One by one, tiny pixelated faces began populating the grid on my monitor.
“HEY! LET’S SEE WHO’S HERE! WOWOW! I MISS Y’ALL SO MUCH!” I shove my face towards the camera, checking out my pores and zooming in on my flared nostrils for comic relief. A few students giggle, but most of them seem pretty nervous. Maybe I’m just projecting my own anxiety on them. Probably a combination of both.
For the next thirty minutes we engage in our first ever virtual check-in. The kids who try to dominate class discussion try to dominate the virtual space as well, gabbing effortlessly about the latest news they’ve heard. Some of the less extroverted kids appear only as half moons at the bottom of their video window, the top of their heads stuck like hesitant suns unsure whether or not to rise in the morning. Dogs and babies make appearances. Every now and then a parent walks in and waves. There’s no agenda or clear instructional purpose.
I held this virtual check-in because some parents and kids asked me to. And because I know other teachers are doing it. I know other teachers are doing it because social media is awash in stories, slices of life, and think pieces about the intersections of the Coronavirus and public education.
“HERO TEACHER READS STORIES OUT LOUD TO STUDENTS EVERY NIGHT”
“TEN WAYS TO USE ZOOM TO TAKE YOUR VIRTUAL TEACHING TO THE NEXT LEVEL”
“TEN WAYS USING ZOOM VIOLATES YOUR STUDENTS’ PRIVACY”
Some posts make me roll my eyes, and others
make me jealous inspire me to do things like hold the virtual check-in described above. Then there are the posts that hollow me out. The statistics about the percentages of children who rely on school lunch for food. About inequity in instructional practices. About the connections between quarantines and domestic abuse.
I know I’m not alone in my panic. Every morning my inbox is full with frantic questions from students and their families. When will you begin virtual teaching? Can you be virtual during the same hours as the school day? When will you be sending out a detailed list of instructional activities and due dates? Why aren’t you grading anything? Why are you grading anything? How can I make sure my child is ready for 8th grade/high school/college/life?
I have no idea; I’ve never been here before. None of us have. I don’t fault any families for trying to do what they think is best for their child. In the face of so many needs, I just don’t know what to do.
There is a paralyzing amount of information to take in, much less sift through critically and responsibly. What is my charge? How can I best help students right now? And what if what’s best for students isn’t necessarily what’s best for me and my family?
My family, like many, has been fractured by this. My wife must remain tethered to her work computer because her company expects their employees to be online at all times. (So much so that they actually track when someone is online and when they’re not. This is apparently somewhat common among white collar jobs. As a teacher, this combination of surveillance and technocratic accountability gives me the heebie jeebies.)
This means I’m entertaining my 21 month old daughter. The notion that I could hold some sort of virtual class, concoct meaningful lessons that are developmentally appropriate and accomplishable without teacher intervention during this time is ridiculous. Toddlers are anti-routine. The Coronavirus is anti-routine.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have my mom and her partner close by. They have generously agreed to watch Joelle for a few hours during the day. During those precious hours I rush through my daily teacher upkeep (so many emails!), complete my chores, maybe try to fit in some exercise, and do whatever other random things pop up. My ADHD adds another layer of chaos to the situation. I depend on those hours to maintain some sort of status quo.
Right now, my status quo is NOT healthy. It is heavy. It is tempered by the fact that my students and I are all stuck at home. It is bloodshot from the trauma. The statistics. The daily news of a world on fire. Elected officials bartering human life for stock profits. Communities reeling from waves of loss. Everyone being pulled in a million different directions at once.
Against and within this backdrop I wrack my brain for some direction that feels ethical, moral, and just. Right now it’s the best I can do to think small. Reduce the size of my world to something manageable. I can be gentle with myself as I steal away from the country’s obsessions with standards, scores, and scales. Hold myself and those I love close, pick a direction, and move. One foot in front of the other.
“Who is there? What does it feel like?” my therapist whispered.
