An Open Letter to Midwestern White People Following the Chicago Trump Rally

•March 12, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Growing up white in the Milwaukee/Chicago area in the 90s and 00s, I was taught both directly and indirectly that institutionalized racism ended in the 1960s, and that it was a “southern problem” from the start.  I was also taught both directly and indirectly that talking about race at all IS racist.  Not to mention impolite.  Tacky.  Rude.  We were all nice, polite, Midwesterners who weren’t racist, and sure there were still some racists down in Mississippi… and yes, there was that whole “inner city” issue we whispered about sadly…

But WE didn’t cause it.  We had a black friend at church, and We volunteered at a soup kitchen and talked to a nice black veteran, and We told off that guy who told a racist joke at work that one time.  We weren’t racist.  We weren’t the problem.   Our ancestors were hard-working Germans, Irish, Poles, Scandinavians, who never participated in slavery and came over in 1916 poor as hell anyway.  We were tired of people thinking it was Us.  We, our parents, our grandparents, and theirs had never done anything but work hard and try to be as Christian as We could be.

(Let me pause to say I’m not blaming my parents or my teachers.  Honestly, I’m just saying… that was life.  We were trying to do what we thought was best.  We were trying to be good and helpful. Christian, even.  We wanted to help, but we were tired of being blamed for the actions of others who happened to, well, look like us.)

Then I became a teacher.  And I moved to a racially diverse area. And I realized, through meeting and interacting with diverse peoples, that the ability to believe that serious, institutionalized racism ended in the 1960s was the definition of privilege.  As was the ability to “whisper sadly” about racial problems, as opposed to having them pointed out to you suddenly in the drive-thru or the line at the bank.  Being able to choose when I thought about racism was my privilege.

Suddenly realizing I knew so little about racial experience in my country while simultaneously being surrounded by people of color for the first time in my life, I became possessed by a selfish desire to not look like an idiot in front of a large group of people. I began to listen to those who wanted to talk about diversity, racism, and classism, trying to humble myself to the best of my ability in order to not look like a complete jackass in polite, racially diverse company.

I already knew that slavery and segregation once happened in our country, that they were cruel and inhumane institutions, and they happened for a long, long time a long time ago.  My loving, caring teachers were horrified by the actions of others and by what happened in America once upon a time.  Things that were so evil and un-Christian. I watched Roots in the 5th grade.  And I still have nightmares about Amistad in 10th.

But the knowledge ended there, and the next step, the step toward real understanding, was to also realize that the effects of these institutions are still being felt today.  And in some cases, those institutions are actually still happening.  There are, after all, more black men incarcerated in America today than there were enslaved in 1850.   

But I’m not going to try and convince you of that.  Not today.  Hopefully after the events of recent years, from the confusing death of Trayvon Martin to the questionable protests that happened in Chicago yesterday, you may not understand exactly what the problem is with race in American society, but you have realized that something is happening.

Ultimately, through listening and learning from people of color in a state far from home, I learned the lesson that has changed me.  I learned firsthand by people of experience that racism still exists, but I don’t have to feel guilty for the Triangle Trade and Jim Crow in order to feel responsible for helping to heal my country.  I learned I’m not guilty, I didn’t do it, I didn’t cause it, and most likely my Northern ancestors didn’t either.  But even if they did, that isn’t what is important.  What matters is that I don’t let myself confuse guilt with responsibility.  Blame with a desire to acknowledge privilege.  What matters is that I stop and listen, that I don’t feel threatened, and that if I do feel threatened, that I stop and think about why I feel threatened, and I try to empathize, and listen, and, when appropriate, to ask questions.

America is a democracy, which means I have a responsibility to participate.  I am Constiutionally responsible for making America great–not “Great Again”, just great as it can be.  Elements of American culture have been great from the start.  Others are in the process of improvement.  Institutionalized racism and classism didn’t end when MLK had a dream, and progress is not natural, it’s hard-won.  We–Upper-Midwestern whites–can’t pretend that those issues have been solved, just because We don’t see them first hand, daily.  Because in the same way that men can’t be fully men until women have true equality, whites can’t be wholly human, wholly people, wholly free themselves, until all races have true equality.  

