Archive for February, 2021

Sunday Sitdown #7: Taking a Look Around

February 28, 2021

Each Sunday, I’m working my way through my experiences with race. I’ll share stories and memories from throughout my life. I know I’ll encounter moments of growth that I wish I could relive. I’ll also have to think back on choices that I wish I could remake. Come join me each week.

High school.

There is something about it.

Everyone, it seems, is on a quest for identity, for selfhood. It’s what makes everyone both unique and identical. There’s drama. There’s melodrama. There’s angst. There’s a coming of age.

There’s also inner conflict as the self-involvement of youth gives way to the more empathetic views of adulthood. I keenly remember this push-pull and the tension it created.

Translation? High school was the first time I looked around at what was happening with other folks.

I noticed Black kids often sat together in the cafeteria or student lounge.*
I noticed that when they were together, they acted differently than when they were with white peers.

You’d think I would feel uncomfortable with that, or feel left out. But something else was happening for me around the same time. I was also starting to see and understand how others perceived me as a Jew.

High school marked the first time…
…someone directly told me I needed Jesus to save me.
…I received the first probing “ethnic” questions. (“So…what ARE you?)
…Sunday school was canceled because of bomb threats.
…I’d be given a derogatory nickname. (“Oh, look. Lainie the Jew.”)

It became clear to me – more than it ever had – that I was an “other.” There were places I belonged, and places I didn’t. I found that it was comfortable to hang out with other kids who were Jewish. It wasn’t exclusionary. It wasn’t an attempt to be rude.

It was a means of emotional survival. We didn’t even really talk about Jewish stuff, but it just felt good to be with people who had shared experiences. Going to youth group events created a space where we could all just…exhale.

So.
Did I mind that folks separated themselves out?
That they had different, more familiar ways of relating among folks in their own groups without me?

No.
I didn’t mind.
And I still don’t mind.
Yes, we need to integrate.
And yes, we need safety and comfort and support.
And we need it wherever we find it, from whomever it might come.

*All Black kids? nope. Nothing is never “all” or “nothing” (see what I did there?). Of course there was integration among students. But there was also enough separation for a kid to notice.

Slice of Life Tuesday: Another Little Word

February 23, 2021

When writing my “One Little Word” post for the new year, I knew the word I chose, gather, would not last me through the year. In fact, it was my hope that this one little word would soon slough its skin to reveal the word underneath.

The other day, I was at school. It was late. Way too late for me to reasonably still be at school. Especially on a mentally-challenging day like that day. I texted a colleague who I knew was still at school, asking for five minutes just to blow off some steam.

We wound up talking for an hour.

Turns out, there is a LOT that I’m dissatisfied with:
The gulf between what I want for my students and what I’m giving them.
The gulf between what I want for my colleagues and what I can provide.
I want to do everything for everybody and I have to figure out where the boundaries belong.
I want everyone to feel supported in what they do and I have to figure out where to place my energy.
While I’m at it, I kinda want to take care of my physical, emotional and spiritual self.

All of these desires place conflicting demands on my attention.

And then my colleague, whom I admire more that she will ever give herself credit for, reminded me about DISSONANCE.

Dissonance.
That strong feeling when holding conflicting ideas.
It’s also when two sounds are inharmonious, when they strike the ear harshly.
Dissonance.

Dissonance sounds terrible when it’s performed accidentally or tentatively. Dissonance works because musicians lean INTO it, striking those discordant notes with full intention. It’s that leaning into conflicting sounds that allows us to appreciate the resolution to come – or not. After all, there are musical pieces that never quite resolve, just as there are conflicts in life that never quite resolve.

My friend also suggested that the times when we feel most dissonant in our lives, when we feel the deepest chasm between the reality of our lives and our moral center, THOSE are the times when our selves are preparing for a leap forward.

I know she’s right.
I know this is an uncomfortable phase I’m going through.
I know that pieces of myself are in conflict.
I know I don’t have to like it.
And I know that there is growth and change happening. I just have to see it through.