I placed my hands over my sternum and breathed deeply. I tried to aim my breathe at the exact spot my hands were covering. I couldn’t quite decide what it felt like. Opening a massive, ancient tome that’s been collecting dust for hundreds of years? Using the jaws of life to pry open a particularly nasty car wreck? And then it came to me: an octopus.
An octopus was living inside my chest. More specifically, it had nestled itself into the space between my breast bone and skin. The octopus had spread its tentacles through muscle, bone, and sinew. It reached into every inch of my body. It’s worth noting that despite the picture at the top of this post, my octopus has a much more cartoonish design to it.
The image made perfect sense. The feelings of panic and tightness I frequently experience could be the result of the octopus flexing and pulling at my nerves and muscles. The waves of shame that regularly wash over my face and torso could be the result of the octopus squirting its ink into me. The octopus immediately joined The Critic, The Monster, The Gatekeeper, and the rest of the parts I had previously identified during my time using the Internal Family Systems method.
Internal family systems 101: Internal Family Systems is a therapeutic model that treats the patient’s inner world as a family gathering. The wounded and painful parts of our psyche are given names and identities. They all hang out together. These parts are in varying levels of conflict with the Self, our essence and core. Suffering happens when we “blend” with our parts and they take over, causing us to forget who we are. Healing occurs when the patient is able to heal the wounded parts and restore a sense of balance to the internal system. This happens by visualizing the parts, establishing relationships with them, and conversing with them. There’s lots of visualization, self-reflection, and breathing. IFS is obviously way more detailed and complex than this, but hopefully you get the gist.
A brief example from my own practice. Like many people, I have a rapacious inner monologue. I have personified it as The Critic, a figure who hangs out in my psyche and points out everything I’m doing wrong and what I should have done instead. Sometimes the inner critic is helpful, but mostly he’s a pain in the ass. Some of the work I’ve done in therapy has been to recognize when The Critic is talking in order to establish a boundary and help him understand that everything is okay; I got this.
Normally I’ve been able to interface with all of my parts. I talk to them and they talk back. Something was different about the octopus, however. It felt almost alien. Not only did it refuse to talk, it refused to wake up. In my visualizations, the octopus was in a deep sleep. Nothing I did could garner a reaction from it. So my therapist told me to keep breathing into the space and telling it that I was there with it.
For the remainder of the week that’s what I did. I imagined tickling the underside of the octopus with my breath. I visualized putting pressure on its tendrils by filling my lungs with air. But no matter what I did, the octopus remained silent and inert. And then something happened. I was sitting for my nightly meditation when I noticed an absence where the octopus normally sat. I breathed and breathed, using the air filling my lungs as a searchlight to scan the depths. But nothing was there. Then, a new feeling began to emerge like a submarine rising to the surface after years of dormancy.
It felt like what I imagined being stabbed with a knife might feel like. A sharp, one inch incision appeared right above my heart. It burned and smoldered. I pulled in The Analyzer, the part of me that loves to think things through from multiple perspectives, and tried to figure out what was going on. It dawned on me that I’d experienced this scenario before in video games. In some games, the player has to do a certain amount of damage to a boss before the weak spot appears. Shoot the armor off and you get access to the heart, for instance.
Is that what was happening? Was the octopus guarding a deep emotional wound? Was the octopus protecting me from the wound or the other way around?
The wound disappeared after a few minutes, and I haven’t been able to find it since. Not only that, but the octopus seems to have faded a little. Maybe my breathing was a threat and it sunk deeper into my tissue to hide. I literally have no idea. Hopefully it will reveal itself again. Until then, I’ll keep doing what I’ve been doing. Hold the space. Breathe into the space. Hold. Exhale. Repeat.
“You just wait until that baby comes! Then we’ll see what happens to that routine you love so much!”
When folks at my school found out my wife was pregnant, they had a lot to say. I was continuously befuddled by the amount of joy folks appeared to take in telling me how hard I would struggle. They know I need routine and structure to keep my life manageable. They also know I used to spend most of my free time tweaking lesson plans and spitballing different classroom activities.
