Legacies, And the Prices Paid. #Ferguson #TamirRice #EricGarner #JohnCrawford #BlackLivesMatter

Memorial for Tamir Rice

Memorial for Tamir Rice

“A riot is the language of the unheard.”    -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’m agitated tonight, as many of you are across the country. I have stacks of papers to attend to and lesson plans to write, but my mind is with the thousands of people across the nation who are in the streets tonight, in protest, in search of answers, solutions, and justice.

I am a Latina. I identify as a woman of color. This is the personal lens through which I view the issues facing my community and nation. I was born in Southern California and raised by Chicano parents who are socially conscious & activists at heart. I was weaned on stories of a time when my grandfather and his friend were chased down and threatened by two drunken white sailors during the Zoot Suit riots of 1943 simply because they were Latino. They barely escaped with their lives. I was told of how my grandmother  walked along the Main Street of her little town, past signs in store front windows that read “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed.” I heard tales of my father’s frustration in the early 80’s,  when he was passed up for a promotion into a management position, later to find out that someone on the hiring panel assumed he had cheated on his exam because, “How could a Latino score that high?” Perhaps they overlooked that fact that he held a perfectly legit Ph.D.

I still remember the night my mother came home from my back-to-school night and recounted the audible gasps in the room when the new 2nd grade teacher was introduced. Some of parents got up out of their seats in apparent disgust. She was a first year teacher. She was black. The year was 1987.

Somewhere between my upbringing, college courses, and real-life experiences, I was discouraged from using broad frameworks of understanding when contemplating societal issues and their many intricacies. And because of that, the newsfeed in recent weeks has been so incredibly unbearable. As we’ve watched events of Ferguson unfold, John Crawford killed in a Wal-Mart,12-year-old Tamir Rice gunned down in a play yard, and Eric Garner’s justice denied, we’ve simultaneously been flooded with soundbites/images/memes/explanations that seek to oversimplify the profound complexity of the issues at hand.

In the past few days there’s been a running dialogue in my mind, as I answer the statements of those who believe that the recent events are nothing more than a handful of isolated incidents followed by overblown reactions of rowdy citizens. Some are insistent that we are living in a post-racial time. That the race problem is all a figment of some hyper-active collective imagination. So tell me, how does one even begin responding to ignorance?

Racism is real. And if discussing it makes you uncomfortable, imagine how it feels for those on the receiving end. The ones whose daily interactions are shaped by it. The ones whose lives are impacted by it in the most insidious of ways. Racism is real. It is not some imagined problem manifested in the minds of those who can’t let go of the past. It was not erased when segregation was outlawed. It was not magically eradicated the day we inaugurated a black president.

No…racism is alive and well. It is the ugly legacy left behind by forefathers who believed that the worth of a person of color was somehow less than theirs. It was this belief that allowed them to justify the enslavement, lynchings, prejudice, hatred, and fear of entire groups of people. It has been passed down through generations, and penetrates our institutions and communities in red states and in blue. It becomes glaringly apparent during times such as these, as evidenced by internet trolls and cable news hosts taking liberties to spew vile over-generalizations and stereotypes in their efforts to justify the deaths of fellow citizens. It is the responsibility of all of us to call it out if we can, and fight back against it whenever possible.

In the two decades since the passage of momentous civil rights legislation some things have changed. Some have not. While it’s true that the personal racial attitudes many Americans have improved for the better, the ideas and prejudices from before still persist in the hearts of many. And while legal segregation ended, coupled with the expansion of social interchange and voting rights, the systematic and pervasive character of racism in the United States persists. Law-makers, judges, authorities, gatekeepers and landowners are disproportionally white, and if you think that doesn’t have an effect on the way things are run, the opportunities given, the advancements denied…think again.

Racism goes hand-in-hand with domination, and provides the social and philosophical justification for debasing and degrading people on the basis of color. It is sustained by both personal attitudes and structural forces. It is both brutally overt and invisibly institutional.