So…my next One Little Word?

Dissonance.
I shall lean in.
I shall tune in to the discord.
I will bring out of it what I can, whether or not I gain resolution.

That is, until the next One Little Word scoops me up, sets me in a new direction, and gives me another nudge.

This post is part of the weekly Slice of Life challenge. Give them a visit!

Sunday Sit-Down #6: Duped

February 21, 2021

Each Sunday, I’m working my way through my experiences with race. I’ll share stories and memories from throughout my life. I know I’ll encounter moments of growth that I wish I could relive. I’ll also have to think back on choices that I wish I could remake. Come join me each week.

I’ve been thinking a lot about today’s post, and I haven’t been looking forward to it. There are several stops on my journey that I know are difficult for one reason or another. Perhaps I carry guilt, embarrassment or shame.

Today, it’s anger.

You see, I – and way too many in my generation – were sold a bill of goods. We were duped. Fooled. Scammed.

We were led to believe that civil rights was “done,” that MLK and Rosa Parks had swept in and now we were done with racism. Everything is equal! Everyone is equal! Everyone now has equal opportunities and now everyone can be happy!

Yet I grew up at a time where sundown towns were still a thing. Where there was still a need to bus city students to the suburbs rather than focus on improving the educational system as a whole. Where black lives and black bodies were being criminalized at an alarming rate. Where kids around me were either victims or perpetrators of racist behaviors and comments. (And, being real, these things are STIL a thing.)

I would learn these things in high school. Coming to this awareness left me furious with a grown-up world that would shield me from this knowledge in the name of protection or false unity. I remember feeling – and still feel – a visceral sense of injustice, of betrayal, of anger that the world as it stood was hidden from me.

It wasn’t right.

Sad thing is, I’m one of the lucky ones. When racial issues at my high school shattered this illusion, I was fortunate enough to learn from others with different perspectives. And, luckily, I was able to gain this understanding while I was still in my formative years.

But there are other white folks who never came to that realization, who never had the opportunity to see and recognize that our work is far from done. I think of the folks who saw the light after George Floyd’s death. Their coming of age happened ages after they needed it. I saw their confusion and shock unfold around me. They had bought into the lie, just like I had, and they realized how very long they had been living that lie. After this summer, there was no turning away.

At least for grown-ups.

For children – for white children – there is still space to draw the blinds, to lower the volume, to shield from difficult truths.

But to allow another generation to be deceived?

No. I can’t, and I won’t.

I still hold my anger, still nurse it when the time is right. Because as a teacher, I have the ability to help raise humans who can be optimistic and idealistic, AND still be aware that we have work to do in our communities and society and world.

It’s not political to want this for our future generation. Rather, equipping our kids with the tools and knowledge to follow their moral compass is compassionate. It’s what’s right and fair.

There’s more – so much more! – I could express. But that’s for another day

Thanks for joining me. I’ll be right here, same time next week.

Slice of Life: Worth 1000 Words

February 16, 2021

I would be remiss if I didn’t make today’s Slice of Life blog a photo essay.

Here I am at home, with snow on top of snow on top of snow.

Oh look. More snow.

Ordinarily, THAT would be the news of the day. But there is more pressing news! And that is the arrival of this sweet new family member. Ladies, gentlemen, folx…I give you…Lilah.

Lilah – Hebrew for “night.” Actually, transcribed it’s better as “Lailah,” but figured we’d make pronunciation easier on people…

Was adopting a young puppy right now part of the plan? Nope. ALL the nope. But the opportunity arose, and we took it.

Here’s what I can tell you so far:
1. She is BEYOND cute.


2. My seventeen-year-old is SMITTEN.


3. She’s not a huge fan of crate training, to say the least.
4. She’s vocal about said crate training.
5. She likes podcasts to keep her company.
6. Our other dog, Peep, is…nonplussed but tolerant.


