With the publishing of my husband’s 3rd book, The Complete Orlando, Florida, Civil Rights Movement: Cooperation, Communication, and Reflections, 1951-1971, the current state of affair has required much discussion. We tread lightly, Fred and I, around the news of the day and work. Time together is important and I don’t personally invite most topics since we moved in this house. We both know these are there. We have 5 children, a grandchild, many, many good friends and loved ones with overly complicated and beautifully simplified words, words, words. And we have our own. However, discussion is what is needed.
Treading lightly, we thus discussed our individual roles in the greater (because they are too ominously present) institutional systems. Our lives today have been set upon this same landscape. We work with a similar set of worldviews within current belief systems, which seems both to harbor and shoulder oppressions and epic anger or (worse of all) massive indifference. These are the same institutions that also provide nourishment (however lean it is for some) and opportunity. And, overall, we can always agree that we have been blessed with good friends, a beautiful family, and home.
I could catalog inequities I see in a year in school. Likewise, I could also name every day in which my husband came home from a shift (or two or three or four) safely. Institutions. I’m pretty sure we both can still see some of our darkest hours in our work roles, but we mostly keep these hidden after all these years, which is why any discussion is tenuously challenging and uncomfortable (for me). What is said cannot be unsaid, just like what I can’t unsee what I’ve seen. Who am I to call upon my darkness as a weapon? Nevertheless, I can imagine, to a certain degree, the intensity with which Fred, as a police office, had to do his job in order to come home. Likewise, I CAN imagine my students and other people having experienced or experiencing epic wrongs and been hushed so they don’t even bother anymore. I can even name, regretfully, many times (with good intention or brilliant indoctrination), I was the person that caused a student pain unnecessarily, mostly through sarcasm. Words. Why do we wait to use the right ones? Who are today’s bards?
The advent of our supersized chaos demons coming to roost on both sides of 2020, with their demands of annihilation, human sacrifices, order from ranks or ranks from order, or just business as usual, muddies the water. We can’t see the future from the present or the past from the future, so how should I even approach students of next year? How do I even start a conversation in the digital or brick-and-mortar classroom of substance where students come willingly?
Moreover, educators have been talking about (but not much truthful discussing) the train wreck in American public education for a decade now. Somehow, this burning train went off a bridge into a river and re-emerged in a subway station in some city somewhere on fire again (and it was Florida train). Even with far greater (because they are too ominously present) immaculately conceived train wreck paradigms out there ready to be implemented by next week’s school board, teachers (as are police officers) are busy working. There seems never to be a good time to talk about all the elephants in the classroom, let alone the world (Life’s irony, not social distancing measures). Even without tests, we are still teaching to the tests (and there is NO discussion about them–I could even lose my teaching certificate for using my photogenic memory to analyze a question, let alone speak out about one of the most common ways the institution entrenches status quo and American ideals which leave us feeling less than what we truly are).
In the classrooms in my conscious carefully-selected memories, we read books and share stories. The words were soft like whispers then, but our classroom transformed and we became Hamlet or (in my case) Ophelia. On the American playground, I played cops and robbers, Axis and Allies, cowboys and Indians, bad guys against good guys, boys against girls, red Rosy, tag, king of the hill, and other games of social competition. I was unaware or lacked an understanding of privilege and power, but it was there among wonder and kindness. Now, it feels like I was just immature, practicing in a safer, kinder world only because I was without understanding of tragedy and hardship, of the true injustices hidden below the foundation of society not affecting me. And, now enters the constant balancing act of finding the words and not giving away too much of the plot (and do I even really know it?). That’s the thing with conversation…you think you know what the person is going to say…you project it on them, whether it was said or not, you plan, you refute…no, not with true discussion. You hold space for everyone before yourself.
