Was I Smarter Than A 5th Grader?

After surviving two years attempting to teach fifth graders, here is what I learned..

  1. Sometimes a kid will show you his junk through a hole in his pants under his desk on the first day to see if you pass the How-much-can-I-make-you-freak-out-in-front-of-the-whole-class? test.  Don’t fall for it, it’s a trap.  I’m not sure if I passed, but I did go over to his desk and say, “Fix that,” firmly under my breath and then sent him to the office to get pants without a hole in the crotch, followed by the proper student services.
  2. Mean Girls is a real thing in every school all across the country, and every grade has their own version of Regina George.  And I can understand why multiple teachers raised their hands during the assembly when asked if anyone felt personally victimized.
  3. It is sweet to watch kids play out their own version of romance when they are just starting to figure out what it means to be attracted to someone.  This was on full display during Valentine’s Day, when one of my boys brought the sweetest gifts for his girlfriend to my class.  I allowed him to go deliver them during homeroom, and you couldn’t have slapped the smile off of his face when he got back.  On the flip side, it is not so sweet to read notes that fifth grade boys write to each other about young ladies when they think adults won’t see it.  I just wish they were that descriptive in their essays for my class.
  4. I love books, and that enthusiasm is contagious with kids.  My first year, I was told that I would hate teaching Esperanza Rising, our first novel, because it wasn’t that great and the kids hated it the previous year.  First of all, the book is awesome and full of great symbolism, rich writing, and an engaging story, so I loved it.  And because I loved it and taught it like it was an awesome book, both years my kids loved it as much as I did.  But we didn’t have a single book I didn’t love, and my kids enjoyed all of the book studies we completed.  If you open a door with enthusiasm, a child’s internal sense of wonder will take over from there.  Thankfully, I still have my childish sense of wonder.
  5. I have a soft spot for the late bloomers.  While some of my kids were taking out social hits on each other and acting out Real Housewives-worthy drama, others just wanted to play with Pokemon cards or draw me pictures of butterflies.  I wanted to give all these late bloomers hugs and tell them that I didn’t lose my last baby tooth until tenth grade, so just be innocent and naive as long as you can.
  6. There are kids that just won’t like me, not matter what I do, and I have to shut down my people pleaser enough to live with that.  There will also be students I don’t like, no matter how guilty it makes me feel sometimes, and I have to live with that also.  And every teacher always has favorites no matter how hard you try to love them equally.
  7. When children don’t know who Diana Ross or Ella Fitzgerald or Donna Summer or Janet Jackson are, I take it as a personal mission to let them know that without these women, there would be no Beyonce.  Therefore, I will bombard them with my favorite songs from these legends until they understand.  And make them write about the lyrics.  And possibly analyze the figures of speech they utilized.  And replicate their dance moves.
  8. Kids have an incredible capacity for cruelty, intolerance, and just plain meanness, but they also have an incredible capacity for grace, kindness, and fighting for justice.  The environment I cultivated in my classroom, including what I allowed, could bring out either side.  The traits I demonstrated in front of them would heighten either the good or the bad.  This was perhaps the scariest lesson I learned, because it made me realize how many little eyes were on me at all times on the daily.  My kids’ actions were like a barometer for how well I leading them.  I don’t know how parents do it, honestly, because on bad days I went home feeling worse than an abusive human trafficking dictator committing genocide.
  9. I should probably not be a parent.
  10. Kids will pleasantly surprise you, but not how you expect them to and in their own time.  In my first year, I realized I had been brainwashed by all the white suburban classics like Sister Act and Dangerous Minds.  These movies taught me that a well-meaning white teacher can go in and transform a struggling ethnically diverse classroom overnight by just trying hard and believing in the kids whose backgrounds are nothing like mine.  Those movies were written by Hollywood producers to make people feel good by the end of the film.  And they are lies.  What I quickly learned is that the victories you experience as a teacher who is the minority in a classroom are much different than I expected.  They aren’t about becoming the “cool” teacher who leads kids to win the trophy at the big competition.  The victories that matter are when a student learns that an adult from a different race and/or background can actually care about them enough for them to start trusting that adult and learning from them on a daily basis after six months of continual resistance.  Or when a child who doesn’t speak up for a semester because he’s from Africa and terrified ends up leading a group discussion in front of his peers during the final quarter.  Or when your kids have never done well against their peers on standardized tests, and you prepare yourself for the fact that they don’t generally do well under pressure so it’s fine if they struggle because you know what they have learned over the year, but they all show up like ballers on game day and surpass all of their peers across your network of schools.  Well, I guess sometimes they give you a Hollywood ending…
  11. All kids deserve a high quality education, and many of them are not getting it.  This is absolutely heart-breaking for me to know first-hand, but it’s true.  Many kids are going to schools which are underfunded, under-resourced, and poorly staffed.  This leads to poor educational experiences that many of them never can recover from in future grades.  These struggling kids will be competing for jobs with others who attended outstanding schools, which is an injustice.  You shouldn’t get a lackluster education based on your zip code.  As adults, we must care more about the quality of education our students receive, the equity with which they receive it, and the value as a society we place upon education with regard to esteem and dollars.  I am proud to work for a charter system trying to do their part in fixing the problem, but it is difficult long-haul work in a world that expects instant results.
  12. My babies were warriors, and inspired me to live with more gratitude and courage.  There’s no way I could communicate all of the trials my students had to overcome.  Many of them had already lost one or both parents by age ten.  Many of them moved multiple times a year and never got a consistent education or sense of community and home.  Many of them had experienced abuse or neglect.  Many had gone hungry.  Many had emotional trauma or severe learning challenges that made sitting through a school day nearly impossible.  But every day they came and put one foot in front of the other with me.  There were days when I lost my cool with them, or didn’t handle their actions with enough grace and understanding.  But when I had the presence of mind to remember what most of them were dealing with, I remembered what an honor it was to stand in front of them each day.
  13. They all become your babies by the end, even the ones you wanted to choke out some days.
Advertisements

Truth Serum For The Older

I’m almost forty years old, so it’s about time…

I just binge-watched the first season of Younger on Hulu.  It’s about a woman named Liza who is forced to start over in her forties, but has a hard time because of her age.  Desperate to get a job,  she lies and tries to pass as twenty-six and then has to chase the lie.  It’s actually a very sweet show, but it got me thinking.

