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.

Battle Scars

tumblr_m5q2qssUtJ1qczrpx

Our interaction was brief, no more than 2 minutes in a typical Saturday scheduled with events and appointments during which my children and I managed to squeeze in a visit to our neighborhood park. And I can’t stop thinking about her… a comment about the heatwave, a genuine smile directed at my daughter, a polite “maybe we’ll see you here again…” as she worked to buckle her cranky toddler into his stroller. And as she turned to wave to me, I saw a dark bruise on the underside of her arm, the size of a large thumbprint. My eyes trailed to her forearm, where there were a series of faint, linear cuts. Self- inflicted? By now her son was in full-blown fit mode, back arched and hollering, and she shushed him with the promise of ice cream and a chance to play video games with dad when they arrived home. And she was gone. But her image lingers in my mind.

Every now and then, I catch a glimpse of it…the faint trace of scar about a half-inch long, on my left wrist right under my ring finger. I hardly think of it now. It serves no purpose but to remind me of a period of youthful hopelessness during which I was somehow convinced that my worth was tied to the boys I was dating. This one’s name was Bryan. He was tall and fair-skinned with hazel-eyes and an inviting grin. The trace of freckles sprinkled across his nose gave off an appearance of innocence, when in reality he was anything but. At 15, he was already on a path of self-destruction that included run-ins with the cops, voluntary homelessness, and sadly, methamphetamines. Like several of the other boys I had dated, he made a habit of exerting power through hurtful phrases and a heavy hand, and he could literally destroy  & re-build my confidence all in one day. But I adored him. Our time together was short…it began in early autumn and ended before the last leaf touched down on the cold winter pavement. Thankfully. But as always, my hindsight offers me a much clearer picture of a disaster averted, though at the time of our parting I was devastated. I remember there was another girl (isn’t that often the story?), and she happened to be a friend of mine. I consoled myself with Jack Daniels and my friend’s word that she would never pursue a relationship with him. And in my stupor, I found relief in hurting myself. Hence, the scar. The first, and last time I ever took comfort from the endorphin rush of self-harm. I was 14 years old.

These are not easy memories for me to recall, though it’s interesting for me to look back and see how, by the age of 15, I had silently vowed to myself that I could never put up with regular overt violence in my relationships…although up until fairly recently I did learn to tolerate (and engage in) bouts of covert conflict marked with verbal taunts and emotional stalemates. I know this is a common enough story that I’m willing to bet many of you reading this are nodding your heads, perhaps remembering a time that your broken heart lead you to depression, or self-medication, or injury. Or maybe it was none of these. Maybe your heart lead you to remain in a destructive relationship, and convinced you that a familiar suffering was better than the unfamiliar fate you’d endure if you somehow managed to walk away.

     We acquire many scars in the name of love; some are emotional, some are hidden & self-inflicted, others are visible to all. It takes an incredible amount of bravery to remove yourself from a situation that you have grown accustomed to. Or to admit that you are locked in a destructive pattern of interaction, either emotionally, physically, or verbally. The statistics on abusive relationships and related trauma in our country are sobering. Several studies have noted a co-occurance between dating/domestic violence and self-injury. And many sources estimate that 1 in 3 women have at one time been a victim of dating/domestic abuse. One in THREE. Which basically makes violence against women one of the most pervasive human rights crises in the world.

 If you are trying in vain to hide the battle scars of your hidden war, know that you are not alone. Know that voicing your struggle is the first step toward freeing yourself from it. Realize that, even if you feel completely isolated, there are people waiting in the wings who will support you are you take your first steps on different path.

 I regret not having said something to her. Not to pry or ask questions. But to offer friendship. A phone number. A bridge into our neighborhood network of strong, supportive women, many of whom have experienced similar misfortune at one point in their lives. If we happen to cross paths again, I will not hesitate to reach out…

Sister, you are stronger than the weight of his words. You are whole even in the absence of his presence. You, are a work of art to be admired and protected from defacement—be it from the hands of others, or your own.

Mother, love is not allowing your wings to be unwillingly clipped, even if you convince yourself it’s for the sake of your children. If you live in constant conflict, your little ones may benefit more from seeing you in flight than watching you wither in captivity. True, a nuclear family is worth is weight in gold…but a peaceful home is priceless.

Daughter, as I held you tenderly during your most vulnerable times, so should he respond to you with gentle touch and soothing words. Never expect less. Never settle.

And most importantly; Sons, with your hands, exhibit kindness. With your eyes, respect. With your tongue, honor. With your heart, love. And seek out a partner who will do the same.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/VAWG-Dialogue-Ending-Violence-against-Women-Girls/224212490996337
 http://www.loveisrespect.org/
http://www.weaveinc.org/domestic-violence-information
http://selfinjuryfoundation.org/self-injurers.html
 

970880_451755781575339_1030091631_n