduated, so don’t fact check too hard).  While I was friends with black children my whole life – some of my earliest memories are playing with my friend Shayla while we were at child care together – I never understood how different life must have been for these kids living in my hometown.

I had no sense of being a minority, or different, growing up because I was a semi-affluent suburban Christian white male being raised in Edmond, Oklahoma.  I could not have fit in more if I tried.  I have no memories of being teased or bullied for being different in any way, and it never occurred to me that others might be having a different experience.  Black History Month was some novelty that barely scratched the surface of my consciousness during my upbringing, other than hearing many people bemoan how “unnecessary it was in this day and time.”

Fast forward about 30ish years.  Let’s just say that my perspective has changed a bit.

Now, I live in a bit more diverse metropolitan city, albeit not as diverse as I would like.  I live in a part of town that feels roughly equal parts black and white, only because of gentrification that brought in many white residents.  I work at a school with about 90% black students and roughly 80% black staff.  As has always been the case, I am friends with many black men and women.  And when Black History Month rolls around, I feel much different than I used to about it.

You see, in the past, I would say in large part because of the lack of diversity around me, I didn’t understand the true significance of a month dedicated to learning about African American history.  I thought learning about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks meant that I was being taught enough in school regarding this topic.  I even watched the entire Roots series, so why did we need a month of special focus?

But after spending the last two years teaching in a predominantly black environment, I now understand how wrong I was – or at least I am beginning to understand.

It’s amazing how acutely you feel being a minority, whether you are a visible minority or a minority with the luxury of blending in.  Now more than ever, minorities bear the weight of their struggle acutely.  I’m not saying this because now I understand being a minority, but because I am trying to listen to groups who have ALWAYS been minorities.

Yesterday, one of my black co-workers was explaining how she knows that for many people, when she meets them she either represents the shattering of an expected stereotype or a confirmation; this is a heavy burden for every interaction with another race.  This is because African American stories are told through token examples and cliches and broad representations, and we call this their history, while white history is told through thousands of examples with the breadth and depth that allows for complex villains and heroes.  It is no wonder that the movie depicting the contributions of black women to NASA needs to be titled Hidden Figures.

And so, Black History Month matters.  Not just to African Americans, who finally get more of their stories told, but also to the rest of America, who get to better understand the richness of their collective past, and the complexity of their significant characters.

I am the only white teacher who participated in my school’s Black History Month program yesterday, and only one other white teacher at my school dressed up.  This did not go unnoticed by my peers.  I say this not to champion myself or condemn the others who were not present or did not participate, but because celebrating the heritage of others is significant and watched by those being highlighted.  So if you are not of the particular minority who is getting a long-overdue moment in the sun, pay attention, don’t bemoan or criticize, and do something to educate yourself about the rich history of those around you every day.  It is not the same as yours, it will not go unnoticed, and it does matter – perhaps now more than ever.

 

Emotional Land Mines

This week I got my legs blown off.

No, I didn’t get my actual legs blown off, but it was almost as shocking.  Unbeknownst to me, I stepped on someone’s trigger at work, and all of the sudden I found myself as the object of a co-worker’s full-blown frustration and anger in a way I had never seen before.  I’m not going to get into the details because we worked it out in the end.  Suffice it to say, it wasn’t mostly about me, I just happened to  be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But it did get me thinking…

This whole situation was about pent up emotion after repeatedly being forced into a certain type of circumstance.  For this co-worker, it was about being overlooked unfairly many times, which caused frustration, insecurity, and eventually anger.  The intensity of the reaction was surprising to all parties involved, including this individual.  It’s funny how sometimes we don’t realize how acutely we feel something until it’s pouring out of us.  This person had an emotional land mine growing inside that was getting easier and easier to trigger as the year went on.

After taking a moment to consider this week’s events, I started to wonder what my emotional land mines are.  What is growing inside of me that I might not realize until it comes pouring out?  And what can I do about it in advance to de-escalate the situation?

Without having to think hard, I know one of mine immediately: I want everyone to like me.  I have a really hard time when someone is upset with me, or, horror of horrors, just really can’t stand me.  I overcompensate by being way too helpful, way too nice, and way too much.  When you’re an unexpected surprise to an unwed couple of students at a Christian university, you spend your whole life trying to make sure no one considers you a huge mistake.  In adulthood, this transfers into becoming a people pleaser and conflict avoider with a sensitive please-like-me trigger.

Another land mine is my overdeveloped sense of justice.  I honestly have no idea where this one comes from.  Maybe it’s just hardwiring.  But if I ever feel like a situation is fundamentally unfair, I get very upset quickly, and more than a little self-righteous.  This can manifest in ridiculous ways out on sporting courts of various kinds, can be a mixed blessing vocationally, and can be significant to inspiring action in political and educational spheres.  I just hope my justice trigger is sensitive in the correct settings, and doesn’t get me kicked out of any rec league dodgeball games.