Every now and then, I like to think I have the luxury of being able to push thoughts of race to the back of my mind for a day or two at a time. I live in a city that, in 2002, was determined by TIME magazine to be the most integrated, diverse region in the nation. Sometimes I think the residents here get spoiled into thinking that our reality is the norm. It’s not as if we don’t have our share of issues here, it’s just a little easier to overlook sometimes. But it doesn’t take long before I am reminded of the ways in which race touches our lives on a daily.

A few weeks before the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, My two eldest boys and I traveled up toward the California/Oregon border for a weekend trip. We stayed at a hotel that provides a complimentary breakfast for its guests. In the morning, we joined several dozen other families–all of whom were white–in the dining area and began to eat. Within minutes a restaurant staffer approached our table and asked if we were paid guests at the hotel. People stared. Without a word, I left the room and made my way to the front desk, got a copy of our room statement, and brought it back as “proof.” She turned around without so much as an explanation. We were the only ones singled out that morning. Other than being irritated and a bit embarrassed, no real harm was done to us. A small price to pay for traveling to a small town, right? For being brown?

For others, the stakes are much higher:

The price Tamir Rice’s mother paid certainly was. She lost her son.

John Crawford’s young children lost their father.

Eric Garner’s widow lost a husband.

Michael Brown lost his life.

Racism is real. This is how is manifests in our world. This is the price that is paid.

This is how we respond.

Not one more. We can’t breathe.

In Solidarity.

A Tale of Two Perceptions. #Ferguson

“Rage — whether in reaction to social injustice, or to our leaders’ insanity, or to those who threaten or harm us — is a powerful energy that, with diligent practice, can be transformed into fierce compassion.”  - Bonnie Myotai Treace

“Rage — whether in reaction to social injustice, or to our leaders’ insanity, or to those who threaten or harm us — is a powerful energy that, with diligent practice, can be transformed into fierce compassion.”   – Bonnie Myotai Treace

I’m a pre-kindergarten teacher at a public elementary school. When people find this out, they typically react with some variation of, “Oh what a cute age,that must be so fun!” It is fun, and tiring, and humbling, and at times heartbreaking. My classroom reflects the neighborhood I work in—ethnically and linguistically diverse. There is a common thread that binds the majority of students, however, and that is that the majority of them live in poverty. I’ve been working in the same neighborhood, at various different schools since 2007. And I can tell you that despite the reputation of the area, the families I’ve worked with over the years have a strong sense of community, pride, and dedication to their children’s education and well-being.

Throughout my career, I’ve collaborated with families from all walks of lives, with the common goal of ensuring that their child’s academic, social, and emotional needs are adequately met while they are in my care. It’s because of this, I think, that I’ve come to look upon every child I meet as an extension of my own family. Therefore, it’s hard for me to watch the current images coming out of Palestine, Iraq, Detroit, and Ferguson without grieving for the families and children who are impacted by these events.

Years before Trayvon Martin was gunned down in his own neighborhood, an incident occurred at my school that, once again, left me pondering the issues surrounding race, perception, and the realities that form when deeply held attitudes and beliefs about a particular community manifest in prejudicial ways.

That year, I had an African-American student in my class by the name of Melody*. Melody’s mom worked two jobs in order to support her four children, and because of her schedule, Melody’s older brother Thomas had the responsibility of taking her to and from preschool. Thomas went above and beyond his duties as a sibling. Not only did he get her to class on time every morning (despite the 2-mile walk between their house and the school), he also made a routine of staying with Melody a few minutes every morning to ensure that she was settled in. He often checked in with me or my aide, to ask about Melody’s progress, and ways he could help her at home. One particularly cold morning, Melody began crying when she realized she’d forgotten her jacket at home. I called Thomas, and he walked all the way back to school to bring it to her. That morning, as he knelt down to wipe her nose, he told me of how he was hoping to enroll in community college. He was nervous about the costs, and how he’d transition back into the school routine. It’d been two years since he’d graduated from high school. After that, my aide and I regularly chatted with him about his enrollment progress, financial aide options, and his future plans. My aide developed a fondness of him because he was the same age as her youngest son, and in her words, had “the same gentle personality.”

