Dancing in the dark

dancing-in-the-dark-coverZora Neale Hurston quoted by Morris Dickstein in her book Dancing in the dark: A cultural history of the Great Depression and excerpted by The Root

“There is something about poverty that smells like death,” Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. “Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in a dry season and rotting around the feet; impulses smothered too long in the fetid air of underground caves. The soul lives in a sickly air. People can be slave-ships in shoes.”

Maybe it’s the rain dropping at the feet of the city and slightly rotten smell of the remains of summer leaving New York this morning or maybe it’s the lingering effects of studying the Transatlantic Slave Trade with high school students this past year, but that line people can be slave-ships in shoes just won’t leave me.

Dickstein continues, placing Neale Hurston’s evocations in their historical context, linking her undeniably soul-wrenching writings to the plight and social condition of those suffering the depression of the 1930s. In this excerpt the focus shifts to the Steinbacks of the 1930s and then more fully to Richard Wright. Dickstein has an elaborative ambition in this book, weaving the narratives of history, the author’s life and purpose, the books’ characters’ lives and purposes, and the resulting convergence of those strands. I’m excited to get my hands on the rest of this book.

A man of character

Kennedy Civil Rights Act

Loss, sadness, grief even. Those feelings engulfed me yesterday morning, spurred by the news my iPhone sent through my earbuds and into my internal receptors. Passing the morning din of Manhattan on my stroll sola toward coffee, bagels, and pharmacy whatnot, I first heard the news of Ted Kennedy’s passing. Even typing that sentence now I surrender to the need to pause, breath deeply, and hold back the emotion welling behind my eyes.

I never met Ted Kennedy, but inexplicably his life touched mine more deeply than I had realized before his death.

In the papers, on the radio, online–everyone has stopped to note his passing and to reflect on his life. The attention of most focuses pointedly on the legacy of Kennedy’s fight for healthcare and on microscopic assessment of his character. Compared to most, I don’t know much about the Kennedys. I came to Massachusetts already an adult, so I didn’t grow up with the Massachusetts family who early and often assumed a custodial role in the Commonwealth. I don’t have anything to offer to the debate on how to remember Kennedy, how to assess the gaffs and failings. Much of his life was public which is why someone like me might have such an intense reaction to his passing and why others have such intense reactions to his past mistakes.

What I know of Ted Kennedy’s character is that he fought. He fought for things I believe in and did it more passionately, more completely, more vigorously, and longer than any public figure. As a young person, I made a choice to dedicate much of my life to fighting for social justice in an unequal world. The problems are numerous, vast, entrenched. The best solutions chip away at the core injustices in our communities, and rarely do we feel that the fight yields us a victory complete. Whether it’s assessed by others as strength of character or defect of character, Ted Kennedy’s willingness to commit the better part of his life to fighting for and serving others so passionately and completely garners my respect, gratitude, and empathy.

When you leave teaching…

City Championship NMHSWhen you leave teaching, beware. You are more powerful, capable, and resourceful than you could have ever imagined possible. Though we endeavor every day as teachers to be the super human beings who sacrifice sleep, sustenance, and hydration, hurtling ourselves at the massive challenges facing our schools and students, we doubt our own efficacy. Suspended in the motion of moments too intense and important to be anything other than 100% present, we accept the mere feat of making it through each day, each year with dignity, poise, and humor as a tremendous accomplishment. Few of us work in schools or districts organized and run effectively, and we know that every day we are fighting a battle against inequity, racism, classism, otherism–a battle that leaves the students and families we love most vulnerable to the whims and fancies of policy makers and the torrents of the global economy. We love our students, and if we are lucky, we love our colleagues and the communities that support and sustain our schools. We trust somehow, somewhere we are making a difference that will be felt more tangibly than we experience each day in schools. Kalvin & Bakari

One of the things I realized when I stopped teaching was that the relationships I had with “these kids”–the ones I left behind in June–would be “my kids”–the ones whose graduations and weddings I attend, the ones who call me when they need help or are alone.

This afternoon I spent a couple of hours calling some of “these kids,” a select group of my kids: my debate team as well as a group of rising 10th graders I recruited for the debate team for the upcoming school year. My phone call was completely out of the blue on their end. For me, it was a scheduled chunk of emotional and physical energy to call and check in on them, make sure they are committed to attending debate camp at the end of the month, and set up a time and place to see them before I leave while introducing them to their new debate coach. I make these type of calls as part of my work as a teacher. No big deal once I actually set myself up to do it and start calling.

Tournament 5 DebateBut I’ve left teaching. Consciously. On purpose. These phone calls are not part of the work of doctoral students, not part of my move to New York, not part of my job and internship search. But these kids are part of my life, and their belief and trust in me a tremendous source of pride and affirmation. Our identity as teachers is wrapped up in persisting despite encouragement, status, or recognition. Even though we believe we are powerful and teaching is valuable, we are barely able to utter or type the words and sentences that claim that power. We catch glimpses of it in our work with students and colleagues, but as teachers we are so engaged in problem-solving and creation that we can’t see ourselves or our work in their entirety.

We are powerful beyond measure and well beyond the glaring shortcomings of our schools and districts. I left teaching because I felt powerless. I am a doctoral student because I want to study power. I want to be more effective at changing our broken educational system. I want to see that my intelligence and my efforts amount to something measurable and substantial. And it took me leaving teaching to see that they already had.Tournament 3 Debate

In my first years of teaching, I knew I was a good person. Over time, I evolved and knew I was a good teacher. This afternoon, I realized that good people evolving into good teachers say the right thing at the right time more often than not. In doing so, they become the most powerful and positive forces of change imaginable. I am in awe of myself and my profession. I am so proud to be a teacher. I may have left teaching for now, but I can’t help myself. I will always be a teacher, and I realized this afternoon that I will always be blessed with the opportunity to say the right thing at the right time to the students I adore.

Funny that we seem to need to step away from things to see them clearly. I’m appreciating profoundly the new closeness and understanding that distance affords.