I’m sure there are many other emotional land mines of which I’m unaware.  I’m also sure there are many of you who could point these out for me, as well.  But I hope that being cognizant of at least a few will keep me from blowing up on someone in the wrong situation.

So what are your triggers? And, more importantly, what are you doing to diffuse those emotional land mines growing within you?

 

LaLaLevity

“And here’s to the fools who dream
Crazy as they may seem.
Here’s to the hearts that break,
Here’s to the mess we make.”

-The Audition (The Fools Who Dream) from La La Land

 

This week has been…. complicated.  It has come from every direction – personally, professionally, and even as a nation there are a lot of mixed emotions in the air.  Never in my life have I been so conflicted on how to feel.  More than once over the past few days I’ve been put in a situation where something may have worked out for the best, but it was messy and sad and complicated, so I couldn’t feel good about the resolution.  And honestly, I’m not even sure these situations did work out for the best.  The examples aren’t really mine to share, so you’ll just have to trust me.  It was dark and heavy.

So what do you do when life gets dark and heavy and complicated?  You go to La La Land for some levity.

And then you go buy the soundtrack the next morning and go back for more so you can sing and dance your way through that day.

And then you listen to it the next day.  And the next.  And then you play it for your students the next day. Over and over.

You’d have to have been living under a rock not to have heard of La La Land by now.  It has already won many awards, and is in line to do the same at the Oscars.  Honestly, I heard so much hype about it before I saw it last weekend, I expected to be disappointed.  I was not.

Why is this movie so great (without spoiling it)?  First and foremost, because you leave feeling better than when you started watching it, and who doesn’t need that these days?

La La Land is an old-school musical in the best of ways.  There are dance numbers so beautiful that you consider looking up an adult tap class in your town, until you realize you would probably develop early-onset arthritis.  There are songs so catchy you invite them to get stuck in your brain, and then you start singing them out loud in public without realizing it like that weird kid in About a Boy.   There is such a passion for jazz on display that you consider dusting off your old clarinet to join a trio until you realize your clarinet is in Oklahoma and you would probably sound like a honking goose at this point.  But I digress…

The storyline is believable and magical at the same time, with just enough saccharine to satisfy without making you gag.  Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have wonderful chemistry, and only above-average voices, which makes them feel more accessible and charming than if they had studio-perfect sound.

And, in the end, La La Land reminds us to dream and go for it – a message that seems to come from a simpler time than this complicated week.

So if you’re in the mood for a romp through the “City of Stars” or need “Another Day in the Sun,” then go be “Someone in the Crowd” on “A Lovely Night” and see this motion picture that will “Start a Fire” in you to dream.  And maybe you’ll become so obsessed with the soundtrack that it becomes part of your writing, too.

 

Mr. (Un)Popular

Just when I thought things were going well this semester, a kid I thought I had made progress with brought me right back into reality when I walked up behind him in time to hear:

“I don’t want to go to Mr. Anderson’s class.  He gets on my g-d nerves.”

He didn’t say g-d.  And he didn’t get the privilege of attending his “favorite” class that day either.

One would think that after a certain age – say sixteen or so – we outgrow the want or need for popularity (unless your initials are KK).  We like to think that frivolous contests about who is the coolest kid in school, as indicated by votes and a sash, ends our senior year of high school.  But in reality, it doesn’t.  If Facebook has taught me nothing, it’s that we all want to be liked.  A lot.  On a daily basis.  Over and over.

Those of us with good self-esteem like to pretend we’re immune to such things.  We post what we find entertaining or thought-provoking or insightful for the good of humanity, NOT to get likes, right?  But be honest, how many times have you logged into Facebook or Instagram multiple times after posting just to check how many people validated you with a like or a comment?  You can even like things in messages on your iPhone now because our need for validation doesn’t stop at eighteen.

So when my student said that, it bothered me.  I know that I’m not running for favorite teacher, and that is NOT why I should be in education.  But if I’m honest, I do want my students to like me (and all the people on Facebook and Instagram).  And when one of them doesn’t seem to, I wonder why.  Am I doing my job properly?  Did I come down too hard on him one day, and he has never forgiven me?  Does he just not like the subject I teach (for which he certainly does not seem to have an adeptness…)?  Or is it just a personality conflict?  A teaching-style preference issue?  Or just a bad week the two of us were having that doesn’t represent the whole picture?

Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter, because I’m trying hard to teach him every day regardless of his feelings.  His comments won’t change that.  And, if anything, I’m the kind of person that will probably try harder to engage with him instead of harboring resentment toward him because I’m a sucker-for-punishment people pleaser, errr, I mean good teacher.  I guess I believe that children, like anyone really, learn better from someone they trust and like.  I certainly paid better attention in the classes of my most beloved teachers.  And so, Mr. (Un) Popular will soldier on, trying to educate the unwilling masses, doing his best Evita from the balcony as kids walk down the hallway disparaging his name.

p.s. If I made you feel sufficiently sorry for me with this post, especially that last sentence, please like this post as a way to validate me.  I’ll be logging in every five minutes to check.