And, as things go, in any marriage or classroom when two isn’t one (ek), we have different ways of seeing the world. The discussion, the witnessing and bearing witness, being present to uncomfortable truths is important and uncomfortable because it is intimate. Not everyone sees the necessity, not everyone jumps at a chance to put it all out there, and some will even intuitively run away or fight it. I’ve been working on this in the classroom: the structure of a common vocabulary based on consent given not taken (by me or anyone else). It’s still a balancing act. That’s the work of civil servants…trying to let any trace of altruism and Love be untarnished by the emperor’s newest clothes, which are just a cover up of blemishes and ulcers burned in institutional sanitation methods in order for everything to come out clean and white.
And here I am on the tightrope between two greater (because they too are ominously present) abysses. I’ve been working on balancing this whole time, and definitely still operating in full survival mode. Am I Evel Kneivel or Zarathustra? Or am I that teenage girl who still says, “Fuck that…let’s talk about Dido,” even though I never hear what’s really being said. What rabbit hole isn’t worth going down sometimes to see another possibility that always exists within the problem? And what problem doesn’t involve politics? And what politics doesn’t involve some personal driving force? Having felt my way in and out of this so many times (with the structure of the words, words, words), isn’t it possible to teach this? Is that what all my schooling was about? Whether the conversation is with oneself, or words in a book, or an author from 2000 years ago, or with a loved one, a lover, a foe, or even in a different language, conversation is necessary (just as force is necessary, in some cases), if only to provide a structured backdrop on which to practice how to just be and grow in spite of our circumstance…
Still, I am awake (I’m a professional–my personal mantra). I have resources and privilege which allow me access to realms (even when it says “everyone”) others cannot enter (that’s one oppression, my friends). I know I’m leaving a lot out. I ask of myself many things, but I demand of myself action beyond words. Can I contemporaneously commit to preserve, conserve, or change some part of myself to make the institutional systems for the better? What kind of world makes a person fear another doing their job? How do I tease out creative thinkers not just persistent reactors (and not just for my teacher evaluation)? How do I take a student gently into our own tragic human faults, seen and unseen, so that they see how choices, conscious and unconscious, can be made for everyone without losing sight of the wondrous human inventions that have given birth to civilizations as well as exploration?
I could make a case that waxing poetic is avoidance. I recognize my overuse of adverbs (adverbs being very difficult to teach as a second language depending) here and how the quality of my actions might make a more pronounced and instant impact, but for whom’s sake? I once thought I only should only teach reading and writing…but these same words, now, are more of a portal of transformation in whatever my content areas (I teach 4+ subjects in a school year). The same advent birthed chaos demons brought us writing, and with it, a ton of textual evidence of human suffering and man’s ways to eliminate suffering (a favorite BG quotes here and my favorite translation/text here), as well as methods of inflicting suffering (my first Latin sight reading on a test in high school was on torture).
In ancient texts lie ancient cities and landscapes built by our ancestors, sort of like parks and natural landmarks which call on some to plunder or pilgrimage (or both). Words pave (not past tense) a path by which a reader (or perhaps just a wanderer) might find (depending on the verb tense) these hidden gems. In the Indus Valley (and it probably stands to reason in many other places), the road gets paved right over the existing path (formidable important first words forgotten even beneath the below) and what still breathes beneath remains. What remains…words or something more? What is it but words unless you travel there with a teacher? How do we bring the millions of conversations which led to exploration and dialogue into today and held our heroes and heroines in equal regard, even in their humanness?
In reading, we call the purposeful and thoughtful placement of words and images throughout the the classroom a print-rich or literacy-enriched environment. In second language learning, we draw on comprehensible input, immerse ourselves and our learners in the target language (on everyone’s level) for 85-95% of the instructional period. Does it not stand to reason that students need to practice social interactions with a common vocabulary, since most of our life is spent trying to relate (or not) to another? Drilling and testing on the concept of epochs and eras with a classroom of 11 and 12 year olds (many of which are students who are DH/H) is EXACTLY why the train keeps going off the track (usually on fire). Still, maybe, must maybe, next year (or any year), a student will not only hear the words whispered to them, but also see.
Or at even better, understand why the women of Troy are still lamenting…