Later in the school year, security policies at the school changed, and all visitors were required to sign-in the office before entering campus. All gates, including the one that lead straight to our preschool door, were to remain locked. That’s when the trouble began. At first, I was unaware of it, but now looking back I can see that the tension slowly escalated over time. Apparently, some of the office staff had issues with Thomas. They perceived him as openly rude and hostile.

Okay, let me stop right here and explain something. I’ve worked with many office staff members over the years, and the majority of my interactions have been pleasant. There are secretaries, office managers, and administrators who maintain a level of professionalism and compassion that is to be commended. And there are those who do not. I am not saying that all staff in the office that year were unapproachable, but there were definitely a handful that consistently had a visible chip on their shoulder. And when I say chip, I mean chunk. I had witnessed many of their interactions with parents, students AND other staff that were questionable. When a school culture reflects the respect and dignity that all of us wish to be treated with, it’s largely reciprocated by the families and students we serve. We’ve all seen it in action.

That said, I did not witness the interactions between Thomas and the office staff, I only know that one Monday morning, he came into our classroom visibly upset. “That lady is SO RUDE!” he said, shaking his head. When I asked about it, he just shook his head as if to say, “forget about it.”

The next day, Thomas and a friend of his arrived at the office together to pick up Melody. According to some staff, this is what transpired: Thomas walked past the sign-in book, nodded to office staff, at which point a secretary told him to come back and sign-in. He kept walking. They called to him again. He exited the door and walked straight toward my classroom, where I was busy lining up my students for dismissal. They perceived his behavior as a threat. I remember hearing raised voices outside the door, and instinctively began moving the students toward the back of the classroom. My aide stayed with them while I went to see what all the commotion was about. When I peeked my head out the door, my heart sank. There was Thomas, arguing with several staff members, saying something to the effect of, “Why should I respect you when it’s CLEAR you don’t respect me.” His friend looked on nervously. “Stop yelling!” a staff member yelled. Just then I saw a police car roll into the parking lot. Then another. Then another. I fought back tears as I asked an administrator how everything had escalated so quickly. “He’s been a problem for a while. Always has attitude and is disrespectful. He won’t be allowed to come on campus anymore.”

As a crowd of parents gathered and police escorted Thomas and his friend out the gate, he turned to me, “Sorry, ma’am. I’ll send someone for Melody.”

One of the police officers pulled me aside and asked “You know this guy?”  I struggled to keep my voice composed. ” I do. I want you to know, that this young man has always been a perfect gentleman in our classroom, and an attentive sibling to his sister.” He just nodded.

They did not end up arresting Thomas that day. I heard later that an officer, who was also African-American, vouched for him as well. Apparently he had gotten to know Thomas well during frequent trips to the neighborhood. He must have seen the side of Thomas that my aide and I saw. Unfortunately, because Thomas was barred from returning to the campus, no one was available to bring Melody to school, so she stopped coming. A few weeks later, I took a  small bag of school readiness supplies over to the house, where I was received by Melody, her siblings, and mom, who was in between shifts.Thomas was there too, and we chatted for a while, mostly about Melody. We didn’t mention the incident.

The year ended, and since then I have not seen Melody or her family. But I often think of Thomas and hope he has managed to stay in school and steer clear of misfortune. He is not the only one that stays with me. The stories of countless students, parents, siblings, and grandparents weigh heavy in my heart. Sometimes it all builds up and I find myself crying for all of them.

Like the time when I heard recordings of Trayvon’s last pleas. Or watched the grainy video of Eric Garner as he cried out, “I can’t breathe!” Or when I opened a link to the image of Michael Brown’s lifeless body in the street, uncovered, unarmed.

It makes me sick to hear people try and justify these deaths based on their perceptions of who these men were, or weren’t. 

They were brothers. They were fathers. They were sons.

And I’d like to think that WE are human enough to see that, and take action against a tide of ugliness that is sweeping our nation.

In Solidarity.