So as a white Midwesterner from the Milwaukee/Chicago area, no, I am not guilty for what once happened in America, before my ancestors were even FOB. But I am responsible to others, and to the progress of my country.

5 years after my awakening, which unfortunately never would have happened had I not moved away from Milwaukee, I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface.  I now also know that I will never wholly understand the problem, because I have not and will never personally experience it.  I can’t.  By definition.  But I also know that there are people who have experienced it who can lead the charge.  And I can support and follow their lead.  For the good of my country.  So when they say #blacklivesmatter, I listen.

So if you are white and Midwestern and miraculously still reading this, here is the one and only piece of advice I want to give you: speak humbly, but don’t be afraid to speak.  Okay, no, don’t stop a black lady in line at the grocery store in order to ask her about race and systemic poverty in America today, but don’t be afraid to ask questions and listen if race comes up in “polite company”–as we say.  And please stop looking awkwardly at the floor when I mention that I’m trying to figure out how to get along better with my black, female students.  I’m not being racist–it’s an issue for me.  And try to understand what I am telling you when I laugh about how a group of Asian boys in my 6th hour class are drawing bowls of rice where their names should be on their worksheets.  They are learning how to navigate their race in this country.  And so should We.

I guess my case is a little unique.  I teach 14 year-olds, of diverse races, who are beginning to develop their own vocabularies when it comes to race, class, politics, and history.  From my point of view, it is professionally necessary that I develop an ability to talk about race, as I now teach American history, from the birth of slavery to the Jim Crow Era, to a room of diverse students.  My salaried employment dictates I talk about historical racism with children, so it naturally brings up the issues of modern day racism and inequality.  I figure I could  just keep our conversations in the past, but isn’t it the job of the history teacher to connect the past to the present, to our real experiences?  

The thing is, unlike when I was in school, I don’t need to teach my students that we don’t live in a colorless, classless society.  They are forced to face that every day.  They teach me that we live in a society that is both wonderful and terrible, hopeful and defeatist, accepting and prejudiced.  And that it’s okay to both love America for what it has been, is, and could be, while also being angry and disappointed in America, for what it has been, is, and could be (if Trump is elected).

(By the way, teaching slavery to African American students has been the most humbling, rewarding, inspiring, challenging, and meaningful experience of my life.  I don’t deserve it, really.)

All of this is ultimately to say that I know that my ability to say “hey, white people, let’s talk openly about race, it’s no big deal”  is the definition of privilege.  And I know that I get to shut it off and go home at 2:35 and live in a world where race isn’t that big of a deal if I want to, when most of my students do not have that privilege.  But I’m doing the best I can.  I try to listen instead of speak when possible, and I try to not point out anyone in a minority position and force them to speak for everyone.  I’m privileged, I accept that, I always will be, no one blames me, I’m trying, and that’s all anyone can ask.

Honestly, I don’t know if how I’m going about things is the right way.  Feel free to politely educate me.  (I’m from Wisconsin, and I love everybody, but I break easily when people get angry about anything besides the Packers and cheese.)   But I do know the day many of us decided we were part of a “colorblind” society was the day racism went underground and began fueling the Trump campaign, which makes so many of us uneasy.  

And although I grew up white, I also grew up, for the first 10 years of my life, really freaking poor.  Foodstamps poor.  Eviction poor.  Foster care poor.  Hamburger Helper without the hamburger poor.  And I know that the cards are stacked against people of color and the poor from the start.

The colorless society I was raised in, although well-intentioned, was ultimately an illusion that was accidentally propagating the problem.  Born from a desire to be good and helpful, we were instead being cowardly.  Maybe our ancestors weren’t responsible for slavery and segregation, but by ignoring the issues, by pointing out that white lives matter while someone’s kid is being beaten to death after an afternoon of playing video games with his buddies–that makes us guilty.

How can we solve a problem if we can’t even talk about it?  If we pretend it isn’t there?  Sadly, our insistence that everybody is already the same is what fueled this Trump nightmare into existence.  But, at the same time, isn’t our legendary Upper-Western humility, our compassion, our work-ethic, our Garrison Keillor worshiping, problem-solving intelligence, our strength to withstand the cold while out on the ice, our desire to dig out the neighbor’s car after an average amount of lake-effect snow–all these things that make our culture so giving and great–isn’t there something in that arsenal we can use to defeat a man who proudly promotes racism?  