7. We still have no idea what we have gotten ourselves into.

So, that’s today’s post. Cuteness and puppydom. Because our world needs much, much more of both.

Sunday Sitdown #5: First Lesson

February 14, 2021

Mrs. Williams was a great first-grade teacher.

She was kind, cheerful and honest.
She always encouraged us with phrases like, “You’re cookin’ with gas!”
She regaled us with stories of her little girl.
She used Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies as prizes when she REALLY wanted to motivate us.
Heck, she put up with ME as a first grader. That’s no easy task.

She was also the first Black teacher I had ever had.* And she was willing to talk about race.

One day, Mrs. Williams decided that she was going to teach us about skin color. Looking back as a teacher, I might guess that wasn’t just a random choice. I might guess that Mrs. Williams was responding to a comment or situation that came up in class. Or maybe there was something going on in the world that my first-grade brain wasn’t quite aware of. Whatever it boiled down to, Mrs. Williams decided that it was time for us to talk.

I’m going to guess that the lesson was longer than I remember, but what captures my memory most is when she held up two crayons: one white, one black.

Mrs. Williams held up the white crayon and said, “When people say they’re white, does their skin look like this color?”
A crowd of giggling first-graders yelled back, “Nooooooo!”
She held up the black crayon and said, “When people say they’re Black, does their skin look like this color?”
We again yelled, “Noooooo!”

And that was at the heart of it. It was the first time I had ever engaged, on-purpose, in a conversation about what being Black or being white really means. About what race means, and what it DOESN’T mean. It was a way to tell a group of six- and seven-year olds that race is complicated. It’s not just what we see. It’s more complex than a label we might wrap around someone.

Thank you, Mrs. Williams. You were cookin’ with gas.

*I’m also beyond grateful to be able to say that Mrs. Williams was just my first Black teacher, and not my only. For all of the shortcomings that may have accompanied my schooling, I am glad that my school district made an effort to hire a diverse range of teaching and instructional staff. It was important for children of color in my community, but I’d say it was also important for me.

Swinging For The Fences

February 9, 2021

I’m not going to lie.

This year, I have had some SPECTACULAR fails in the classroom.

And I mean, not just the oh-man-this-is-tricky-how-am-I-going-to-figure-a-different-way-of-teaching-this-to-the-kids fail. That’s just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill, cost-of-doing-business, everyday type of fail.

No.

I’m talking about the holy-cow-this-lesson-is-crashing-and-burning-and-I-have-absolutely-no-way-of-backing-out-of-this-and-no-way-to-figure-out-in-the-moment-how-to-make-it-better-and-why-did-I-even-bother-getting-out-of-bed-today fail.

I’ve thought a lot about these fails.

They haunt me.

In the moment, failures as I’m teaching feel like I’m failing as a teacher.

The good news is that time offers perspective. And through the perspective of time, I get offered moments of clarity and growth.

You see, all my fails, at least the most spectacular ones, have had one thing in common: they all occurred when I was asking more of my students than they were ready for.

That got me thinking about what I do and why I do it. I was talking with my kids this morning about yet ANOTHER ambitious lesson we were going to try and take on. Here’s what I told them:

“Friends, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we’ve been doing, and I realize sometimes I mess up as a teacher. And when I think about the mistakes I make as a teacher, I kind of have to decide. Do I want to make the mistake of overestimating what you can do, and sometimes ask too much of you? Or do I want to make the mistake of underestimating what you can do, and asking less of you than you might be capable of?”

Down to a person, we all knew the answer to that question.

So yes. I will continue to shoot big, and yes. I will continue to sometimes miss big. But If I didn’t shoot big, Would I ever get reasoning like this?

Done as a group together (you may have to expand, but there’s good stuff here).

Would I ever get writing like this?

Fourth-grade spelling. Gotta love it.

Would I ever get peer feedback like this?