*names have been changed

Aside

Weathering the Storm; Education, Empowerment & other thoughts on a Weekday Evening

                                                                     Image

The makings of literacy. My mother & I. (1983)

I was sitting there on a Monday night, sipping coffee like it’s nobodies business, trying to maximize what little time was left in the day when I came across a Daily Show interview with Nobel Peace Prize nominee Malala Yousafzai. Instantly taken by the youthful hopefulness of her responses, despite the heavy nature of the conversation, I closed out the evening by watching the interview in it’s entirety.  If you have not yet heard about this young woman, there’s a good chance you will in the near future.  Malala began blogging for the BBC when she was just 11 years old. In her writings, she told of her life under Taliban rule, and denounced their attacks on the schools, teachers and students of northwest  Pakistan. As a direct result of her activism, Malala was shot in the head and neck during an assassination attempt while on a bus with her classmates as they returned home from  school. She survived the attack, and has become an international advocate for women’s educational rights. I went to bed that night thinking about Malala, the motives behind her fierce determination, and the idea that it’s not necessarily a political agenda that makes her voice so threatening to the Taliban, but the fact that she’s pressing for girls to be educated in a country where women are afforded few freedoms, and are subjected to astonishing rates of violence and institutional discrimination. I remembered the way my grandfather proudly wore a “Knowledge is Power” shirt for as long as I can remember while I was growing up, though I didn’t quite grasp the significance of that power until early adulthood. Clearly, Malala understands it, as she has literally risked her life in order to contribute to the chorus of voices demanding educational equality in that region of the world.

The following evening, I lay on the floor of my son’s bedroom, feet propped up on the edge of the bunk bed, with book in hand. My 6th grader’s required reading for this month is Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry. As usual, I’ve been coerced into a group read-aloud, as my little ones have grown accustomed to bedtime chapter books in place of standard bedtime reads such as Goodnight Moon.  Anyhow, I wasn’t about to get off easy with a simple board book, because on this particular evening, the author of the day was Mildred Taylor, not Dr. Seuss.  My toddler’s eyes fluttered closed as I read from a passage describing how it was once necessary for some children to walk miles each day in order to get to school.  Whereas the children in Roll of Thunder would depart from the house while it was still dark in order to arrive in the classroom by sunrise, my kids can easily leave the house 10 minutes before the start of school-on foot- and still have time to chat with their friends before the tardy bell rings. We talked a bit about the dedication it took for children to make that kind of daily trek- in many cases, without shoes- just to take part in their right to an education. I told them about the black students in Little Rock, Arkansas who had to be escorted by the national guard into their classrooms because they were under threat from  violent protesters who seethed at the idea of integration in schools. I reflected on just how precious our right to an education is, and the lengths we’ll go to get one.

Educational empowerment was the theme of a discussion my children and I had weeks ago when—out of nowhere— my 8-year-old posed this question: “Mom, what was the happiest moment of your life?”Clearly, the births of my four beautiful children are in the top five of my life’s happiest highlights. But narrowing “happiness” down into one single moment is tricky.  I thought long and hard. And a memory surfaced…

It was Autumn. I was 25 years old and had recently been accepted into grad school at Sacramento State University, Sacramento. It was my first day of courses. Perhaps it was the cool fall breeze that seemed to carry with it an air of nostalgia and possibility. Maybe was the way the carpet of red & orange leaves covered the campus walkways like a gloriously seasonal variation of the yellow brick road. It might have been the smell of the new textbooks I cradled in one arm, or the pumpkin latte I held with my free hand. But as I bustled along with the crowd of other students, backpacks slung over shoulders and syllabi in hand, I realized I was insanely happy. I kid you not, I was literally trembling with energy to the point that I had to keep my teeth from involuntarily chattering.  In all my life, I have never felt so radiantly alive. It was a mixture of pride, freedom, wonder, and hopefulness beyond measurement. Less than a decade before, many people openly told me I’d never complete high school, yet there I was on the cusp of obtaining a Master’s degree.  I love that memory. And when I get lost in the recollection of it, I feel as if I catch a small glimpse of the passion present in the spirit of Malala, the Little Rock Nine, and countless other young people who have  fought for their right to an education.