Our culture is great.  But America has many cultures.  Each deserve respect, but not all are respected.  Let’s leave our comfort zones and do what we do best: have a conversation, then step in to act, working together, without fear. To help our neighbor.

Before Trump wins.



Anxiety (subtitled: Lessons in TFA)

•February 23, 2013 • Leave a Comment

I have learned a lot of adaptive skills and lessons during my almost two years in Teach For America.

First, there was the lesson that you can’t trust everyone. Sadly, there are people out there seeking only their own happiness.  There are also those who for whatever reason, have stopped helping others because they are too busy protecting themselves.  This is what a lot of teachers are like (not all, of course).  They are selfish, angry people who hate their students and gossip about their colleagues.  And they do this because for 20 years they have made very little money, worked themselves to the bone, received no praise, only ridicule from their superiors, and have had 1,000 children cuss them out while they were trying to help them.

These teachers become pessimistic, angry, gossips.  And the children they teach?  They have been through poverty and neglect, violence and despair, and it has turned them into violent, angry people, who say anything they can to hurt you.  It’s not really the teachers’ fault.  And it’s not the child’s.  It’s not even the parents’ fault, who messed the child up in the first place.  It’s not their parents’ or their parents’ or theirs.

It’s anger, violence, and poverty’s fault–the evil in the world that causes selfishness.  And because people are selfish, a person cannot go through life innocently trusting everyone.  Such a mindset will lead to people taking advantage of you.

Before I joined TFA, I honestly didn’t interact up close with that many people.  There were people in my classes, people I passed on the street, people I spoke to briefly at my job.  But TFA brings you in real contact with hundreds of people, both adults and children, all of them experiencing some level of suffering.  Instead of sitting on a park bench watching people pass and imagining what they are like (and believing them to be wonderful deep down) experiencing so much suffering in others has tested my ability to see the good in people, because when you get down and dirty with them, most of the time they will break your heart.

The second lesson I learned in Teach For America is to not take too much time focused on something.  I remember when I was in college stage managing, I would stay at the theater until 1, 2 in the morning and catch the last bus home, just so I could finish formatting a spreadsheet.  Well, that much attention to detail in this profession will literally kill you.  In order to be a teacher, you have to stop proofreading your emails.  You have to slap something together 20 minutes before presenting it, and you have to go up there and teach without taking an hour to visualize it before hand.  When you grade a paper, you can’t go over it to make sure you wrote everything you wanted to say.  You have to put it back in the pile and go on to the next paper, or you will work 24/7.

Part of that same lesson, the lesson of time management, is that people often demand things of you that you just cannot do.  Sometimes there is no time to complete that last survey, and other times you have to say no just because if you do one more thing you will just explode.  You have to protect yourself from the will of others and make sure you are taking care of yourself first.

Third and finally, the big lesson/skill I have acquired is the ability to assert myself in a difficult situation.  I used to be much more of an awkward people watcher, rather than the person who spoke up when they were disgruntled in a meeting.  And to be a teacher, particularly in a “low-income” school, you need to be able to master not only speaking up for yourself, you need to be able to wrestle 150 angry, broken middle schoolers into submitting to your will.  And you need to be able to do this not once, but every day, 180 days of every year.

You need to spend a lot of your free time, too, thinking about how you will be able to do it again and again.  And when the kids say, “When is this class over?” “I hate this class?” or “Shut up, b*tch,” you need to be able to calmly and forcefully remove that obstacle and regain control of the situation.

Each one of these lessons has been, individually, the greatest struggle I have maybe ever had, the greatest obstacle I have ever had to overcome.  It was especially hard learning that cardinal rule of low-income teaching, that you are only an authority to these children when you are asserting your authority, and the second you stop, it all ends.

