The Weight or Weightlessness of Courageous Conversations

The heaviness of a small segment of dark brown bodies at the end of a long color line that curves around the room going from dark skin to medium to light. Two outliers insert themselves and evocatively defy the trend. They are motivated by something else; the unexpected psyche of an individual who defies the very notion of a ‘fixed’ color line. For them, notions of color remained equivocal and complex. Even after interrogation, there was an explanation, defensiveness, squeamishness. How do you identify yourself? Is your experience the same as the others on your side? The answer remained surprisingly yes…and no. I wondered, Is there a space in our consciousness that defies color?

It reminded me of the label ‘trans-gender’ or ‘trans-racial.’ I think about the many youth who are creating new labels that for them communicate a desire to transcend the narrow-minded materialism of the body form. Are they giving rise to a new, boundless human consciousness?

Alternatively, the outliers on our side of the color line who were seemingly ‘white,’ could have been in denial or exercising privilege. Dr. Lori Watson explained, the color-line is not the entirety of our experience, but it is critical that we isolate race so we can understand it and intervene in the inequities that exist in society.

Across the color-line, I see three white women standing side by side. One is squirming, the other crying and the third—the younger of the three— is standing confident, firm, wide-eyed. The latter, we learn is angry at her colleagues’ surprise at what we are witnessing. We were all grateful she chose to express voice, like many others. Three white bodies, the same and yet different. Three brown bodies, the same and yet different. And yet, we were grouped accordingly based on a survey of our experience in the world.

Some of the comments that ensued were, We don’t want pity, we want understanding. We want voice. We want to bring our whole selves to work. I’m tired of carrying the weight of this experience. One added, I have never experienced functioning in a predominantly white organization.

I was thinking, now what? What do I want to see? What is my expectation moving forward?

I want each individual regardless of racial, cultural or ethnic background to get paid equitably for their service and have an equitable scope of work. I want each individual to have equal access to leadership positions and to be developed in that direction, especially those who come from underrepresented groups. The real lever for transformation is the redistribution of power across the color-line. Access to leadership, job-security, adequate pay and a well-balanced scope of work allows individuals not only to thrive in society but to engage in making decisions that matter. Such as policy, company norms and processes, strategic planning and importantly, managing and allocating money. It also involves hiring and retention which is crucial to the integration of new perspectives, capacity building and sustainability.

I am not saying that awareness of race and racism and inequities don’t matter. Or that equity of voice in a meeting does not matter, or bringing one’s ‘whole self’ to work is not a fundamental human need called Belonging. However, in order for us to walk the path we must value all human beings both in awareness and acts. Adequate and fair compensation. Allies across the organization who communicate safety and job-security. Ongoing investment in an individual’s professional advancement. Access to real decision-making on issues that matter. These are demonstrations of equity that have the power to shape a new practice in education so that our children will inherit a place that values all life and is committed to the sustainability of our collective humanity.

It has been a heavy two days. Yet, I am beginning to feel light and hopeful as I sit and write in my hotel room in San Francisco just before getting ready to return back to New York City. I wanted to take a moment to share —Courageous Conversations are important. Moving beyond diversity is important. Learning our history is important like— who knew Rosa Parks was a trained activist surrounded and supported by the NAACP community who had a long-term Civil Rights strategy? How much of our history has been modified or deleted denying our right to truth?

On a more personal note, I will say I felt enormous pride and gratitude for standing amongst my people. Latinos, Asians, Arabs and Others often get lost in the conversation. We get lost with each other, in confusion or by being passed over or coopted. We are a diverse and rich community. Let’s look at each other more.

I didn’t want to attend the conference, I confess. I get emotionally, physically and spiritually fatigued by the topic. But, a colleague wisely pointed out that when we receive an invitation to such an event, it is not just an invitation for your Self. It is an invitation for you, your forefathers, your ancestors— who without your presence remains voiceless and unrepresented.

So, yes. In the end I moved from action and thinking to the emotional quadrant. I got teary eyed and sensitive standing alongside my brothers and sisters. Real action, compensation and retribution for a people’s suffering are all important. But so is standing up publicly and holding hands with your friends, colleagues, family and ancestry. It is because of your willingness to embrace these rare, very present moments that we have the power to touch many lives that span and blend and even by death transcend the color-line.