As of present, the Western world has co-opted Malala’s message for educational equality and paraded her across every major news outlet, and all the while public schools across The United States are struggling under the pressure of shrinking funds and a battle against educational privatization. It bothers me that the talking heads will sing the praises of education when it serves their agenda, but regularly ignore the fact that we have a serious crisis on our hands as services such as school counselors, libraries, physical education, and enrichment curriculum are being slashed as educators struggle to compensate for the losses. Yesterday, the district I work for in Sacramento, California, announced that our superintendent, Jonathan Raymond will be resigning from his position come December, in part due to the difficult nature of the last few years in which the state of California made drastic cuts to education spending , and declining enrollment prompted many school closures and teacher layoffs.  Meanwhile, the district’s child development program that I teach for has run out of funds for the year, and I am left trying to find ways to maximize supplies while keeping the quality of my classroom curriculum high. It’s going to take a small miracle.

There are few things more empowering than an education. My dad used to encourage my sisters and I with this mantra, “Once you get your education, no one can take it from you.” There are few things in life in which  that is the case. Homes can be lost, health deteriorated, loved ones grown apart….but an education, once earned, remains. And maybe that’s what drives us to pursue it with such relentlessness, despite the odds.  Whether it’s a young mother in search of a better life for herself and her child, or a girl in Pakistan with a dream of liberation, young people across the globe face major obstacles when it comes to achieving their goals. Many of us in the States feel suffocated under the weight of inadequate funds, school closures, lack of resources, ever-changing standards, and the cost of higher education. Around the world, the barrier between a student and their education may be as small and deadly and as a bullet.

Here at home I fight my own small battles- as a teacher, the parent of three school-age children, and a community member who is truly concerned with the state of public education. It is, at times, daunting. As I walked up to my classroom this morning,  I heard my dad’s voice, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got.”

 In the face of the current educational climate, I can only hope to be a warm front in this brutal chill.

Bundle up, young ones, we’ve got a storm to brave.

Classroom Musings; On Immigration & Families

A reunion between mother and daughter from opposite sides of a massive steel fence at the United States-Mexico border. Originally printed in the New York Times.

A reunion between mother and daughter from opposite sides of a massive steel fence at the United States-Mexico border. Originally printed in the New York Times.

 

In matters of truth and justice, there is no difference between large and small problems, for issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same.  -Albert Einstein

 

               I have to admit, at the very beginning, she perturbed me. She would linger in the classroom for long periods of time, closely watching over her granddaughter Naya, and assisting her every maneuver, all the while quietly observing the actions of other parents, students, my aide, and myself. I welcome family volunteers graciously. For the teacher who is willing to maintain an open door policy (within closely monitored district requirements, of course) there are countless rewards once a solid relationship is built with your helpers in waiting. Anyone who has ever been in charge of multiple children at any given time, can tell you that crowd control is easily undermined by extraneous factors such as tiredness, hunger, bright colors on the wall, lint on the carpet…you catch my drift. In addition to maintaining some semblance of classroom management, teachers are also expected to execute tasks such as the facilitation of learning and stimulation of young minds. No sweat, right? Especially when you have a supporting cast of volunteers who are eager to help prepare crafts, staple copies, and set up small group activities. My volunteers are a God-send. No joke. And so it was that I reluctantly decided to accept Naya’s grandmother into the classroom with open arms. Well, not quite.

            You see, I’m ashamed to say it, but It took some time for me to warm to her. And, to be fair, I think it’s accurate to say it took a while for me to grown on her as well. I was irked by her over-bearing nature, and she was skeptical of me, the young-ish teacher with skinny jeans & a tendency to break out in spontaneous song. She would indirectly question my reasoning behind taking the children out to recess on cold winter days. Or my practice of encouraging the children to do things independently such as opening their own milk cartons, or working through peer conflict before I swooped in and rescued the situation. She was a classic helicopter grandparent. Protective to the point of stifling. But as months went on, she eased up a bit. And Naya became more confident and outgoing as a result. She was also extremely helpful in the classroom;  whether it was sweeping of floors, wiping mouths, or serving lunch plates…she was quick to fill in any void she saw. As a result, the classroom schedule and transitions were as smooth as could be. Around the second half of the school year, she began to smile, and talk, and even joke. And I started to genuinely enjoy her presence.