There is one thing, however, that people have been suggesting I learn for almost two years now that I cannot seem to master.  I have heard it from friends and colleagues at least two hundred times: to not take things personally.  When a student tells me he hates me, or when a lesson plan flops, or when some rogue child in the hallway opens the door mid-class to shout in that you are a whore, and the whole class (who you thought was on your side) laughs at you instead of getting angry–those things still upset me.

My department chair is a wise man whom I have come to respect greatly, and I tried taking his advice for a while–learning to not take the things we encounter in teaching personally is tremendously difficult, and it takes time and a great amount of practice.

But things have come to a head in recent weeks, as all the second year Corps Members have been trying to figure out what to do next year, armed with shiny new teaching degrees, as well as obesity, high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety.

And I realize–maybe learning to not take things personally is not something I should be teaching myself how to do in the first place.  Maybe taking things personally is what makes me a compassionate, introspective, empathetic, intuitive, and loving person.  I see how others feel.  I feel how others feel.  This is why I feel bad when others do not feel the way I had hoped they would.  And the day I learn to not take things personally–to not feel and think the emotions of others–is the day I stop being me.

Realizing this has also made me reevaluate the benefits of the three lessons I have learned in teaching: to not trust everyone, to not be a perfectionist, and to assert myself.  See, the truth is that instead of learning to not trust everyone, I have actually learned to not trust anyone.  I am angry at every new person I see.  I can no longer connect to people’s feelings and read their intentions.  Everyone is some new person who is going to hurt me.

And instead of learning to not be a perfectionist, I have learned to not really give two shits about what I am doing.  Instead of throwing myself whole heartedly into everything, I now throw two or three things together and call it a day and go home and sleep.

And as for being a person who asserts her authority in every second of the situation?  I have not learned to stand up for myself and restore peace and order as much as I have learned how to dominate others and force them to do what I want.  Despite what you may be thinking, my classroom is a relatively productive, safe, and orderly place.  But the more I force my classroom to be orderly, the more I lose any sort of peace and order inside myself.

I do not want to be the type of person in the future who does any of these things.

I have always been the type of person who sees the world as something to learn from. Up until I became a teacher, I always felt connected to growing closer to others and to the experience of living.  From my travels and my reading I learned to trust and believe in other people.  From my friends I learned how to appreciate little things.  From my teachers and my parents, I learned how to do one thing, do it well, and only move on only once it was something worth doing in the first place.  I learned to do things that no one asked me to do just for the joy of doing them.  And I learned that helping others needs to start with feeling peace inside oneself.

I have lost touch with every one of the skills and lessons life has taught me.  Everything that made me, me has been replaced by anxiety.

That is not to say that teaching was for nothing.  In the end, I know I will look back and be happy about what I did, what I learned, and of course who I met while I was teaching (the wedding is in June if you didn’t already know it).  And I am grateful, especially that our relationship has flourished despite all that has been happening.

But after this year, I am finished with teaching.  At least for now.  At least with low income children.  I am going to focus on the path of trust, of appreciation, and of understanding.  I know that I want to continue living a life that benefits others and makes the world a batter place to be in, but I learned long ago that when you feel like I do, when you are having panic attacks for no reason, crying all the time, and depressed beyond reason, you are no help to the world at all.  I need to leave teaching behind, at least until I find a way to be a teacher without giving up everything I think makes life worth living.

Laundry Day

•January 6, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Clear, winter sun shining through an open door

Propped open with a bottle of laundry detergent

Breeze breezing in, clean and crisp and dry and pleasant

The cold air barely touches me

Through the open door, I see a bush with bright red berries

A thick old tree still holding on to dull brown leaves

Houses beyond that, all angles and lines

Windows belonging to people who live near me

And in the distance, the skyscrapers of Tulsa

Stand tall and erect, white against a clear blue sky

Outside winter looks warm

The cold air barely touches me

The sunlight casts few shadows outside in deep contrast

And keeps us all

Away from seasonal depression.

I sit inside

On my bed, stripped of its sheets for laundry day

Watching my cinnamon rabbit discovering

Nooks and crannies she’s been to before

And the cold air barely touches me

Tulsa… Let Me Try to Explain

•December 15, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Tulsa, 1921

It seems like I’ve spent a lot of Saturday mornings on the couch this semester, struggling with one ailment or another.  I’ve been sick at heart, sick to my stomach, and –like today– fever-fighting through every minute of spare time for four months straight.  Trying to inspire adolescents all week–not to mention keep them from murdering each other–is surprisingly exhausting.