The process of detaching myself from my workaholic identity has been progressing with predictable slowness. I use the term “workaholic” seriously. I’m addicted to the predictable rhythms of spending the majority of every day engrossed in the familiar world of lesson plans and education. Fridays used to be my favorite day of the week because it guaranteed hours of work at my computer unfettered by distractions. There’s also the perfectionist aspect. My brain remains convinced that the harder it works the fewer mistakes it’ll make.
My transition into a life defined by something more than work has three stages. Stage one is the initial uncoupling. This stage began when Joelle was born. Stage two is the replacement of what used to be work with new, family oriented activities. This is where I am now. This weekend, for example, I helped my wife look up activities that would accommodate a four month old infant who likes to eat and two adults who love to eat. I’m also trying to spend less time on work when I’m at home.
Stage two is the hardest stage for me to manage. Habits calcified over my lifetime will require more than a few weekend outings to break.
The final stage of my transformation will be the ability to gain physical, emotional, and spiritual sustenance from family oriented activities. To embrace the nourishment that my family provides. This is an almost impossible rewiring of my circuity because the life of a perfectionist revolves around outrunning failure, not pursuing joy. But every second I spend with baby and wife are incredible. This child is everything.
My desire to keep my child from inheriting this toxic work obsession is almost overwhelming. I will do everything in my power to make sure they won’t need their own three point plan for embracing themselves and those around them.
I’ve never wanted a work/life balance because work has been my life. It’s been the most important part of who I am and how I want others to see me. I just don’t possess the imaginative capacity to envision a life where work is anything other than everything yet. But it’s happening.
This is a scary blog post to write. I’ve been writing about race for a couple of months now, and every time I do, my body revolts. My eyes blink uncontrollably; my hands tremble; my heart feels like it’s trying to crack open my rib cage and escape. The fear of exposing my racism hijacks my rationality and rides roughshod over my nervous system.
At the same time as I’m coming unglued, I feel a desire to be recognized and congratulated for my posts. My brain serves up images of me leading other white folks out of racial ignorance and into some sort of enlightened state. I look desperately for signs of affirmation from people of color that I’m “doing the work.” My need for approval is itself a manifestation of white supremacy. I want to be recognized, to be praised as an example of what it means to be an anti-racist white guy. No matter how hard I try to ferret out these impulses, they always return. Often within the same second.
Right now, this is the best that I can do. No matter how many times I rewrite these sentences, there’s no way to out-write the orbit of my own ignorance. I’m not disparaging myself, just trying to work through what happens inside of me when I try to talk about race. It will take more than reading a few books and and writing a few blog posts for me to come to terms with hundreds of years of white supremacy. It’s likely that I’ll never be able to understand my participation in systematic oppression and dominance. That’s the power of ideology. My whiteness isn’t like an article of clothing I can decide whether or not to wear. I exist through my whiteness.
I was one of those white people who was shocked by Charlottesville. My ability to be shocked by bigotry comes from living and participating within a culture of white supremacy. When I say white supremacy, I’m not referring to hooded Klansmen or racist family members, but the social institutions (politics, medicine, education, law, etc.) that work in tandem to grant white people material benefits by subordinating people of color.
After Charlottesville, I started speaking up on social media about issues of race and white privilege. I posted graphics of white supremacy, shared anti-racist classroom resources, and spoke up about the importance of white people putting in work. A few white men reported my posts to Facebook for being “racist against whites.”
White folks also began popping up on my social media threads to call me out for “sermonizing” and “causing divisions.” At first, I was surprised. Why would something so simple as a self-explanatory image or a post about racism draw such ire? And then I remembered: white fragility.
The men commenting on my posts and reporting me provided textbook examples of how whites struggle to comprehend and discuss race with any level of complexity and nuance. White folks also lack the stamina necessary for serious discussions around race. I’m no different. Working on this post has hollowed me out. Sustaining the mental energy required to write this post has left me gasping for air.