             Then, April came, and suddenly Naya stopped coming to school. After waiting a few days to hear from her family regarding her absence, I called home. Naya’s grandmother picked up. There had been a family tragedy. A car accident, and her grandson had died, a day before his 20th birthday. Needless to say, she was devastated. When they returned to school several weeks later, Naya requested to draw a sidewalk chalk picture for her deceased cousin so that he could look upon it from his new home in Heaven. So we did. My aide and I also listened as grandmother broke down and told us the details of the accident. And about her daughter’s inconsolable grief. And how precious and short life is. We cried with her. As mothers. But mostly, as  friends.

            Last week, as we prepared to close the classroom for the summer, Naya’s grandmother and I stood on the school yard watching the children work themselves into a feverous state of excitement over the impending summer break. I glanced over in her direction, and for a second, realized how far we had come since September. And out of nowhere, she began a story…”You know, I left my daughter in El Salvador when she was about Naya’s age. Not just her, my other daughters also. My youngest was 2 at the time. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do…” And for the next half hour, she recounted how she had left her improvised country to come to the States in search of a better life for her children. She came alone. With nothing but the clothes on her back, and a small picture of her daughters that she carries with her to this day. She found under-the-table work as a house cleaner, and sent nearly all of her earnings back home to her daughters who were in the care of her mother. She did this for 7 years, until finally, with the help of her American born husband, she was able to bring her children to the U.S. for good.

              Suddenly, all the times she spent hovering around Naya made sense. The way she coaxed her to finish all her food, the manner in which she fussed over her clothes, her hair, her school work. The way that she worried for every single cough, sneeze, and yawn. It was all justified.

            Justice. It’s a word I think of often. I contemplate how it applies to my students, as they work their way through a school system that overemphasizes test results rather than learning processes. I ponder the way it manifests in daily interactions between school staff and parents who are visibly uncomfortable on the school campus; be it because their English is limited, or they are unsure of their role in a formal educational setting, or perhaps because their own experiences in school were negative enough to prompt them to shy away from the environment as a whole. But I can tell you what Justice is not. Justice is not represented in a worldwide system that ruthlessly places profits before the needs and rights of a human being—a system that looks the other way when national policies such as NAFTA outright cripple a country and it’s ability to support it’s own, then responds with laws that criminalize people who migrate for the sake of their survival and that of their families. Justice is not present in a political environment that labels people “illegal.” Justice is not represented in a classroom where a teacher refuses to call a child by their birth name, on the basis that ‘Jorge” in English is ‘George.’ Justice means little to a mother who has nothing but a faded snapshot of her children to keep her going, day after day, night after night, as she toils away in a foreign country that never welcomed her in the first place.

               I do not like to make sweeping generalizations. But I am going to make one now. I have been teaching in one of the most diverse cities in the nation for the past 12 years, in both the public and private sectors. I’ve taught children who were born into affluence, and those who live in extreme poverty. And this I can say with certainty: 9 times out of 10, the people who have consistently been willing to do the grunt work (the wiping of noses, mopping of floors, scrubbing down the grime, and sanitizing of rugs after vomit incidents) are immigrants. Whether its the grandfather who immigrated from a war-torn Vietnam and now helps tend to my classroom garden, or the Iranian born mother who lovingly zippers the jacket of each and every student as I usher them out the door to recess, or the Cantonese-speaking auntie who kneels (without flinching) on the dusty cement to tie the shoe of an active student—these people deserve justice. But there’s more. They also deserve our utmost respect. 

               The battle over immigration rights continues in this country, as it always has, and perhaps always will. In the strategy room, there are politicians and pundits and activists each with their own agendas. All of them motivated by a different cause. And on the front-lines, there are men and women like Naya’s grandmother. Naya’s grandma, who joins her granddaughter in class everyday because she was not there to do it for her own daughters. Like Hanisa’s grandfather who gently held the hands of an angry student and told him, in broken English, how hate is the cause of all problems, but the solution to none. Like my grandmother, Guadalupe, who worked the cotton fields of Texas while bearing the weight of a small child on her back. Laws will be written, policies changed, and slogans coined. But all that aside, the collateral damage of the war on immigration remains the family. And to me, that is a high price to pay.

(For my Father, Jose. Happy Father’s Day. And for my Nana Lupe, for going through hell and back to bring him here…)