Today, though, couch-time has been animated by the front door flung open to a seemingly spring day.  Roommate Caroline has been dancing around productively, eating pumpkin bread as she cleans around me.  We are listening to the unscratched sides of all the albums in her collection.  Today, I don’t really mind being sick at all.

I wore myself out this morning, wandering around downtown Tulsa pretending I didn’t have a fever.  It had been a long time since I walked alone.  Back in college, that was my story.  I would wander to a coffee shop, do the work I had to do, and then walk home, mulling over whatever subject I had just absorbed for credit.  Papers on Beowulf would turn into long journal entries that maybe meant nothing to anyone else, but the act of writing them kept me a creative contributor to something… else.  The things I read, observed, or overheard in my life in Madison I would transform into something entirely personal.   I knew at the time that maybe the connections I was drawing weren’t worth publication, but that was not the point.

Well, I don’t really ruminate on Beowulf anymore.  I don’t read much about monasticism or gardening or Buddhist essays on social justice.  These days, I Teach.

Writing about teaching low-income students is a tricky situation.  See?  I just erased and re-wrote “low-income” three times before I decided it would be an okay contribution to what I am trying to say.  Writing about teaching is like running head first into a brick wall in every direction.  Either I am exploiting my students, or I’m being insincere, or I’m saying what’s already been said, or I’m picking at a wound I’m not ready to expose.

I guess I’m writing this today because I’m struggling with the following conundrum:

I want to write.

I usually write about things I experience.

Right now, I cannot write about the things I experience because they are just too fucked up.

I expect that if I wrote about something else, it would help me to cope with those things that are just too fucked up.

But considering all the… things.  All the things I have seen in the last year.  So many… things.

How do I write about anything else?

Come on.  In the last two years I have moved across the country… by myself.  I dove head-first into a new career.  I’ve met 400 people, done 4000 things I could write about.  I’ve met my future husband, gotten engaged.  But the things that matter?  The horrible, destructive, soul-annihilating, hope-destroying things I have seen since I’ve started working with these children?  How do I write about those?  Writing about life’s little “adventures” do not cut-it-right-now.

The instinct to write about my experience in Teach For America is overwhelming.  My fingers are dying to flip through the keys at light speed, capturing their story and my story once and for all for my own sake, but just as no one could possibly write about the horrors of the CT shootings this week, or about any other inexplicable tragedy, neither can I write about what is happening to the kids I teach… and to me.

Let me be clear for anyone who is reading this, thinking I am some noble person for wanting to write the truth down.  This urge to explain is not born of some loyalty to my students, or love for them, or the “mother hen” instinct I honestly wish were there, that I need to share their “story”.  This urge to do the story justice comes from sheer exasperation.  That things are this bad.  That children can be so out of control.  That the human heart can be warped so extremely my poverty, in both young and old.  I need to make sense of it all.

I’m sure that six months of distance from my current experience will be enough time to start the writing/healing process.  I will lose my anger.  Memory will provide sufficient gloss.  Problem is, I want to write NOW.  It doesn’t matter if it’s any good, it doesn’t matter if anyone reads it.  I need to write, because that’s what I’ve always done.  The “unexamined life” and so forth. And I know that the version I start writing here six months from now won’t be the real story.

Seriously though, what the fuck do I say right now?

Letter to My State Legislator

•April 6, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Dear Ms. McDaniel,

I am a concerned middle school teacher who doesn’t normally get involved in arguments and politics, but with the way things are happening with funding from the state legislature of late, I felt it was my duty as a teacher and an American citizen to seek you out.

I teach eighth grade language arts at Hale Jr. High in Tulsa, a middle school where 95% of students receive free and reduced lunch.  Our school is disorganized and understaffed, and despite teachers’ best efforts to keep students motivated and on-task, some days it looks as though the students have positively taken over.  The staff has been in “war mode” all year, creatively trying to come up with solutions for our problems, but the fact is that there are too many students with emotional disturbances in our halls and not enough teachers to help and inspire them.