 

 

One of the greatest poisons is the subjugation of a person’s identity.

Because imagine how hard it is to separate yourself from your identity. If I am abused because I am a woman or enslaved because of the color of my skin, then my freedom requires that I disassociate from that part of my self. We find freedom when we transcend identity but there is loss and fragmentation for a long while after that. It is as if we have become orphaned.

This is the great paradox of our search for freedom and our healing process.

We want to forget. We need to get outside ourselves to find strength and take action. We want to release ourselves from being a victim.

Even for those who find themselves in the role of the oppressor (by fact or by legacy), it is a similar tale. We want to forget. We hold fast to sadness and tears that prevent our own liberation, our own call to action. Getting lost in sadness and tears are signs that we are still a victim.

We are all victims of oppression if you believe we are all born with a soul. Some express oppression through grief, others through shame, guilt, escapism, rage, denial. All of these emotions are normal but we cannot remain static in these emotions; they must be seen as processing emotions, that through change motion we have the power to liberate ourselves because in the very least, emotions penetrate our intellect. They are in communication with the soul. In education penetrating the intellect is important. We have been reduced to intellect alone.

This is a necessary step.

Disassociation follows. It is when we are aware of our own personal power and we recognize emotion as being separate from our self. If we can be aware of them, how they flow and change, then who is at the center of that awareness? Who is this being that remains a constant observer? We ask.

At this point, we may say– I do not have to attach myself to this emotion or that, to this  experience or that, that horror! I am separate from human frailty. I can create my own destiny, my own reality. I am for myself. I am free.

This is another crucial step. But again, this too cannot remain static and fixed. Evolution is constantly accepting motion. Every part of our evolution is process, even disassociation is process because it results in fragmentation and negates the totality of our human experience. We cannot just cut out part of our whole-selves.

We might begin to feel the pressure of heightened awareness which will eventually wear us down. We may feel the loss of belonging as we face yet another choice. Do I move deeper into this work? What does it mean to come back into myself as a whole? How can I reunite all of my parts, to participate fully in my life, allowing even identity to act with grace as a color on my brilliant canvas?

Stepping into one’s whole self, one’s whole humanity is scary because we fear we will get lost again. When we were born too-human we were vulnerable to subjugation and enslavement.

A woman to move into one’s womaness knowing it is the cause of one’s pain is terrifying. A Jew to lean further into one’s Jewishness can be distressing. Embracing one’s Black roots, one’s Latinoness, one’s Native, Indigenous self-ness—all can be intimidating because we feel vulnerable again. This is the world we live in. But we can transmute it with our willingness.

Even when enlightened whites consider whether to engage in the work of addressing and revealing white privilege, there is fear. This embracing oneself, acknowledging oneself as being a part of one whole, including how that self may exert power and control–is scary business. Am I my ancestors or am I me? We may ask.

And yet, all of this undoing and doing is necessary for wholeness.

A liberated individual will always find communion with the totality of their human identity if it is their purpose to reduce suffering. Your own healing cannot be static, motionless and alone. It is more like an eternal homecoming. You will experience what it’s like to rejoice in the beauty of all your parts coming together, even those parts that have caused you pain.

This is my current understanding of healing and our purpose as human beings. It is an awareness of our continuous evolution; it is why we are alive.

Sensing and becoming aware, realizing and liberating, acting on behalf of oneself and others, embracing the wide spectrum of continuous, evolving emotions and states of grace.

What comes next?

Compassion, perhaps. Consciousness, perhaps. Willingness and Openness, perhaps. Building a world where there is no more fear to just Be, where we embrace all shades of our humanity.

That journey continues to be unknown. Therein lies the great mystery.

Where Do Important Lessons Begin and End?

“The pressures of inequality and of wanting to keep up are not confined to a small minority who are poor.”