I’m able to call out fragility in these men because I recognize it in myself. For instance, a few days ago I read “White People Have No Place in Black Liberation,” a phenomenal essay exploring the inextricable link between Whiteness and oppression. (Support the author and the publication here) The essay is painful to read because it feels like a personal attack. The essay’s conclusion, “…our focus is always on Black folks figuring out new and better ways to get free—independent of white people and capitalism and the entirety of western empires,” triggers an existential howl from the depths of my whiteness. What about me? Can’t I help? People of color need me! I’m useful! That author sounds mean.
My brain is literally and figuratively unable to think about what it means to de-center myself. It’s like trying to speak a language I haven’t learned yet. So I sit with my feelings and monitor my reactions and defensive posturing. I don’t feel bad about feeling bad, and this isn’t a pity-post. The experiences I’ve described here represent absolutely nothing compared to what people of color must experience on social media on a daily basis, much less “in real life.” As Robin DiAngelo notes, my Whiteness “affords me a level of racial relaxation and emotional and intellectual space that people of color are not afforded as they navigate mainstream society” (177-178). I must do better and I will do better.
I recently watched a video of minister, author, and teacher Reverend Dr. Raymont Anderson discuss pain, spirituality, and healing. He mentioned how caterpillars transform into butterflies; they dissolve themselves in their own acid before rebuilding anew. Caterpillars use specialized diagram cells to regenerate their new wings, eyes, and antennae. The maps they need for their journey are contained within. But what happens if the directions I carry inside are faulty? How can I reinvent myself if I’m always going to the same place?
Image Credit: CC0
Women of color have publicly rebuked me three times. I didn’t appreciate it when it was happening but now I’m thankful for these experiences. They helped me begin to remove the space suit of privilege that keeps me hermetically sealed from inequity and oppression. This post is for white folks like me. Learn from my ignorance.
I attended my first step show in college. I was astounded and captivated by the rhythm, the discipline, and the air of celebration in the packed auditorium. A woman of color in front of me noticed some of her friends behind me, prompting a delightful outburst of joy and hand signs. (I would later come to learn that hand signs are a part of sorority culture.)
Wanting to join in on the conviviality, and not knowing any better, I locked eyes with some of the women and attempted to replicate the hand gestures. Their faces dropped as they saw what I was trying to do. Stop. This isn’t for you, one of the women behind me said. My face flushed fire engine red as I pinned my hands to my sides and sat down. Mercifully, I was quickly forgotten as the women went back to enjoying the event and each other’s company. My white shame was overwhelming.
The next day I recounted the story to a friend in an attempt to figure out what happened. What had I done that was so offensive? My friend gave me a quick rundown on the Divine Nine. He said that the rituals and knowledge of African American Greek and fraternal organizations were closed off to me because I wasn’t a member. Fascinated, I pressed him for more. But no matter how hard I pleaded, he refused to yield. This isn’t for you, he echoed. As a privileged white male, this was the first time in my life when I was denied access to knowledge. The situation caused me to reflect on the history of slave masters denying African Americans access to education, rightfully compounding my guilt.
Three years ago I created a Twitter account for professional purposes. One morning a lively discussion about racist curricula and school discipline dominated my feed. I found myself nodding along and cosigning on everything that was being said. Without thinking I charged into the conversation, inserting my unsolicited voice into a space it didn’t belong. Even though I thought I was helping out, I had no business butting in.
With all due respect, one of the discussion participants Tweeted to me, please stay on the sidelines for this. I froze. So great was the embarrassment that I raced to delete my comments, unfollow everyone involved in the conversation, and close my laptop. I slunk down into my chair, saturated with the same white fragility I experienced at the step show. I wasn’t upset at anyone but myself, but I still didn’t “get it.” I must have been misunderstood, I thought. After all, I was just trying to help!
Last summer, determined to “get it right,” I barged into another Twitter conversation about the representation of girls of color in the movie Moana. I had just finished the revelatory Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique Morris. The conversation was about the hyper-sexualization of girls of color in popular media, a topic Morris explores throughout her book. Spurred on by the privileged notion that I had an inalienable right to participate in every conversation and speak on every topic, I fired off a few pedantic tweets about the book and how it refers to hyper-sexualization as “age compression.” It did not go well. The discussion leader immediately called me out, rightfully excoriating me and demanding that I get off of their timeline. My privilege stood between their words and my own understanding.