Today I subbed for an absent teacher.  Her fifth hour class has 34 students because we had to cut a social studies teacher this year.  These students have discipline problems.  They have never been to a school where excellence is considered normal.  I spent the better part of the hour trying to keep them quiet.  Thirty four seventh graders to one… it is an impossible situation.  And next year, because of funding being shifted over to charter schools and taken away from public education, more teachers will be cut.  Our state test scores are low and getting lower… and why?  Because these children grow up in poverty.  They get more naughty right before breaks, because they are afraid that during their time off they will not get enough food to eat without their free lunches.  Please consider the poor, usually minority children.  Just because they cannot afford to go to private or charter schools does not mean that they do not deserve our attention.  For God’s sake, they are children.  Children with very special needs.

I understand that money is tight these days all across the country.  But consider the resources we are throwing away every time we cut money from public education!  I may have confused you by writing about their bad behavior just now.  In fact, so many of my kids are brilliant and wonderful and kind… even the emotionally turbulent and continuously absent ones.  If you spent a day in my classroom (which of course you are welcome to do) you would see how inquisitive and creative they all are.  But poverty causes distrust and anger and anxiety.  They tell me about their friends and siblings dying and their parents getting out of prison in the same minute they tell me what a metaphor is.  They give me an example of hyperbole and then burst into tears.  It’s hard to keep them focused when there’s a war going on around them.  Because of what little our country has provided them, the only way they know how to respond is with violence.

We need more help, not less, for children growing up in poverty.  It makes me furious, frustrated, and defeated to think that somewhere just a short distance from where we go to school, someone in a business suit is making decisions that, effectively, say that my students’ lives are cheap and their education of little importance.  I became a teacher last year through Teach For America because I believe that all children, no matter where they are born or how much money their parents make, deserve an equal education.   The classroom ratio needs to be 15:1, not 34:1 if we are to expect anything from these talented, inspirational, broken, unstable young potential achievers.

Please consider how your decisions at the Capitol effect the lives the children you represent. 

“I Care”

•April 3, 2012 • Leave a Comment

File:Trayvon Martin.jpg

I teach middle school English in a low-income school in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  About a third of my students are black, a third Hispanic, and a third white.  Who knows how many are American Indian. 

Nearly all of my students qualify for free and reduced lunch.  They get breakfast at school daily, and for some these meals are all they eat during the day.  The average eighth grader reads on a sixth grade level, and if they make it to their senior year, most will read like ninth graders.  43% will drop out.  Only one in ten of those who do graduate will go to college.  One in three of the young black men will go to prison.

Our school has problems.

Academically, the biggest problem that my students face is apathy.  So few of them have seen what getting a good education looks like, so few of them give a damn.  School for them is a place where they go to “chill,” to learn about who jumped whom over the weekend, and to get a laugh at all the mayhem.  Not all, but most see it like this.  And for a teacher who knows just how much getting an education would improve their lives and their families’ lives, their apathy leads to frustration and madness.

Last week I decided to take a week to read about Trayvon Martin with my eighth graders, mostly because I figured most of them would care.  They harbor the belief that anything that bores them is useless to them and they have the right to not learn it.  I hate encouraging that belief, but after seven months of this, picking a high-interest topic meant less stress for me, and that seemed worth it.

We opened with an article discussing what happened to him on that tragic evening, but then we also read some additional articles trying to answer a bigger question: What has happened in our country’s history that has allowed something like this to happen? 

We read about Jim Crow.  We read about the “War on Drugs.”  Our word of the week was “incarceration.”  And since our city was the site of the worst race riot in US history, some of the kids accessed that prior information as well.  We had discussions, we wrote out questions, and at the end of the week, we wrote letters to Trayvon Martin’s parents. 

It was not a bad week, overall.

I am sitting at my desk a few days later, entering grades for the letter writing assignment, reading and thinking about all my students wrote.  For once, very few of them were apathetic, and that makes me choked up, honestly.  I am so used to them not caring, seeing all they had to say is pretty intense. 