~Wilkinson & Pickett, The Spirit Level, 2010

“While preparing for a presentation, I start a conversation with the custodial worker assigned to our room. He tells me that my type of work is important, but no matter how much we try to perfect the school and the teacher, nothing will change until we realize that a perfect school in the middle of an impoverished ghetto can never amount to anything. I look up from my neat binder and pile of handouts. The African American man leans over with a squint in his left eye and asks, “What message are we giving a child when we invest in the school but neglect his parents and his community?” I think about this for a long time and I am transformed.” 

~Ríos, Teacher Agency for Equity, 2017

Two important events have happened that carry important lessons.

Lesson #1

My fish got sick. His name is Mr. Anderson. Mr. Anderson is a Betta. Betta’s are very lively and friendly. Since I bought him, I’ve had him in a very small tank that seemed to suit his needs. But with the change of season he started withering. His usual energetic self was now laying at the bottom of the tank. He was lethargic and often buried his head under rocks. Since the weather changed, I decided to add a small heater but it didn’t make a difference. He ate less and less and within days, I began to worry Mr. Anderson wouldn’t make it.

When my son came home for the weekend, he pointed out that Mr. Anderson was depressed. Depressed, I asked? Depressed, he repeated. Maybe you should change his environment, he said while he read up on Bettas on his phone. And you need to talk to him too, Mom. Bettas live alone but they need company.

I bought Mr. Anderson a larger, more vibrant home. I added a filter and some colorful rocks. We all made a special effort to talk to him a lot. Mr. Anderson has not been happier! He swims and darts around all day. His eating habits have improved and he dances for me when I am near enough to see.

While watching Mr. Anderson jiggle his beautiful red polka-dotted body, a feeling of profound appreciation and warmth swept over me. Call me sappy but I felt like he was channeling love, gratitude and the spirit of God to me.

I learned that even a small, loner fish like Mr. Anderson can have needs. I learned that mood is important and moods are tied to our environment. We all need a good space and change. I am reminded of a post I wrote a few years ago called, Mindfulness for Poor People—on the power of space and how often We are forced to stay small to accommodate.

Mr. Anderson gave me permission to acknowledge the causes of my own suffering. I too had been feeling sick and lethargic. I was trying to fix it but doing the wrong things. By being mindful of Mr. Anderson and my environment, I knew what I needed to recharge my spirit.

I have grown out of this space and I am ready for change.

Lesson #2

Last week my daughter texted me to say she was in a shelter. A shelter? I texted back. Yea, she replied, there’s been a shooting. Oh, so that’s what they call lockdown at Stuyvesant, I thought. I marveled once again at the power of language.

I instinctively knew my daughter was safe but I wondered about her inner world—was she scared, disillusioned, saddened by the incident? I ran to my computer to get the news. The first update I got was from Twitter, my new ‘go-to.’ Within minutes more tweets were posted with information and photos. It was already being labeled a terror attack.

I slipped into the world of cyber space. Simultaneously, I sent numerous texts to my daughter and husband coordinating their escape from lower Manhattan. Forty minutes passed before I looked up from the screen and my eyes landed on the black bat I had put up for Halloween. Below it was a large bowl of Costco candy. That’s when it hit me. Another holiday tradition usurped by violence, stress, anxiety.

It wasn’t until eight o’clock that I left the house to get my daughter and husband at the train. They crawled into the car with dark circles under their eyes. They were flushed over with that withered, sour smell of the subway.

The next day we decided to keep our daughter home from school. I told her it was important to take time to pause and reflect. I recommended she rest and say a prayer for the dead. She looked at me sideways.

Not surprisingly, her fortress of a school opened ‘business as usual.’ Teachers, administrators and school leaders courageously opened their doors, taught a full day and led. A part of me envied how easy it was for them to just carry on. But then I realized— isn’t that what we keep doing— over and over again? We just keep carrying on?

I learned that violence, stress and anxiety are real, heavy shared universal human experiences. How fast we can absorb, process and digest the daily dose of violence, stress and anxiety is still considered an individual’s mental health problem. We talk about the negative effects of cortisol and trauma on kids and learning. Teachers and school leaders absorb the same chemicals and it results in chronic low trust, depression, poor health and random, peculiar, anti-social behaviors we often see in our schools and communities.