 

 

Time To Speak

“In this world, there’s a kind of painful progress, longing for what we’ve left behind and dreaming ahead.”  -Angels in America

It has been a long time, friends, and it’s time for the silence to end.  My writing voice may be a bit rusty from composing term papers and essays instead of blogs, so bear with me as I find it again.  But now that I’ve survived my return to college and first few semesters of teaching, it’s time to pick up the old blog, dust her off, and give it a go.

I’ve decided to start by writing about one of my students and what she’s taught me.  I’ll call her Taylor to protect her identity.  Taylor came in the middle of the last semester.  This was a really hard time at my school.  In our grade, both our science and social studies teachers had moved on to other schools mid-semester, and our math teacher was out on paternity leave for a month.  Needless to say, Taylor came amid some chaos, and the tension in our hallway was palpable.

Right away, I knew Taylor was a child with special needs.  She has a physical disability that causes one of her arms to draw up like T-Rex, with her hand dangling most of the time.  She looks thin and frail, smaller than most of her peers.  Taylor has a hard time with basic tasks like getting her things in and out of her backpack or holding her paper down to write on it.  But what stood out most about Taylor was the way she reacted to her new environment, and it was like nothing I had ever seen before.

Taylor was a screamer.  A voilent screamer.  Like the kind you hear in horror movies when someone is being stabbed 1,000 times.  Blood-curdling and heard by an entire building.

I learned this the first time when Taylor had a small disagreement in my class with a peer who was feeling her out.  What started with a very simple interaction ended up with her leaping out of her chair, screaming violently at another student to get away from her, and walking toward the door to leave class.  Having no prior relationship with her, any effort I made to calm her or correct her only heightened the intensity of her reaction.  She reminded me of a wounded animal who was cornered – afraid, desperate, and willing to lash out.

Later that week, in the lunch line, it got worse.  I heard Taylor from across the cafeteria with her unmistakable scream, but this time she kept yelling for her mother over and over as she cried uncontrollably.  I thought she had been hurt.  All of the other girls were silent (highly unusual for them) as they stared at her and backed away.  She was almost catatonic other than her repeated yelling, like she couldn’t hear anyone else and had retreated into a safe place in her mind.  I helped get her out of the lunch line and to our school counselor, having to hold her to get her to calm down enough to move.  I returned to the lunch line and asked what happened, and the girls were genuinely puzzled by her reaction.  They said Taylor thought they were talking about her because one of them had whispered to another, but it was totally unrelated.  The shock and fear in their eyes told me they were telling the truth.

These were not isolated events, and I have to admit, the initial reaction in my head to Taylor was not very gracious.  I wondered if she was a paranoid schizophrenic in the making.  I lamented having yet another child with severe behavioral needs that could be set off easily by her peers into a spiraling tailspin that took down the entire class.  I assumed this would be a year-long struggle and resented her added weight to my already heavy burden.  I know, I know, you’re thinking I should be Teacher of the Year, right?

What I didn’t stop to think about is why Taylor was acting the way she did.  Here was a child with obvious disabilities thrown into a new environment.  How would I react in this kind of situation?  What fears would I have when I’m a child who already struggles with basic things, especially a child who has probably been teased for her differences?  It’s already hard moving schools in the middle of the year, both socially and academically, but Taylor’s struggles were exponentially more challenging.  Is it any wonder she had such extreme reactions to a new environment?

What Taylor needed was a safe place.  Something consistent.  Something steady.  Something comforting.  Something sure.  I wish I could say I figured this out right away, but I’m not that smart.  Slowly, over weeks, I realized that I could be a consistently positive and steadying force for Taylor.  And guess what?  She has settled in beautifully.  She hasn’t screamed or been sent out of class once since the first few weeks she came.  She smiles broadly every day in a way that forces a smile in return from any onlooker.  Other kids help her when she is struggling to get things in her bag or to do her work.  She still has a feisty mouth when someone crosses her, but in a much calmer way.  Actually, I like that she sticks up for herself and think it will serve her well if she learns when to use it properly.

In retrospect, Taylor taught me that progress and change are usually painful.  Too often we come at them kicking and screaming, clinging on to what we have left behind that was familiar – even if it wasn’t so great.  I know this personally because I stayed in retail management far too long because I was afraid to start over in a new environment.  I couldn’t go back to school again in my mid-30’s, could I?  How could I do that financially?  How would I ever get to retirement before I was 100?  But pushing ourselves past resistance and fear allows us to dream and create something new and better, even if the change is initially painful.  We just need to find our safe place, our footing, that helps us know we’re on the right track, which allows us to hope because of the change instead of fear it.  Taylor was a tangible reminder of this.