One girl wrote:

Dear Ms. Fulton,

The reason I’m writing this letter to you is because I honestly feel bad for your predicament.  I know that you hear this all the time people writing you and calling you and remind you of what happened, just making you mad, and sad with divverent emotions.

I can’t even say I understand what your going through I’m just a kid myself, But I have empathy and sympathy for you.  I want you to stay a strong black women for Trayvon.  He is in a better place, and he doesn’t even know what’s happening.  He is happy.

We all know what really happened.  I know everyone is getting you or telling you their opinions.  Maybe you don’t even want mine.  But everybody is trying to make Zimmerman go to jail or even possibly killed, and I think he should just go to jail, because killing him is making it to easy. 

I think it would be hard to stop racism right now, but if everybody work together to stop this we are saving African Americans, Caucasians, Mexicans, and more.  We would be saving teens, adults, children.  If we all from different races work together.

So stay strong and be happy for Trayvon.  You being happy would make him happy.  And tell Mr. Martin what I told you.  And don’t worry we are ALL here for you.

Love, Your Friend Kim

 Kim is the type of student who has already decided to fight for her education.  There are a handfull in each class who come in quietly with set jaws, pencils gripped steadily, who occasionally shout out the rudest, most frustrating insults to the teacher because they are literally DEMANDING an education.  THIS IS STUPID.  THIS IS EASY.  I THOUGHT YOU WANTED US TO GO TO COLLEGE!! 

Honestly, I’m a little scared of these students, afraid that they’re going to call me out as a fraud or something.  Their words hurt a lot, considering I’m working my ass off to help them.  The students I love working with the most are the truly apathetic ones.  And it was a letter to Trayvon’s parents from one of these kids that moved me the most while grading them just now.  It just says everything: I’ve given up, I don’t see the point, I have too much to deal with right now.  But even so, I’m still a person. 

This student was so apathetic, in twenty minutes they only wrote two words down on the page.  All the student wrote was “I care.”


A Week in Cow Country

•March 23, 2012 • 5 Comments

A weekend is all that remains of my spring break.  Two and a half more days and I will be back in the fray of teaching, pushing hard toward the end of the year.  And what a year it has been.  I have to admit here, to the ether, that I am not looking forward to it.  I’m feeling very weary.  Worn out.  Thin.  And I’m worried about what will happen when I go back to teaching.

But break was very lovely up to a point.  I spent a week driving here and there through the rolling hills of Missouri, where I met the boyfriend’s parents in turn, as well as the boyfriend’s father’s cows.  Many cows.  But I guess I’m kind of getting ahead of myself.

The BF’s dad bought a beautiful parcel of land near Jefferson City awhile back, and he was gracious enough to let us roam wild on the ranch for an afternoon–indeed, it was the highlight of the trip.  In some ways, Missouri looks like Wisconsin (my home state) on its best day.  It was warm, and sunny, and full of rolling hills.  The land is mostly given to cattle instead of crops, so everything was green as far as the eye could see and full of living things.  That kind of sight leaves me with a gnawing feeling in my stomach, like I want to dig into something.

At one point we were chased through a field by twenty cows.  True story.  We also spent the afternoon catching catfish, which I did with the vigor of a sniper at target practice.  Mwahah!  C’m here b*tch!  was shouted by myself when I caught my first, which the BF had a good laugh at.  (It’s funny what makes a person endearing to others, and apparently my boyfriend is fond of maniacal laughter.)

Some people think of Paris as the Capitol City of Romance, and I guess I see why.  But friends, I’ve lived in Paris, and so I feel like I speak with some authority when I say it is nowhere near as lovely as central Missouri.  Paris is ornate and well-worn and full of people who know about love.  Everyone who is there is an authority on the subject.  They sell love next to the post cards off vendor carts in the streets.

But Missouri is full of good earth and open land, and there is nothing more romantic than that.  The hills give you the idea that what you want most is just up and over the next succulent incline.  Or if you felt like resting, you could just dig yourself into any spot you felt like slowing down in.   In short, it is a land full of potential, and that puts a spark in my heart more than the City of Love ever will.