I learned there are no borders, labels, nor identities that can individually claim the type of violence, stress, anxiety we are experiencing as a society. We are one, big, ravaging sponge-like organism, with little fires sprouting out from all over our limbs. Whether you are home alone or in company, whether you reside at the middle or on the top, or even if you’re dead in the roots your soul screeching and squirming—we are all One.

 

Women Teachers

“Many feminist scholars believe it is essential to put women as well as indigenous people back into the human story.” 

Karen Vogel, 1995

Women teachers all around me and I am a woman too. Have I always noticed a woman’s narrative—Or are my inklings new? Alas, I find myself caught in another web of wondering. Will I find my observations true to all teachers or will I find them unique expressions of womanhood?

~Women teachers are caretakers all day long. Running from school to home, from students to children, to life partner, to parents

~Women teachers speak loyalty and trust. They want to please. They care about relationships. They are team players.

~Women teachers sacrifice themselves in order to keep things running smoothly.

~Women teachers juggle two, three sometimes four jobs (inside and outside the home). Sometimes they feel energized by this dynamic schedule. Often they are fatigued and wonder how they will possibly manage it all.

~Women teachers don’t feel comfortable saying no and setting boundaries. They are likely to appease and accommodate to keep harmony.

~Women teachers apologize even when they are not responsible for the pain or suffering of others.

~Women teachers care about aesthetics.

~Women teachers teach like it’s a labor of love. They celebrate life through teaching.

***

To be continued…

How do you know if you’re making a difference that matters?

This is the year that everything seems to matter— and yet no one knows if what they do day-to-day matters very much at all. It’s certainly the paradox of our time and especially for teachers. I think it’s important to reflect on our everyday practice and put into question our views about the purpose of education and how we engage young people.

Jacob Needleman writes about an all too typical experience:

“There they were, about fifteen boys and girls, there I was—talking, talking, talking. I couldn’t stop talking. Hands started waving in the air and I finally called on one of the students. But no sooner did she start to bring her question out that I steamrolled over it with an answer that left her absolutely no room for further questioning. I went on talking, amusingly, animatedly bringing in Plato’s cave here, the Upanishads there… Time flew by. The bell rang and suddenly the class was over. That was it, that was all. As the students cheerfully filed past me and I smiled to each of them, exchanging a few informal remarks, I began to realize in my gut what had happened. To be precise: nothing.”

This fiasco, as Needleman called it, propelled him to engage in deep reflection and eventually to take on a high school class in San Francisco after years of teaching at the college level. Later he writes, “My task is to engage that part of them that needs to achieve while calling gently to the part that dreams of Truth.”

Needleman designs his philosophy class around enduring questions that he categorizes as “real, gut-level questions of life that often students are not free to address in educational institutions.” Questions such as:

Why are we here?

Why are we given more advanced brains than other animals?

Is taking another human life ever justified?

What is a human being?

What can we hope for?

Who am I?

What is love?

While I read Needleman’s words in a thin book I found on a cluttered shelf at Strand bookstore (Schools with Spirit: Nurturing the Inner Lives of Children and Teachers, edited by Linda Lantieri) I inhale and exhale deeply. I am inspired and reassured. It is so easy to question.

This is a message to all my fellow writers, philosophers and teachers out there who feel deeply about the quality and character of life. What matters is your willingness to inquire within and to find the magic that transforms the outer world through honest, everyday practice. It is keeping humanity at the center of all things.

Sometimes we are stuck in a place where we have to ask: How do I break through this robotic stance? How do I metamorphose this lifeless, sterile, empty space, this institutionalized public space into a personalized, soul-searching, heartbreaking, life-altering space where the spark of curiosity dances through us continuously?

It is easy to get bullied or brow beaten especially considering the real challenges of teaching and learning. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that examining, exploring, honoring, nurturing the quality of our character, our souls, the core of our human existence is somehow someone else’s job or not so important.

Mathematics, science, ELA and technology are important, but not so much if we do not have the capacity to use knowledge in an ethical and mindful way so that we better our world, ensure we are working for peace. Without an investment in the soul work of teaching every day, in nurturing a sense of belonging, purpose, meaning, and value for all life– we may be accidentally contributing to the self-destructive, violent, and hateful behavior we see tormenting our nation.