This is what happens when you model feedback based on grown-up writing communities like the Slice of Life challenge.

Fact is, I wouldn’t trade all those difficult moments for the world, if it means growth for me and my kids. And maybe next time, these mistakes will pave the way to a smoother path next time, one that takes them – and my teaching – even further.

Sunday Sit-Down #4: On the Bus

February 7, 2021

At Old Bonhomme School there was always a range of faces different from mine. I took for granted the mix of kids in my classes. As far as I knew, I went to a neighborhood school with neighborhood kids, and we all learned and played and together as one community.

What I didn’t know, and what I didn’t understand, was that the diverse mix of students wasn’t a natural part of living in Olivette. Yes, there was racial diversity within school attendance lines. But.

What I didn’t know, and what I didn’t understand, was that the diverse mix of students was largely due to the fact that I went to elementary school in Saint Louis at the height of school desegregation. That my classmates and I were a part of a grand social experiment.

What I didn’t know, and what I didn’t understand, was that many Black children spent long mornings and long afternoons on the bus to and from the city. That they left behind their own neighborhoods, their own neighbors, their own neighborhood schools to attend school in my district.

What I didn’t know, and what I didn’t understand, were the direct and open ways in which our communities were segregated in the first place.

What I didn’t know, and what I didn’t understand, was that we were all part of a system that, in the name of “quality education,” would separate kids from their communities to send them to other schools, rather than giving them what they needed where they needed it.

What I didn’t know, and what I didn’t understand, was that school desegregation allowed a number of kids to get an education in affluent districts while overlooking city communities. That if we really meant to desegregate schools, we’d improve all schools and bus children in both directions. Or we’d take away racial and economic barriers to housing equality. But we didn’t, and we didn’t. And we didn’t.

Those realizations would come.

Slice of Life Tuesday: Lessons from the Chocolate Stash

February 2, 2021
The stash, after a single day. Learn what you will.

Upstairs, at one of my two schools, in the copy room, there sits a green plastic basket under a sticker on the wall that reads, “Chocolate doesn’t ask silly questions. Chocolate UNDERSTANDS.”

Can you feel the love?

There are a few of us who tend to be the chocolate fairies of this particular basket. For my part, I like to purchase a big fat ol’ bag of candy favorites from Costco each time I go. I find that I can fill the basket about three times from each bag. Here’s what I’ve learned from years of filling the chocolate basket:

Non-chocolate in the chocolate basket is an abomination. You *might* be able to squeak by with snack packs of Skittles, but seriously, folks. Don’t be putting your SweeTarts and hard candies in here. No one has the time for that kind of negativity in their lives.

The pacing of chocolate consumption is a barometer for staff morale. Sometimes, the goodies I dump in will last a full week. During report card, conference or standardized test seasons, I can fill the basket in the morning and it’s slim pickin’s by lunchtime.

There is a definite pecking order. I have found, when observing the progress of the chocolate basket, that certain treats get snapped up faster than Springsteen tickets. In order of popularity, we have:
Peanut M&M’s
100 Grand Bars
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
Just about everything else
Milky Way

Milky Way is the scourge of the chocolate world. It never fails. No matter how quickly the chocolate stash gets depleted, there are always five or six Milky Way bars that refuse to find a home. I mean, eventually the chocolate ecosystem balances out. SOMEbody likes Milky Ways, and people end up grabbing them. Some day I’d love to buy a big value pack of Milky Way bars, dump it in and see what happens. But I don’t, because I love my colleagues too much.

Chocolate is bad for us. And that doesn’t matter. Even if we don’t partake of the goodies in the copy room, sometimes it’s enough to look in that basket and remember that there’s someone who wants to take care of us. Someone who knows the contents of that wrapper won’t bring contentment, relief from the unrelenting obligations and pressure of teaching, or a sense of agency when we feel powerless – but knows it will brighten our day nonetheless. And that knowledge brings with it a satisfaction similar to the crunch of that candy shell.