After a weekend of playing nice and visiting the BF’s family, we wandered south into the Ozarks and spent a few days being lazy and listening to the rain come down on the roof of the cabin.  I will spare you the details of that.  But we got back to Tulsa last night, and again I will say that it was a lovely spring break, my only regret being that I forgot my camera.  There was a moment on the ranch when we were driving backwards on a souped up four-wheeler, fleeing from twenty head of cattle who knew we carried delicious cow treats.  I would much rather have a picture of the BF driving backwards, while I throw fistful after fistful of cow pellets at the encroaching stampede, than a picture of myself at senior prom or graduation.  These are the truly fleeting moments that matter :)

I’m back now, back in Tulsa, where the streets form a familiar grid.  I was supposed to spend the afternoon getting my life back in order, doing things like cleaning and filing my taxes and grading papers.  But I’ve done nothing like it.  To be honest, I’ve been pretty down recently.  Like I said, I feel spread thin, like one tiny jab would send me flying to pieces, and considering I go back to work with challenged and challenging eighth graders in a couple of days, I’ve got to get my shit figured out, and quick.

This blog has long been my meditating place, so I won’t apologize for the internal ramblings that follow.  Honestly, the lack of writing I have done this past year speaks much to the challenge I am currently facing.  Even with all the lovely and purposeful things in my life these days, I’m barely thinking and rarely writing, and that explains why I feel so hollow.

To explain what I mean in a tiny bit more detail, my week in cow country has left me with a few small realizations I probably already knew before I even left.  The first is that I love my boyfriend and the whole life that has been given to me in the last year or so.  Teaching, Tulsa, and all that, etc.  I feel like one of the luckiest people in the world.  No, really, I’m unnerved by how lucky I feel.  Not only am I well-loved, I also spend every second of the workday doing something truly meaningful for others.  No one could argue that my current profession is not brimming with purpose.  And honestly, I don’t feel like I deserve this experience.  I feel like every prayer I ever prayed for connection and meaning has been timely answered, and that makes me scared.  When you feel like fate has given you everything, suddenly you become profoundly aware of how much you have to lose.

Which leads me to my second realization I already knew.  Everything I have in the world right now, and everything that I feel is coming on the other side of the next so-called succulent incline, means very little if I do not take the time and make the effort to stay connected to the source of all blessings, big and small.  All the love and purpose in the world could never make up for losing touch with that.

I guess what I’m saying is that even though I have everything in the world going for me right now, what I really need I had even when I was back in Madison, seemingly stranded, working a crappy job and feeling lonely and without purpose.  Call it God if you will, I don’t know.  To me, it felt like… like an internal stillness.  A peace I honestly cultivated to keep myself from going insane, wondering what my next step in life was going to be.  I had to put my future into higher hands simply to keep myself from losing hope in myself.

And goodness, it paid out!  Just like when I walked my pilgrimage in Spain, I learned that when you clear out everything unimportant in your life, focus on what you really are being called to do, trust that the “powers that be” will take you where you are meant to be, and have the courage to seize opportunity when it comes to you, you will be rewarded with a hundred times more of what you hoped to receive in the first place.  But now that I have it and my time of lonely, patient waiting is over (for now), how do I stay connected to that.. power?

I’m not a religious person.  I like going to mass now and then, but honestly the lack of female leadership and the “contemporary, feel-good” vibe most churches give off tends to leave me feeling more annoyed than spiritually fulfilled when I am there.  I love the saints and the traditions and the deep spiritual life the Church can provide, but somehow it gets entirely obscured by the surface-level reality of the modern “worship experience.”  I want to go to church to meditate on eternal things, but when I’m there I have no time to think.  One minute we are reading the Gospel, and the next we are hearing speeches on how Obama is ruining the country and depriving us of our spiritual rights.  It’s not for me.

I’m feeling frustrated.  My work is losing its meaning and I am losing my interest because I have lost my connection to why I joined this organization in the first place.  A year of struggle–with the students, with the administration, with Teach For America, and with others in my personal life–has taken the fight out of me.  It’s a strange twist, that receiving so many blessings should cloud my ability to connect to God, and that those same blessings should cause me to need that connection all the more.  My students wear me thin.  And all the love and the farm fields and the catfish and the in the world can’t make up for the fact that I have lost touch with something I need to find again.