Lightness of Being

“Look upon the world as you would upon a bubble” said the Buddha in the Way of Truth, “look upon it as a mirage.”

In a good dream, I am flying. Soaring high and free. In a not-so-good dream, my flight is wrought with struggle. I go up and down, arms flailing. It’s the inevitable pull of gravity. In a nightmare, I am paralyzed and stuck entirely.

In education we are so serious, so grounded all the time. We don’t tolerate lightheartedness either. Perhaps it’s because we think effectiveness is serious business.

DISCIPLINE. ACHIEVEMENT. ADVANCEMENT.

Sometimes I worry that if I laugh or try to make light of our situation, I’ll be accused of being less-than-intelligent. There’s also guilt. The important work of schooling especially if we care about children requires shouldering responsibility, hard work, demanding hours, self-sacrifice, no-nonsense. There is no time for fun, or frivolousness when we are SAVING LIVES.

Nasrin Jafari describes the hallways at one school she visited:

“The students walk in silent, single-file lines, carefully monitored by adults. They walk to the end of the hall, flank at the corner and walk back up the hall to enter their next classroom. In class, teachers read off scripted lesson plans and students snap their heads every few seconds to track the person who is speaking. Anyone who talks out of turn is docked points.”

Honestly, if I were in that space— it would be a nightmare.

I visited a mentor in a school one day. We observed a first grade teacher together. In the debrief I asked, “Did you notice she didn’t smile once throughout the lesson?” She blinked then replied, “I didn’t notice.”

Just yesterday I was entangled in a meeting. There was tension over the precise definition of academic vocabulary, language and how to assess a teacher’s practice according to standards. The whole time I kept thinking, just stop it. Our narrow focus was hurting my sensibilities.

A spiritual master once told me that the purpose of all knowledge is to move from the visible to the invisible. What does that mean? Does it have something to do with the joyful flight of open space— in other words, the importance of lightness of being?

Finding Balance in an Age of Uncertainty

balancefallThis week I met an “out-of-the-box teacher.” He was so out of the ordinary, alive, dramatic and authentic in his unique self, I wondered–what kind of teacher is this man in the classroom? What impact does he have on the thinking of his students and the teacher he mentors?

Authentic teaching is magical balance. A good teacher knows how to reveal the essence of ourselves so that we are moved to compassion, so that we respond with kindness and humanity even in the face of adversity, so that we are aware of the beautiful now, all the while our eyes are wide open to the potential of tomorrow.

How do we find this magical balance and inspire students in an age of uncertainty? This has been an intense year for all of us. There is rarely any room to laugh. I wonder a lot about the long term impact of world events on our individual and collective well-being. How will social, political and environmental upheaval influence how we approach teaching for the future?

My work with teachers this week gave me joy, but also concern. I was reminded how vulnerable teachers are in our collective struggle, loss and disappointment. I admire how teachers continue to find humor in any situation and courageously inject honesty at unexpected moments.

I met another teacher who does outstanding work. Sadly, she faces an overcrowded class of special education students every day without any support in the classroom. This is not unusual. Still, I get impatient. I want to embolden teachers like her to advocate for themselves, to challenge the conditions of their schools and classrooms, to believe in the possibility of a balanced, healthy life and professional working conditions.

In his book The Altruistic Mind, Dr. Donald Pfaff argues that we are naturally good and that we are biologically wired for altruism. But for a person to act altruistically, he adds, they must picture the target of this altruistic act in such a way that the image of the person blurs with that of one’s self. In other words, altruism is reciprocal.

The majority of teachers go into the profession for altruistic reasons but I think many get lost in a strange “blind” altruism that may prolong an inequitable system. For example, who are we acting in service of when we accept poor working conditions for ourselves? How are we benefiting students by teaching in an overcrowded classroom or denying that we will likely burn-out, be pushed to make wrong choices or detach ourselves?

This week, in honor of World Teacher’s Day, I want us to consider what it will take to give ourselves permission to experience magical balance, not only for our students but for ourselves in reciprocity. Remember, schools are dynamic and fragile systems where every individual is a critical part of the whole.