Determined to get to the bottom of what was going on, I sought out people of color on Twitter and followed them. Academics, pop culture critics, authors, organizers, students, it didn’t matter. At the time, my goal was to figure out what was going on in order to be able to join discussions without getting called out. It had nothing to do with critical consciousness; I just didn’t want to get shamed.
But the more I followed and listened, the more I started to “get it.” The discussions I was inserting myself into were not mine. I realized how I was treating conversations among people of color as something to be commandeered and dominated for my own gain. As if every public space was simply another venue for me to broadcast my own beliefs, whatever those beliefs may be.
This blog post is written to white people like me. People who need to talk less and listen more. People who need to remove themselves from the center and elevate others. If you’re interested in improving, here are some quick and easy ways to get started.
- Be mindful of the social media accounts you follow and rebroadcast.
- Read or watch a quick primer on privilege. It will help.
- Talk with the women and people of color in your life. Develop relationships with them and listen to them.
- In case you hadn’t heard, online spaces can be extremely toxic and hateful for women and people of color. When you see white people engaging in inappropriate and disrespectful behavior, engage them. There’s no value in ‘feeding the trolls,’ but there’s value in holding each other accountable and assuming that once we know better, we can do better.
- Stop talking and listen more!
If you find yourself getting rebuked, take the loss. Lick your wounds, dab your white tears, and move on. Head back into the conversation, but this time just listen. As white folks we must keep each other in check and amplify voices of color. It’s not about us.
I experience life through a series of shifting grids. Everything about the way I process information suggests right angles, coordinate planes, and compartments. Anytime I meet someone new, I assault them with a barrage of out of context and somewhat inappropriate questions: What music do you listen to? How was your childhood? What’s your relationship with your family? What were you like in high school? What are your favorite shows? My brain yearns to place everything and everyone into various interconnected frameworks. Everyone’s answers also act as a mirror, allowing me to engage in continuous rounds of self-assessment to make sure I stay within one standard deviation of what I consider to be normal.
The tendency to fix everything to a grid permeates every aspect of my life. When I was little kid, I told my mom how I enjoyed tracking syllables with my left hand. I would take sentences and count them off into alternating groups of 3, 4, and 5. The goal was to make the final syllable of every sentence end on a particular finger.
Heavy metal, my favorite genre of music, fits seamlessly into the grid. Every band taking up residence in my brain combines jackhammer force with the precision of quartz chronological movement. “Still Echoes” from Virginia metal band Lamb of God is a perfect example. Listening to the drums, guitars, and vocal patterns feels like spiraling out from the center of Fibonacci’s golden ratio pattern.
For this reason, my jogging playlist always contains a single song on repeat. No surprises and no shuffling. Just the same two minute chunk looped. It takes a certain kind of song to stand up to this obsessive level of routine. The song has to be relentless and consistent in beats per minute. Although I try to mix it up every few months, I keep coming back to the staples: Slayer, At the Gates, Lamb of God, In Flames, and Darkest Hour. The one exception here is Usher whose banger Scream enjoyed a couple summers of looping.
I’ve been listening to the first two minutes of Darkest Hour’s The Sadist Nation during every run for the last five years. It never gets old or loses its edge. Every listen is a fresh marching order, a call for muscle and sinew to propel the body forward. 1’s and 0’s, on’s and off’s, starts and finishes. I can’t stand jazz for this reason. The organic ebb and flow of improvisation, the rhythm changes, the fluidity of it all claws at my need for repetition and symmetry and containment.
Schools are perfect for me. In most schools, everything that happens slots nicely into a grid. Bell schedules, assignment schedules, curricular planning, everything is rationalized and consistent. I love it. Every school day is a perfect assemblage of self-contained rituals. I can tackle anything as long as it’s fixed to some sort of repetitive grid.