Am I like her?  And how many of us give an inauthentic version of ourselves because we think that’s what is required to survive?

People do it all the time at work, with their families, in relationships.  We run into each other at the grocery store or church and give polished little rehearsed accounts of ourselves like we are speed dating.  We’re careful not to step on any toes or cross any boundaries, neatly coloring within the socially acceptable lines.

So why do we do it?  Maybe it’s because we’re slaves to the opinions of others, especially when all we do is for a “like” these days; I won’t lie, I check and see how many people read my blog or like a picture on Instagram.  Or perhaps it’s because we know that being vulnerable means inevitable rejection at some point, and it’s safer to stay guarded and sanitized.  Ultimately, it’s easier to let people either assume you agree with them, or are who they want you to be, than to contradict them.

But when is it enough?  When do we get sick and tired of whitewashing our lives just to save face or to keep up appearances?  When do we stop taking 100 pictures so we can post the one that makes it look like we’re having the best time ever?  When do we say something unpopular at the dinner party because it’s what we actually think?  When do we get sick of pretending to like what’s on the radio currently and admit that we would rather listen to 70’s on 7 or 90’s on 9? When are we exhausted enough to just be… ourselves?

I could relate to the main character in Younger.  Liza’s a good person, but she just got lost chasing the lie trying to survive.  I did that for much of my young adult life, pretending to be who I was supposed to be instead of who I really am, and it took me about 15 years to correct.  And, much like Liza, there was a heavy price to pay.

In trying to clean up the mess and gain some semblance of integrity back, I realized that I had to start being more forthright about how I thought and felt.  I have done that in most aspects of my life, but I haven’t really done it much in my blog – which is part of why I’ve had a block so many times over the years and written so sporadically.  For the most part, I’ve kept it light and fun, occasionally dipping into perilous personal territory only with veiled references and hidden meanings.  I’ve always been hesitant to really put myself out there and see what happens – afraid I’ll offend a family member or former fellow student or past youth group parent, afraid I’ll get negative comments or blocks or hate mail condemning something I’ve said, afraid my aunt will know that I cuss.  And it all seems so permanent when you hit publish.

But that ends now.

I commit to stop self-editing just to avoid confrontation or discomfort in hopes that it gives me my true voice.  If people have negative feedback, then so be it.  If others decide I’m not their cup of tea, they can go sip elsewhere.  No one ever died from stepped-on toe, but inauthenticity can destroy a life.

So here goes nothing over the next few weeks.  I’m going to let ‘er rip.  Thanks Younger for reminding me to grow up and just tell the truth.

 

 

Going Back To My Ex

There’s been a lot swimming in my head lately, but I’ve forced it to stay surface-level like dragonflies skimming across a lake.  I just wasn’t ready to dive deeper and explore it, but over the next few weeks I’m going to try.

Some of it is scary and heavy and messy and tangled, and will most likely leave scratches and scrapes along the way.  But as you get older, scars are just reminders of lessons learned – like my right index finger scar reminds me I’m not coordinated with tools and shouldn’t use wire cutters for custom-fitting a dryer hose.  Hopefully, the lessons awaiting me this time will be less bloody, but perhaps no less painful.

Before I was ready for deeper diving, though, I had to pull a Walden.  It’s not a novelty to go unplugged.  People have been Walden-ing for quite some time, getting away to nature and leaving the modern age behind them.  But it is a novelty for me.  I get anxiety whenever my cell phone is in another room charging.  Classic addict.

Last weekend, I went to upstate New York and unplugged.  Like I didn’t need to charge my phone for four days.  I only got on my phone for my two daily Italian lessons on Duolingo to keep my streak, then I put it away.  No texts.  No Clash of Clans.  No Instagram scrolling for way too long.  No ESPN scores.  No North Korea or twitter battles.  No noise.  Nada.

I forgot what it’s like to be present without all the noise.  Right in front of me were brilliant colors of verdant trees, pastel mellowed skies, crisp azure waters.  Right in front of me were brilliant and vibrant people with fascinating stories to tell that far surpassed the latest celebrity gossip.  Right in front of me were the brilliant words of authors who capture the human condition with a turn of a phrase and inspire me to get back in the game.

And right in front of me was quiet.  Such a strange phenomenon.  I had let quiet become a stranger whose presence disquieted me.  And so I sat with her to get reacquainted.  I read with her.  I journaled with her.  I did crosswords and sudoko with her.  And while I sipped tea and let her catch me up on all her secrets, she told me that all the noise was blocking my ability to find my voice about what is going on in our world, in my life, and their intersections.

I haven’t been addicted to technology, I’ve been addicted to the noise.  Ironic that only a quiet escape could reveal the choice of a noise addiction as my regular escape from harsh realities around me.  I almost fell into the trap of living a life of quiet desperation filled with noise.  Well, I’m breaking up with noise, and going back to my ex, Quiet.  She’s a more mysterious and difficult woman to understand, but her depth is what I’ve been missing.

 

 

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?