Ritual and repetition help me manage my ADHD. They place boundaries around everything. During summer and winter break, I keep to the same schedule. Wake up around 5 and play video games until 9. Then, work on writing until around 11 when I do some form of exercise. My afternoon is lunch, nap, reading, then YouTube until my wife gets home. Every day. Without such a setup I drown.
I’ve always been an all or nothing person. I recently had my wisdom teeth removed, an experience that left me swollen on the couch for days. I didn’t brush my teeth. I collapsed on the bed every night in the clothes I had been wearing all day. My diet consisted of slurping down ice cream, apple sauce, and ex lax whenever I felt like it. After a week of being off the grid, I was able to begin inserting modules of routine back into my schedule. Mercifully, my life is once again fully contained within blocks of reading, writing, exercise, and socially acceptable hygiene practices.
My contained existence brings me joy because it allows me to meet life on my terms. Within constraint lies my personal freedom.
I sometimes imagine that teaching is sort of like playing in a local band. You’re the opening act for some larger performance. As the opener, not everyone is going to like you. Most of the audience didn’t come to see you, and they simply have to tolerate you. They bought a ticket to the show, they’re with their friends, and they’re excited for the headliner, so they stick around. But there are always a few diehard fans who are ecstatic to hear you play. They know the words to every song. They come early and stay late. When everyone else is on their cell phones, the diehard fans are pumping their fists and sharing that moment with you.
I use this analogy not as a way to compare teachers to rock stars (shudder), but as a way to think about the unique connections that can form between teachers and students. What starts out as a fandom built on the superficial aspects of performance (I love his energy! or He’s awkward like me!) can, over time, develop into a meaningful relationship. This is more the exception than the rule.
The analogy speaks to my belief that students will connect with certain teachers for specific and often idiosyncratic reasons. Some teachers might collect more fans than others, but even the quirkiest among us can make a difference in another human being’s life.
Over time, relationships between teachers and students can grow beyond the hierarchical structures common (and somewhat necessary) to schooling. If a student I taught last year stops by after school to talk, I’m able to engage with them holistically. We can interact with each other outside the realm of immediate academic transactions. Discussions of academic progress can still play a role; they just don’t have to be the focus.
Last week I received a Facebook message from a former student asking if he could come visit me at school. Since his high school classes don’t start until later in the morning, I told him to stop by around at the start of my first planning period. The two of us had kept in sporadic contact ever since we first hit it off four years ago when he was a student in one of my 7th grade English classes.
As he left my room and I scurried off to my meeting, I was struck by how joyous it felt to see him and talk to him about his life. To watch a life grow and stretch and push outwards. He is finding his groove, and I am so proud of him.
Although this might reflect poorly on my character, I’ve always looked forward to the possibility of former students reaching out and reconnecting with me. I guess it’s a reminder of what I love about teaching: growth, relationships, knowledge, the dialectical possibilities of minds interacting with one another.
The rest of the day was a fairly typical middle school day. I left the building exhausted, overloaded with work, and saturated with the tiny victories and big defeats that sometimes seem to characterizes my life as a teacher.
After the school day ended, I found myself in a situation inverse to the one described in the beginning of this post. Now, as I’ve written about before, I enjoy emailing people whom I admire. I’ve been lucky, fortunate, and privileged that some of my correspondences have blossomed into mentorships, leadership opportunities, and professional growth.
I’m currently co-writing a piece with Julie Gorlewski, one of my academic idols. We had a productive Google Hangout session yesterday, speaking through video chat about teaching, the state of public education, and our article. Julie is in every way my superior. She has published widely, taught in a variety of settings, and knows infinitely more about education than I probably ever will. But she treats me as an equal. I left our 75-minute conversation feeling valued as a thinker, learner, writer, and person. She took my ideas seriously and validated how I perceive the world. This, to me, is some of the raw power of education. It reminded me of who I want to be as an educator. Of how I want to interact with everyone I come into contact with.
As I reflected on the day, I was struck by the richness of education. By its ability to forge powerful relationships through generations and influence the outcomes of multiple lives. Most of all I felt an almost cosmic connection to those around me. In my former student and my new co-author, I felt my place as an educator and a human being.